Investigating The Real Detective Charlie Chan The fictional, aphorism-spouting Chinese detective is best known today as a stereotypical relic from a less sensitive time. Yunte Huang tells the story of the real man who inspired the caricature in Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Investigating The Real Detective Charlie Chan

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Charlie Chan movies have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. He was the not politically correct Chinese American detective played by an actor who was not Chinese, doling out wisdom while fighting crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

WARNER OLAND: (As Charlie Chan) There is old saying: Death is a black camel that kneels unbitten at every gate. Tonight, black camel has knelt here.

WERTHEIMER: The first Chan film was in the 1920s. It was based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, inspired by a real-life Hawaiian detective. Yunte Huang, an English professor at the University of California Santa Barbara has written a book about the real Charlie Chan. Yunte Huang's first encounter with the fictional character was in 1994.

YUNTE HUANG: And after Buffalo I went to teach at Harvard, and by that point I already knew that E.D. Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan, was a Harvard man. Through reading and researching on Biggers, I was really astonished to discover that there was a real Charlie Chan and he had been neglected in history.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, the real Charlie Chan, who was he?

HUANG: As a police officer, he worked almost the most dangerous beats in Chinatown, carrying a bullwhip. And he was a master of disguise. And one time he single-handedly arrested 40 people without firing a shot.

WERTHEIMER: You describe that in the prologue to the book. I wonder if you could just read a little bit.

HUANG: Many there had already heard of and some had even tasted the might of this unusual weapon wielded by the former rough-riding paniolo. Resisting arrest will be futile, even though they knew he had, as usual, brought no backup. His whip had spoken louder than any law or gun.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Earl Derr Biggers obviously took liberties with the Honolulu detective and changed him from a Hawaiian cowboy into a more stereotypical character.

HUANG: That's true. I mean even physically, you know, like I said, Chang Apana was five-foot tall and he's really skinny and wiry. The Charlie Chan in the movies and novels and - you know what he looks like.

WERTHEIMER: Sort of a portly fellow with a beard and...

HUANG: With dainty steps and...

WERTHEIMER: ...rather formally dressed.

HUANG: Right, exactly.

WETHEIMER, Host:

The Charlie Chan novels came out at a time when the United States was involved in one of its fairly frequent outbursts of nativism. There was a lot of hostility to immigrants of all kinds, but particularly Chinese on the West Coast. But the Charlie Chan novels were very popular, and then the movies, which followed them, were also very popular.

HUANG: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: How do those two things go together? America for Americans and loving Charlie Chan.

HUANG: Right. Yeah, Charlie Chan, like I said, it's really - it's a kind of real mystery in many ways. So at his origin, really, when he first appeared, you know, in 1925, that was right after the infamous Johnson-Reed Act was passed in the United States. It was really the first kind of legislative, shall we say, racism against foreigners.

WERTHEIMER: The Johnson-Reed Act limited immigration.

HUANG: And it really manifests itself later on in Asian-American reactions to Charlie Chan. On the one side you have a lot of people who really love this kind of beloved character. On the other hand, he's also hated by Asian-Americans.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that it had something to do with the fact that the character who played Charlie Chan was not Chinese? That was -

HUANG: Oh, absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: The one we most often think of is Warner Oland, who is Swedish.

HUANG: Exactly, yes. In the book I call this kind of, you know, yellow face, so-called, to go along with, you know, the American traditions of black face, red face, et cetera, et cetera. (Unintelligible) let's say of this kind of racist legacy on the one hand, and really the creative genius of this great country on the other hand.

WERTHEIMER: Charlie Chan movies were big hits in Asia, especially in China, where apparently the idea of yellow face, a European playing Charlie Chan, was not a problem.

HUANG: And so in the '30s, when, you know, Charlie Chan movies were being shown in Shanghai or Beijing or major cities in China, people flocked to the theaters and, you know, and they loved him - especially with his kind of pseudo fortune-cookie aphorisms. It was quite, you know, an attraction to Chinese at the time.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Huang, thank you very much for joining us.

HUANG: Well, thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Yunte Huang is a professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara. His new book is called "Charlie Chan."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about that fortune cookie wisdom from Charlie Chan?

HUANG: They're great, how can you not like them?

WETHEIMER: Actions speak louder than French.

HUANG: Tongue often hang man quicker than rope.

WERTHEIMER: Smart fly keep out of gravy.

HUANG: Man who flirt with dynamite sometimes fly with angels.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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