Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History BY Yunte Huang. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.
The cover of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History

A flyer promoting a reading for Chinese-born scholar Yunte Huang’s 2002 book Transpacific Displacement had a map of the Pacific Rim with a silhouette of Charlie Chan peering menacingly in the direction of North America. Huang didn’t have the heart to tell the English Department secretary who made the flyer that the image would be highly offensive to most Asian Americans. He wrote his engaging new study of Charlie Chan, in part, as a way of carrying on “my imaginary dialogue with this well-meaning lady.”

Huang recognizes that—to coin a Chan-like phrase—“reality, like a copper penny, always have two sides.” Discovering a set of Chan fictions while he was a student in Buffalo, New York, Huang read them all, saw most of the forty-seven Chan films, and became a fan of their hero. Despite sympathizing with the many scholars who have documented the racism inherent in the Chan franchise, Huang places Chan in the history of American racial caricatures that ultimately shed light on the larger culture.

Part of the book’s pleasure lies in reading about the author’s journeys throughout the US and elsewhere to track down the various figures who shaped the legendary sleuth. Cultural history, biography, literary texts, motion-picture history, and autobiography are blended to create an adventure that alternately informs and charms the reader.

The inspiration for Charlie Chan was a Chinese immigrant named Chang Apana, a Hawaiian cowboy later hired by Honolulu’s police department as a detective. How author E. D. Biggers first heard of Apana is not clear, but after traveling to Hawaii in April 1920 to work on his third detective novel, Biggers was determined to introduce a new, if minor, character into his work, and Charlie Chan was born. The introductory scene in the book The House Without a Key is fascinating for what it reveals as Chan’s first appearance. Three men enter a room, the third being Chan, the “Chinaman”:

As they went out, the third man stepped farther into the room, and Miss Minvera gave a little gasp of astonishment as she looked at him. . . . He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting. As he passed Miss Minerva he bowed with a courtesy encountered all too rarely in a work-a-day world, then moved on after Hallet. . . . “But—he’s a Chinaman!”

As Huang points out, everything in this short passage is loaded with subtext. Miss Minerva is shocked by the fact that that an Asian man could be a detective. The man with “slanting eyes” and an effeminate walk may be seen as gallant but could also be perceived as submissive. When Chan speaks, his sentences are ungrammatical, “reminiscent of fortune-cookie witticisms, [which sound] hilariously funny to many but racially parodic to others.” In short, as Huang summarizes, “All things Charlie, it seems, are radically polarizing.”

Even as a minor character, Chan became so immediately popular that Biggers had no chance to kill him off. Chan movies soon followed, beginning with The House Without a Key in 1926, but it was so badly edited and poorly conceived that it seemed Chan would never succeed as a cinematic hero. Yet the casting of Swedish actor Warner Oland, who already had played the evil Asian villain Dr. Fu Manchu—a figure Huang argues is the negative image of Charlie Chan—changed all that, by presenting an intelligent and clever Asian man working for the law.

Biggers died in 1933, the year that Hollywood produced the fourth Charlie Chan movie. Various screenwriters and actors, including Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, continued creating new Chan incarnations until 1949. Chan, widely popular throughout the United States and Europe, was also a hit in China, partially because the Chinese had detested the depiction of themselves as represented by Fu Manchu and Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who played his daughter. Unlike Fu Manchu, who represented the Chinese as an evil race, Chan elevated the image of the “Chinaman” with his wit and subtle humor. Huang also attributes Chan’s great success to an idea of Eastern ratiocination that was inextricably intertwined in the US with a fascination with the exoticism of all things Asian (he devotes a chapter to “Hollywood’s Chinoissserie,” including the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre).

More important, however, Huang sees Chan as a figure in a long history of “Racial Parables,” in which figures of various ethnicities are pitted against “greedy, white men,” whom they cleverly and subtly outwit: “Like all racialized figures—including Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, John Chinaman, Ah Sin, Nigger Jim, and Fu Manchu—Chan bears the stamp of his time, a birthmark that encapsulates both the racial tensions and the creative energies of a multicultural nation.”

Chan is part of a tradition of figures who survive and prevail through their linguistic abilities, despite difficulties with the language: “Endeavoring to make English language my slave,” Chan says in The House Without a Key, “I pursue poetry.”

Douglas Messereli is the publisher of Green Integer books and a poet, a fiction writer, and the author of the ongoing cultural-memoir series My Year, published in separate volumes from 2000 to the present.