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Giving 'Charlie Chan' A Second Chance

Depending on your cultural politics, you'll find the following scene from the 1934 film Charlie Chan in London either charming or wince-making: Our venerable detective is being congratulated by a British official for his cleverness in discovering the true identity of a dastardly criminal. The actor who played Charlie Chan in that and 40 other films was Warner Oland; like Sidney Toler, the actor who succeeded him in the role, Oland was Caucasian -- Swedish, in fact! But, to Hollywood, Oland looked vaguely Asiatic. To play Chan, Oland merely brushed his eyebrows up and had a few drinks to make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face -- like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth. Offensive, right?

But, before we condemn Oland's "Yellowface" incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film. (After all, compared with the venal Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero.) The nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland's Chinese screen mannerisms and speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing -- or dismaying.

That film anecdote appears in Yunte Huang's fascinating and sometimes maddening new work of cultural history called, simply, Charlie Chan. Huang was born in China and is now a professor of English in the U.S.; this is his first book intended to appeal to a popular audience. It reads as though it were composed by Charlie Chan's "No. 1 son" -- frenetically dashing off in a hundred directions all at once; some illuminating, some just plain "Gee Pop!" loony. Setting out to investigate the vexed meaning and legacy of the figure of Charlie Chan, Huang also explores, among other subjects, the history of Chinese immigration to America; the career of Clarence Darrow; sandalwood and sugar cane production in the Hawaiian Islands; the history of aphorisms in English beginning with Benjamin Franklin; and, finally, his own immigration saga from student in Beijing to owner of a Chinese takeout joint in Alabama to academic.

But Charlie Chan is such a marvelous -- and controversial -- figure that the subject alone here more than makes up for any infelicities in Huang's style. One of the real finds this book presents is the tale of Chan's real-life counterpart, Chang Apana, the heretofore forgotten Chinese-American detective who was the inspiration for the six Charlie Chan novels that first began appearing in 1925, written by yet another white guy, Earl Derr Biggers. Apana joined the Honolulu Police Force in 1898; standing all of a wiry 5 feet tall, he arrested gamblers, opium addicts and escaped lepers, using a leather bullwhip that he made himself. As Huang chronicles, though, Apana's famous bullwhip was useless against the anti-Asian racism that prevailed within the police force and society of his time.

The suspicion that Charlie Chan himself is nothing but a racist stereotype has led many contemporary Asian-American critics to dismiss him as a "Yellow Uncle Tom" and helped precipitate "The Great Chan Ban" of the old movies from TV network schedules. Huang, however, loves Chan and sees in him something more empowering: a Chinese incarnation of the American trickster or con artist figure: "He reminds me of Monkey King. In Chinese folk myth, Monkey King is an invisible trickster who hides his weapon in his ear. ... Charlie Chan is that Monkey King, concealing his aphoristic barbs inside his tummy." Huang's mishmash book, with its profusion of Chan material, will certainly complicate, not quell, the debate over Chan's legacy; but, as the great detective himself said, "Mind like parachute -- only function when open."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.