Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Charlie Chan history brings a cultural icon into focus
To know forgery, one must have original. ~ Charlie Chan Maybe, like me, you loved to watch Charlie Chan movies as a kid. You might not have known many Asian or Asian American people – I didn’t – but you thought that if you met them they’d be really honest and smart and likeable, because that’s the kind of guy Charlie Chan was. (I know this is ridiculous now, but that’s how kids think.)
And then maybe, like me, you spent the 80s and 90s feeling guilty about liking those movies, because you found out many Asian Americans found them offensive. You didn’t actually believe you were a bigot for liking that wise family-man of a sleuth, but hey, you weren’t the one being offended. Like me, maybe you hadn’t thought about Charlie Chan in years, unless some controversy brought him back to mind, as when FOX recently caused an uproar by restoring and releasing some of the classic movies from the 30s and 40s.
If this is anything like your experience, Yunte Huang has written a book you’ll probably appreciate as much as I did. Huang, a Chinese-born English scholar with a PhD in Poetics, became fascinated by the love/hate relationship that Americans have with Charlie Chan after reading some of the original Earl Derr Biggers novels while in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. With Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, Huang seeks to contextualize Charlie Chan for the modern reader, providing significant background on Hawaiian history, Hollywood race relations, author Biggers, and the larger-than-life, ethnic-Chinese Honolulu Police Department detective who provided some of the inspiration for the honorable detective, Chang Apana, in the process.
Huang’s book provides a solid, critical history of the Charlie Chan phenomenon, from its foundations to its eventual fallout. The book captures the amazing personalities that made Charlie Chan an American cultural icon, including Apana, Biggers, and the non-Asian actors who played Chan on screen, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller. It also examines the differences between Chinese and Chinese-American reaction to the Charlie Chan series. In fact, Huang points out, the Charlie Chan movies were wildly popular in China, and Oland was treated like royalty in Hong Kong when he visited, although his characterization of Charlie Chan has been largely derided by American intellectuals.
Since Huang did not grow up in the US, he adds an interesting, “outsider” perspective to the Charlie Chan debate. Not having lived the “model minority” experience, he sees both the positive and negative aspects of Charlie Chan iconography. I did see that outsider status as problematic at some points of the book, when his arguments lacked subtlety and sophistication. For example, he seems to conflate British and American sentiments through the characters of Dr. Fu Manchu (written by British writer Sax Rohmer) and Charlie Chan (written by Ohio-born Biggers), as if there was some collective “Western” or “Anglo” perspective on race. I simply don’t believe that’s true.
But for the most part the book was very enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking. Do I think that the US is at a post-racial point where we can rediscover Charlie Chan? Probably not. But l do believe that like Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the popular Charlie Chan novels and movies have something to tell us about the time in which they were conceived. Huang is an academic, and I think media studies and Asian studies scholars will appreciate his work. But it’s not overly scholarly, and I’d also recommend this book to old movie buffs, those who enjoy media history, and mystery lovers. As Charlie Chan once said, “Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.” Huang’s book suggests we still have something to learn from the honorable detective.