Saturday, 11 June 2011

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story

A Proper Charlie

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honourable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Language English
ISBN: 0393069621

A friend of mine sent me this book for my birthday and I’m well pleased to have it and have read it. I’ve always liked Charlie Chan... ever since my first experiences at a very young age with the old Hanna Barbara cartoon, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (with Charlie voiced by Keye Luke... no stranger to the world of Charlie Chan as he played Number One Son Lee Chan opposite Warner Oland, Roland Winters and Peter Lorre in one of the Mr. Moto films). This lay the seeds so that later, in the early eighties, I was able to appreciate the old 1930s and 1940s Warner Oland and Sidney Toler movies that BBC2 used to screen at 5.40pm on a Thursday evening.

Since then I’ve obviously read the six (only six were written!) original Earl Der Biggers novels and acquired as many of those old movies as I’ve been able to get. I’ve also managed to grab the movies featuring two of Charlie Chan’s spiritual cousins, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong, who doubtless made it into movie versions riding the back of the success of the Charlie Chan series.

In this book, the writer traces the lineage of the character and concentrates not so much on Charlie Chan himself, but with the history of the Chinese in Hawaii and Honolulu (Charlies stomping ground) and more specifically with legendary police officer Chang Apana who was said to be the real life inspiration for Charlie Chan and was known as such by his contemporaries... and still is to this day.

Now I’m not a great one for history books but this one is pretty entertaining and readable and I’m very glad to have read this little peak into Chinese culture and its racial tensions. Details of a post-Chang Apana murder case scandal which was very much racially manipulated to get the “incorrect” but “right” verdict fair made my blood boil (as I hope it would any modern reader) and the delightful story of a distinguished Naval Captain meeting his untimely death by being killed by the celebratory cannon fire meant to salute and welcome him in his honour as his ship pulled into harbour, although ultimately tragic, was the source of much mirth for this reader.

I think the links between Earl Der Biggers character and Chang Apana are kind of tentative though, to be honest. He’d already written the first three of the six novels before meeting and getting to know Chang Apana and, though a case is made that the newspaper article of a heroic arrest made by a Chinese Police Officer in Hawaii that inspired the inclusion of Bigger’s Charlie Chan character in the novel The House Without A Key may well have been, in fact probably was, an arrest carried out by Chang Apana... I personally don’t see this as validation that the claim that Chang Apana was the real life basis for Charlie is a correct one. However, when Biggers and Apana were finally introduced, it’s quite clear that Biggers was more than happy to let that idea stand and even perpetuate it himself. Good publicity, after all, is money in the bank.

This book is a great little, almost random, summary of Chinese people in American culture and this also includes lightly touching on other fictional characters such as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (who had also been played by Warner Oland a few times on screen). I’ve read the Fu Manchu novels myself and think they’re brilliant pulps (along the lines of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) and I’m glad I now know that the English (very much English and staying put in his own country thank you very much, more tea guv’nor?) author Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, better known as Sax Rohmer, died ironically of one of the first strains of Asian flu on these shores. That has a nice circularity to it.

The downside of this book for me is the persistent racial element. The writer Yunte Hunag is a Chinese lecturer living in America and he seems to have written this book coming from a place which admires the exploits of the fictional detective and his perceived ancestry while being torn by the undeniable racial stereotype which the character falls in. This is okay and since I’ve never been racially oppressed (as far as I can remember) it’s really not my right to judge anyone who has been oppressed in this way but, as I was reading, I got the feeling that the writer was kinda ramming this down my throat a little and getting very assertive about the acceptance in popular culture of this kind of racial stereotype. This book seems like it’s been written as a defence of the Chinese race when, to someone like me, no defence is or would ever be needed for any race or species living on the planet. So I was possibly feeling a little perplexed at the constant reminders throughout the book and the constant necessity to compare racist slurs against Chinese folk with racial slurs against other races which the reader may find more popular or accessible (?) and come to an understanding of them as they compare to various intimations about the Chinese race.

Now I, and I would hope this is the case with most people, just tend to see Charlie Chan as an entertaining, Chinese hero... a keeper of the peace who polices his beat with a well aimed aphorism and less often the unsophisticated thuggery which gun play might bring. And that’s enough for me. It’s no more complicated than that. Yes, I can see that my “simplistic entertainment” view of Charlie (which to be fair to myself, is the purpose he was created for) doesn’t allow me to see or respond at the racial stereotypical characteristics embedded in our subconsciousness by such broad and possibly offensive portrayals such as these... and I take on board that this is probably Hunag’s precise point, that we’ve all been programmed by such characterisations from birth without realising it. By the same token, though, I would have never have even thought that there was any implied racial slur ingrained in these character portrayals unless I’d read this book and had them pointed out to me... and then again, that’s probably also something which Hunag wants me to realise. But it does rather delve too deep into a character and a stupid gaijin like myself would rather be entertained by a character and writer I admire rather than ponder the historical subtext of racial antagonism that such a character, almost certainly inadvertently on the part of Earl Der Biggers, conjures up in the minds of some. Maybe I’m just too simplistic a person to bother with such things. And maybe I should be more bothered in the future but, seriously, a persons race or skin colour is an unacceptable thing to base an opinion of a person on and so I just tend not to look at people in a racist manner. Thank goodness. At least not so far as I am aware.

Don’t get me wrong, Yunte Hunag is not completely gung ho about this slant on the character and he is trying to make the reader aware of this subtext while clearly loving the subject of his novel as much as any Charlie Chan fan in the world. I did, however, find it the one tiresome element to an otherwise absolutely excellent historical portrayal of the effects of America on Chinese culture.

Whichever way you cut it though, this is a great book and should definitely be on the “to read” pile if you’re a fan of the great, literary detective... even if it doesn’t cover the movies so much as the real life careers of Chang Apana and, to a certain extent, Earl Der Biggers. Definitely a resounding recommendation on this one!


  1. It's always bothered me to hear studio-exec's claim that American audiences 'wouldn't tolerate' an Oriental actor playing Chan. That is such garbage.

    How can the audience 'tolerate' the CONCEPT of an Oriental 'hero' if they wouldn't tolerate "orientals" at all?!!

    Still, I suspect I'd have the same reaction: I'd get tired of being beaten over the head - I do when I read trash-history, too, and the authors always claim lofty academic letters, too. Yeah well, the loo can handle those, too.

  2. Yeah... there's that. But then we wouldn't have known the pleasure of Warner Oland and Sidney Toler in the roles.