Rethinking Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan The Untold Story of Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History book review, Yunte Huang, Earl Derr Biggers

Sep. 20, 2010
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If Yunte Huang seems conflicted over Charlie Chan, the reasons are rooted in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. The Chinese-born literary scholar, now a professor at University of California Santa Barbara, encountered the fictional detective while rummaging through old books at an estate sale after coming to the U.S. Soon enough, he became aware that Chinese-American activists branded Chan an Oriental Uncle Tom, a cringing stereotype. While there is truth in that characterization, Huang found that its not the whole truth.

In Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History (published by W.W. Norton), Huang perceptively writes of Chans tortured legacy in American culture, which at once endears and offends millions. Originally a minor reality-based character in a 1925 detective novel by Earl Derr Biggers, Chan soon became the star in a long string of Hollywood movies and the embodiment of ideas most Americans entertained about the Chinese.

Of course, the benign crime fighter was preferable to his predecessor on the stage of the Western imagination, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. Chans unthreatening stance and pidgin English might seem demeaning to later generations, yet in his time and place the detective was an astute man who pushed firmly but discretely against the racist ideology and system he encountered. After all, he was a police inspector in Hawaii, not a coolie or an opium trafficker, and he always got his man (or woman).

As much a memoir of his encounter with America as a cultural history, Huangs book recounts the egregious history of violence and legal discrimination culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which prohibited new immigration from China and placed high bars in the path of citizenship. The issues were similar to the controversy whirling around Latino immigration today, with the prospect of cheap foreign labor and alien cultures stirring up the know-nothings.

The conundrum of Charlie Chan movies is that while white audiences found him an acceptable and amusing caricature, they were also forced to respect his aphoristic wisdom and perception into human nature. He was the comical hero and the crooks were usually Anglos. That non-Chinese actors portrayed him would add injury to insult in the minds of Chinese-Americans of more recent times.

Sadly, fictional representation, no matter how false or tortured, has a strange way of making a claim on reality, Huang writes. He is addressing Fu Manchus footprint in pop culture, but the point can be taken about the evil doctors opposite number. Chan and Fu were competing to determine which Chinaman would become foremost in the Wests popular imagination. It should be added that Chans character indulged the racism of readers and moviegoers even as it quietly challenged those assumptions. Humbling asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility, he said, politely confronting a racist who doubted his ability as a detective. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us.

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