The double life of Charlie Chan – stereotype or ‘Chinese hero’?

Yunte Huang has written an important book that also happens to be a hell of a lot of fun to read, “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.”

Part true crime book, part cultural history, part Hollywood expose, Huang’s exhaustively researched and gracefully written tale of the “real” Charlie Chan and his fictional doppelganger should stir a lot of spirited debate when W.W. Norton & Co. publishes the book in two weeks.

Huang shows us how the hugely popular Earle Biggers novels about the brilliant Chinese detective Charlie Chan were based on the life and career of a real detective who became a legend in Hawaii: Chang Apana.

The first part of the book tells us the story of Apana whose ability to crack the toughest cases — with his trademark bullwhip in hand! — came to the attention of the Ohio writer who used Apana as the model for his character Charlie Chan.

The books immediately attracted the attention of Hollywood, and after a few false starts during the silent era, the Charlie Chan films featuring Swedish actor Warner Oland (below, center) became one of the most popular movie series of the Depression era.

Starting with “Charlie Chan Carries On” in 1931, Oland made 19 films before his untimely death in 1937.

Sidney Toler took over the role in 1938 for another 22 films, then Roland Winters did the final six films between 1947 and 1949.

Huang’s book goes on to deal with the criticism the Charlie Chan films faced from younger Asian-American writers and critics in the post-Civil Rights era of the late 1960s and 1970s when the racist and sexist depiction of all minorities in Golden Age Hollywood movies was re-examined.

As Huang writes in the book’s introduction, “To most Caucasian Americans, he (Chan) is a funny, beloved, albeit somewhat inscrutable — that adjective already a bit loaded — character who talks wisely and acts even more wisely. But to many Asian Americans, he remains a pernicious example of a racist stereotype, a Yellow Uncle Tom, if you will…I would like to propose a more complicated view. As a ubiquitous cultural icon, whose influence on the twentieth century remains virtually unexamined, Charlie Chan does not yield easily to ideological reduction. ‘Truth,’ to quote our honorable detective, ‘like football — receive many kicks before reaching goal.’”

Huang goes on to show us how popular the Warner Oland films were in China — a country which disdained a real Asian star, Anna May Wong, at the same time for playing what its cultural gatekeepers viewed as demeaning roles — and that Oland’s portrayal passed muster with Chang Apana himself.

Late in his life, Keye Luke (below right), the Chinese actor who played Chan’s “Number One Son,” became — as Huang writes — “the most vocal defender of Charlie Chan against his detractors: ‘There are a lot of things about the Chan character that these people don’t understand,’ he once said in an interview. ‘They think it demeans the race…Demeans! My God! You’ve got a Chinese hero!'”

Joe Meyers