Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

( 13 )

Overview

Winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work

Shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography

On a balmy July night in 1904, a wiry figure sauntered alone through the dim alleys of Honolulu’s Chinatown. He strolled up a set of rickety steps and into a smoky gambling den ringing with jeers of card sharks and crapshooters. By the time anyone recognized the infamous bullwhip dangling from his hand, it ...

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Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

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Overview

Winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work

Shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography

On a balmy July night in 1904, a wiry figure sauntered alone through the dim alleys of Honolulu’s Chinatown. He strolled up a set of rickety steps and into a smoky gambling den ringing with jeers of card sharks and crapshooters. By the time anyone recognized the infamous bullwhip dangling from his hand, it was too late. Single-handedly, the feared, five-foot-tall Hawaiian cop, Chang Apana, had lined up forty gamblers and marched them down to the police station.

So begins Charlie Chan, Yunte Huang’s absorbing history of the legendary Cantonese detective, born in Hawaii around 1871, who inspired a series of fiction and movie doubles that long defined America’s distorted perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans. In chronicling the real-life story and the fraught narrative of one of Hollywood’s most iconic detectives, Huang has fashioned a historical drama where none was known to exist, creating a work that will, in the words of Jonathan Spence, “permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story.”

Himself a literary sleuth, Huang has traced Charlie Chan’s evolution from island legend to pop culture icon to vilified, postmodern symbol, ingeniously juxtaposing Apana’s rough-and-tumble career against the larger backdrop of a territorial Hawaii torn apart by virulent racism. Apana’s bravado prompted not only Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate turned author, to write six Charlie Chan mysteries but also Hollywood to manufacture over forty movies starring a grammatically challenged detective with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into singsong Chinatown blues.

Examining hundreds of biographical, literary, and cinematic sources, in English and in his native Chinese, Huang has pursued the trail of Charlie Chan since the mid-1990s, searching for clues in places as improbable as Harvard Yard, an Ohio cornfield, a weathered Hawaiian cemetery, and the Shanghai Bund. His efforts to refashion the Charlie Chan legend became a personal mission, as if the answers he sought would reshape his own identity—no longer a top Chinese student but an immigrant American eager to absorb the bewildering history of his adopted homeland.

“With rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence,” Huang has ascribed a starring role to “the honorable detective,” one far more enduring than any of his wisecracking movie parts. Huang presents American history in a way that it has never been told before.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The fictional Chinese-American detective and his real-life model anchor this enjoyable if unfocused meditation on the cultural construction of race. English prof Huang (Transpacific Imaginations) recounts the life of Chang Apana, a Chinese immigrant police detective in Honolulu who inspired mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers to create the Confucian sleuth Chan, who appeared in six novels and more than 40 movies (usually played by white actors). Apana is a colorful figure, complete with cowboy hat and bullwhip, but both he and his connection to the Chan character, whom he little resembled, are marginal to the story Huang wants to tell about racial attitudes and tensions in early 20th-century America. (Apana is a passive observer, for example, in the account of an explosive Hawaiian interracial rape case.) More convincing is Huang's nuanced analysis of Chan and his mincing gait, ingratiating smile, pidgin English, and fortune cookie aphorisms. Disputing writers who consider him a demeaning stereotype, Huang discerns behind Chan's exoticism a positive and formidable figure who embodies the "creative genius" of American "cultural miscegenation." Beyond the extraneous biography and historicizing, Huang presents an absorbing study of art taking on a life of its own. Photos. (Aug.)
Time
A virtuoso of curiosity.... Huang digs up fascinating research on everything from the demographics of capital punishment in Honolulu to the origins of The Manchurian Candidate.... a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance.— Pico Iyer
Newsweek
Excellent and very sympathetic...You don't need to be a fan of Charlie's to enjoy Huang's narrative, maybe because he's told so many stories here, all of them intriguing...All this—the lives of Biggers and Apana, Charlie’s career in novels, movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books—is told in the context of an America in the throes of nativism. Asian-Americans then were held in the same suspicion and contempt directed today at Arabs and Latinos, a fact that gives this story a lamentable but inescapable currency.— Sarah Ball
The Oregonian
It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down.— Elinor Lange
The New York Times Book Review
Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang’s very original, good-humored and passionately researched book.— Richard Schickel
Michael Dirda
…almost as wide-ranging as it is enthralling…Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan is a terrifically enjoyable and informative book, one that should appeal to both students of racial history and to fans of one of cinema's greatest detectives.
—The Washington Post
Richard Schickel
…a capacious, somewhat baggy, but always entertaining book about Chan and all the factors that account for his longevity. Before Huang is done, we have been treated to a vast gaggle of material about Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers; Honolulu (where Chan was nominally a police detective); Chinese culture and immigration to the West; Hollywood moviemaking, not excluding Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong—everything that might possibly shed light on the Honorable Detective's life and times and popularity…Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang's very original, good-humored and passionately researched book.
—The New York Times
Booklist
“Starred Review. This is a beautifully written analysis of racism and an appreciation of Charlie Chan and Chang Apana, made credible by Huang's background.”
The Daily Beast
“[A] fascinating cultural survey full of engaging tangents.... one of Huang's greatest accomplishments is his vivid narration of the history of Chinese immigration to the United States.... In the style of say, Louis Menand, Huang is that rare literary scholar with the light touch of a popular historian.... Huang's book is perfectly timed for the era of YouTube and Netflix and so hopefully will reintroduce what was created, with all its wisdom and imperfection.”
The Kansas City Star
“The most interesting story may be Huang’s own. He comes to see Chan as 'both the racist heritage and the creative genius' of his adopted nation’s culture.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Writing easily without turgid academic cant, Huang, a former restaurateur, offers a tasty narrative menu.”
Pico Iyer - Time
“A virtuoso of curiosity.... Huang digs up fascinating research on everything from the demographics of capital punishment in Honolulu to the origins of The Manchurian Candidate.... a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance.”
Sarah Ball - Newsweek
“Excellent and very sympathetic...You don't need to be a fan of Charlie's to enjoy Huang's narrative, maybe because he's told so many stories here, all of them intriguing...All this—the lives of Biggers and Apana, Charlie’s career in novels, movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books—is told in the context of an America in the throes of nativism. Asian-Americans then were held in the same suspicion and contempt directed today at Arabs and Latinos, a fact that gives this story a lamentable but inescapable currency.”
Elinor Lange - The Oregonian
“It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down.”
Richard Schickel - The New York Times Book Review
“Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang’s very original, good-humored and passionately researched book.”
Arthur Golden
“Charlie Chan, much like the classic geisha dolls on bookcase shelves, has survived for generations as little more than a paper-thin stereotype. Now in this impressive and highly-original work, Yunte Huang has brought this fictional character out of the dusty shadows into three-dimensional life, offering us not only a picture of a little-known swath of American history, but the surprising story of this Chinese detective's American creator, and the real-life figure who inspired him.”
Annette Gordon-Reed
“Who would think that the back-story of the fictional character Charlie Chan could be so instructive, and so timely? Huang's deft and witty recounting of how Hollywood transformed a real life detective from Hawaii into one of the most recognizable—and problematic—racial icons in movie history tells us much that we need to know about America's engagement with race and identity in the 20th century. Race was clearly more than black and white, a thing to keep in mind as we move through our increasingly multi-cultural century.”
Stephen Greenblatt
“[G]ripping .... Huang writes with rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence.”
Gary Y. Okihiro
“Witty and erudite, Charlie Chan intrigues and surprises as it unravels the three guises of this American original—a real-life, Hawaiian-born Chinese detective, a literary creation, and a movie character. Racist stereotypes, we come to see in this exemplary work, can convey monstrous fictions as well as complex, multifaceted truths.”
Jessica Hagedorn
“Provocative and totally unique, Charlie Chan expands the yellowface debate with mischievous humor and a compelling sense of irony. In bringing the actual Honolulu detective, Chang Apana and his distorted Hollywood reflections to vivid life, Yunte Huang opens up important historical perspectives that have gone previously unexamined.”
David Thomson - New Republic
“One of the most entertaining, informative, and provocative books I have read in a long time.”
Jill Lepore - The New Yorker
“Huang’s history is bracing and expansive.”
Peter Kwong
“A significant work of American history written in a stimulating and masterful way. Most impressive is Yunte Huang’s ability to create a nuanced cultural and racial history out of the fictional Charlie Chan.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Sarah Weinman's "THE CRIMINALIST" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


Despite the many strides the past few decades have made toward eliminating ethnic injustice, race is an issue that isn't going away just yet -- and is, instead, heating up. A black president in conjunction with a crippled economy and a 24/7 news cycle means innocuous comments are blown out of proportion, latent ugly feelings become blatantly manifest in comments sections and public demonstrations alike, and complex examinations are passé in the face of cartoon-style rhetoric. There are many days when it feels like America hasn't learned from past mistakes, or can't admit it's making them again and again.

Into this volatile mix comes Yunte Huang, an English Professor at UC Santa Barbara. He has spent the past two decades researching one of the most popular and troubling characters in American culture, a star of books and movies and a reminder of some of the country's worst anti-immigration sentiments and practices. Can this character be as Huang writes in Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, "a funny, beloved, albeit somewhat inscrutable...character who talks wisely and acts even more wisely" while also "a pernicious example of a racist stereotype"? Can he truly carry "both the stigma of racial parody and the stimulus of creative imitation?"

The answer, of course, is yes, because the character in question is Charlie Chan, born of a primordial stew of culture and politics that includes a legendary Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, a Harvard-educated novelist, a journeyman Swedish actor, argumentative critics and millions of Americans looking for fleeting entertainment. Naturally this is a tricky maze of contexts to navigate, but in choosing to assemble a psycho-biography of Charlie Chan, Huang had to merge these disparate strands into a cohesive narrative whole. The end result is not merely successful, but a revelation: you're never going to think the same way again about the wise detective's broken English aphorisms like "An idle brain is the devil's workshop" or "Biggest mistakes in history made by people who didn't think."

Before Charlie Chan's birth, in a series of six wildly successful novels written and published by Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920s, there was Chang Apana, who joined the Honolulu Police in 1898, mere days after Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory. Apana's rise up the ranks to detective seems improbable in hindsight: he was slight, he hardly spoke English, he didn't drink, and he was Chinese at a time when anti-immigration sentiments and laws specifically targeted his brethren. But Apana's rise to police prominence grew out of these so-called disadvantages, which in tandem with "his skill at disguise and his insider's knowledge off Chinatown" made him indispensable to his colleagues -- not to mention a prominent fixture in the island's news stories.

Apana's exploits caught the attention of Earl Derr Biggers, a writer of upper-middle-class breeding (though he didn't really like Harvard very much) vacationing in Hawaii for health reasons and looking for inspiration. Apana delivered in spades, transforming a rather typical detective novel of its time, with an emphasis on family secrets and stolen jewelry, into something quite different. The portly, thoughtful Charlie Chan is a minor character in The House Without a Key (1925) but he has the gravitas and scenery-chewing presence of Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca (or almost any other movie.)

Biggers and Apana wouldn't meet until 1928, when the Chan books were deep into their publishing phenomenon phase, and the common assumption of Apana's direct influence upon Charlie is tempered by Huang's discovery that an actual Charlie Chan lived and operated a laundry in Akron, Ohio, Biggers' hometown. But by Huang's account (and the grainy accompanying photo) of the Biggers/Apana confab, it was equal parts friendly visit and cultural symbol: here was the white man making money off of cultural appropriation, and here was the Chinese detective who enjoyed his fame but never earned much lucre (he remained at a $50 a month salary all his life, even with three wives and many children to feed, and turned down Biggers' efforts to supplement that paltry income.) Once muse and creator met, fate had greater plans: both men would be dead five years later, within months of each other, and Charlie Chan would graduate to cultural phenomenon thanks to the dozens of movies, first featuring Swedish character actor Werner Oland.

Seen from our vantage point, such transcendence of the original works seems inevitable. Biggers' detective novels are competently constructed, but the plots are forgettable and Chan's personality lingers as the sole literary aftertaste. Oland tries to make something of the character in the early films, but they don't hold up, and subsequent movies with others cast as Chan are even worse.  Understandably, Huang spends more time parsing Chan's place in history instead of critically evaluating the works, which creates a strange paradox of believing in the critique more than the source work.

But that paradox doesn't defeat Huang's thesis because he has so many rich sources of inquiry to explore with respect to Charlie Chan's cultural legacy. Huang argues that Chan's success stemmed from a Jazz Age-era need to create cuddly stereotypes in the face of ugly legislation like the Johnson-Reed Act, which pointedly disallowed Asians from immigrating. But that's just the starting point for other information-packed side trips, such as the history of unpaid Chinese labor in America, the story of a notorious rape case in Hawaii that was Clarence Darrow's final (and unsuccessful) case, a look at how the dastardly (and racially offensive) character of Fu Manchu complimented and corrupted perceptions of Charlie Chan, and the the fury of contemporary cultural critics such as Frank Chin and Jessica Hagedorn, the latter declaring with the title of a well-reviewed anthology that "Charlie Chan is dead."

Where Charlie Chan falls somewhat flat is when Huang injects himself into the narrative. His intentions are understandable, tied in with his own history as an émigré to American soil in the early 1990s; and his travelogue-like descriptions of the Midwestern plains of Ohio and his search for Chang Apana's grave in Hawaii convey the requisite mix of whimsy and insight.  But Huang can't quite commit to investing more of his personality into the book, as if he couldn't trust his entire self to the reader but knew he couldn't only rely on polished anecdotes and cogent analysis.

But Huang succeeds in revealing the complexity underpinning the stereotype, and the many divergent factors that led to the creation of Charlie Chan and where he sits, however uncomfortably, within American popular culture. For this country excels at creating characters "rooted in the toxic soil of racism" even though "racism has made their tongues only sharper, their art more lethally potent." And as insulting and sobering as this thought is, Huang says throughout his book, Charlie Chan and others like him have blossomed "in spite of as well as because of racism." Wrapping one's mind around such truths is enough to test the wisdom of even a fictional sage.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393069624
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/30/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Yunte Huang a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Transpacific
Imaginations and Charlie Chan. Born in China, he lives in Santa Barbara,
California.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Introduction xv

Prologue 1

Part 1 The "Real" Charlie Chan

1 Sandalwood Mountains 7

2 Canton 22

3 Paniolo, the Hawaiian Cowboy 28

4 The Wilders of Waikiki 37

5 "Book 'em, Danno!" 44

6 Chinatown 54

7 The See Yup Man 61

8 Desperadoes 68

9 Double Murder 73

Part 2 Charlie Chan's Pop

10 The Other Canton 83

11 Lampoon 96

12 The Raconteur 102

13 The House Without a Key 108

Part 3 Charlie Chan, The Chinaman

14 The Heathen Chinee 117

15 Fu Manchu 136

16 Charlie Chan, the Chinaman 146

17 Kaimuki 161

18 Pasadena 171

19 A Meeting of East and West 181

Part 4 Charlie Chan at the Movies

20 Hollywood's Chinoiserie 189

21 Yellowface 198

22 Between the Real and the Reel 205

23 Rape in Paradise 211

24 The Black Camel 230

25 Racial Parables 238

Part 5 Charlie Chan Carries on

26 Charlie Chan in China 247

27 Charlie Chan Soldiers On 259

28 The Fu Manchurian Candidate 268

29 Will the Real Charlie Chan Please Stand Up? 278

Epilogue 289

Appendix I A List of Charlie Chanisms 299

Appendix II A List of Charlie Chan Films 302

Acknowledgments 305

Notes 307

Selected Bibliography 329

Index 337

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2010

    Fascinating read

    This book tells you everything you always wanted to know about Charlie Chan and then some. The book is very informative, but also a fun read. You learn all about the fictional Chinese detective, the real Chinese detective, and the actors who played the Chinese detective in the movies. You also learn about Hawaii, California, China, the movie industry, and racial stereotypes, and about the author himself.

    The book moves along at a good pace and you never get bogged down in too many facts. The book conjures up memories of those old films and a different world. Don't miss this one.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Flawed by academic analysis, but otherwise a fine biography

    Charlie Chan, especially his fine portrayal by Warner Oland, is one of the literary detective heroes of my youth, seen on countless Saturday night mystery movies on WKBS Channel 48 from Philadelphia and WSBK TV-38 from Boston in the halcyon days of cable in the 1980s. The notion of an Oriental detective who, despite his exotic face, nevertheless shared both the same deductive genius as Sherlock Holmes and the same passion for justice as Jules Maigret absolutely fascinated my growing mind. I had known about the inspiration of the character, Chang Apana of the early 20th Century Honolulu P.D., for a long time, but it was very difficult to find any information about him; indeed, finding any biographical information on Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of the Charlie Chan mysteries, was not much easier. Yunte Huang's biography, inspired by a chance finding of a Charlie Chan collection at an estate sale, is thus an important find for me. Unfortunately, especially in the latter half of the book, Huang's writing suffers, as most academicians' do, from an overarching sense of "The Importance of My Subject," wherein historical facts are analyzed in an exaggerated or distorted fashion to support or prove the author's point. Nowhere is this more evident in Huang's exploration of the "racist" context of the 1920s, where Charlie Chan was one of the few well-regarded examples of Chinese-American culture, and his subsequent writing of the vehement, absurd rejection of Charlie Chan by the Asian-American community as a caricature Chinaman inferior to whites by virtue of his idiosyncratic Confucian sayings and accent and/or his portrayal by non-Chinese actors. The book does indeed suffer from such pseudo-intellectual babble and thus becomes quite tiring at times. For me, a more interesting comparison could have been drawn between Chan and Robert Van Gulik's medieval Chinese detective, Judge Dee, Nevertheless, when Huang stays close to the purported reason for his writing, the exploration of Chang Apana's life and how greatly this served as fodder for the creation of Charlie Chan, Huang crafts a well-researched, compelling biography not only of one of the most important figures in early 20th Century American detective literature but also of a relatively little-known yet still fascinating Hawaiian detective. Look past the academic pretensions, then, and you find a good look behind the curtain (no pun intended) at the Charlie Chan mysteries, one of the most enjoyable series in the genre.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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