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

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

3.9 13
by Yunte Huang
     
 

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Shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography and the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book: "An ingenious and absorbing book, that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through both Chinese and Western eyes. It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping

Overview

Shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography and the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book: "An ingenious and absorbing book, that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through both Chinese and Western eyes. It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story."—Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China and Return to Dragon Mountain

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.

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.)
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Writing easily without turgid academic cant, Huang, a former restaurateur, offers a tasty narrative menu.”
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.”
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.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393069624
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
08/30/2010
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
889,775
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

Jonathan Spence
"An ingenious and absorbing book, that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through both Chinese and Western eyes. It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story."—Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China and Return to Dragon Mountain

Meet the Author

Yunte Huang is a Guggenheim Fellow and a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Transpacific Imaginations and Charlie Chan, which won the 2011 Edgar Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. Having come of age in China as a student in the time of Tiananmen, Huang now lives in Santa Barbara, California.

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Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
PatrickZJD More than 1 year ago
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.
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