Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
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.
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.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History 3.9 out of 5based on
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.
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.