Book_cover-charlie_chan

New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. xx, 354 pp.

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Charlie Chan and his fortune-cookie aphorisms, introduced in the immensely popular novels of Earl Derr Biggers beginning in 1925, and later in forty-seven Hollywood movies that featured Caucasian actors with taped-back eyes, presented both positive and negative stereotypes of the Chinese. Mostly, they were positive, showing the Chinese, or at least one Chinese, as astute and intelligent but challenged by English verbs. Among Charlie Chan's philosophical utterances as invented by Biggers, were these:

 New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. xx, 354 pp.

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Book_cover-charlie_chanCharlie Chan and his fortune-cookie aphorisms, introduced in the immensely popular novels of Earl Derr Biggers beginning in 1925, and later in forty-seven Hollywood movies that featured Caucasian actors with taped-back eyes, presented both positive and negative stereotypes of the Chinese. Mostly, they were positive, showing the Chinese, or at least one Chinese, as astute and intelligent but challenged by English verbs. Among Charlie Chan's philosophical utterances as invented by Biggers, were these:

Charlie Chan and his fortune-cookie aphorisms, introduced in the immensely popular novels of Earl Derr Biggers beginning in 1925, and later in forty-seven Hollywood movies that featured Caucasian actors with taped-back eyes, presented both positive and negative stereotypes of the Chinese. Mostly, they were positive, showing the Chinese, or at least one Chinese, as astute and intelligent but challenged by English verbs. Among Charlie Chan's philosophical utterances as invented by Biggers, were these:

♦ Murder like potato chip: cannot stop at just one;
♦ Tongue often hang man quicker than rope;
♦ Advice after mistake like medicine after dead man's funeral;
♦ If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.

Not Chinese, perhaps, but pointed and exquisitely funny.

Few people under 50 even know who Charlie Chan is—or was. Long before the advent of the Internet, and even before the introduction of relatively inexpensive air travel to Asia on Pan Am, Americans gained their limited knowledge of China from returning missionaries and diplomats, from the families than ran local Chinese laundries and restaurants, and from a now nearly-archaic medium known as "books." The Chan novels themselves led to, and were complemented by, the movies. China has long held a fascination for Hollywood. The exoticism of China was created by novels and movies, rather than being reflected in them. The Chinese of Hollywood creation were most often sinister, such as "Dr. Fu Manchu," who never actually existed, or alluringly dangerous and sexual, as in the roles played by the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (who acted in some of the Fu Manchu films). Charlie Chan was different from both types: he was smart, moral, and non-threatening.

Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate, created the persona of the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan in the novel The House Without a Key (1925) and reprised him in additional novels. Chan, spouting Biggers-invented pithy fit-the-situation platitudes that were suggested as having been first mouthed by Confucius, solved crimes by intuition and observation, and, in the movie versions, tolerated his American-born Number Two Son calling him "Pop." The novels, and the movies based on them, are fun, riveting, a bit silly, and mildly racist (but mostly in terms of current sensitivities). The only person who spoke like Charlie Chan was Charlie Chan.

This book sets out to document the invention and influence of the fictional detective but somehow gets lost along the way.
We are well into the story before Huang reveals how Biggers discovered the story of Chang Apana while perusing a Honolulu newspaper at the New York Public Library and used him as the original surrogate for Charlie Chan. Everything else about Charlie Chan emanated from the imagination of Biggers, and, later, from that of Hollywood writers. Biggers did spend time in Hawaii, writing, and did meet Chang Apana. But Huang has not shown convincingly that Charlie Chan is the fictional realization of Chang Apana (Biggers himself denied it), yet he devotes almost as much attention to him as to Biggers and Charlie Chan.

The first quarter of this book covers, in too much detail and much of it conjecture, the life of Chang Apana, an illiterate Chinese immigrant to Honolulu who became a policeman and detective and the inspiration—but not the basis—for Biggers' creation of the fictional detective Charlie Chan. While the Charlie Chan of books and movies might have been based on Biggers' knowledge of Chang Apana, they are not about Chang Apana. Although it is good to have so much information in one place on Chang Apana, the result of Huang's thorough research, too much is still too much. Huang's research on Chang Apana actually reveals how unlike the fictional Charlie Chan he was. The fictional Chan was literate, educated, self-effacing, intelligent, cerebral. Chang Apana, as presented by Huang, was uneducated and brutal, almost the antithesis of the wise, well-dressed Chinese-American detective that Biggers and Hollywood gave us, and depending on which page of this book we read, either spoke English or did not.

Huang gives Chang Apana more attention than he merits in the context of Charlie Chan. In fact, Charlie Chan's perceived role as a representative of the wise Chinese immigrant has long been forgotten, replaced by Americans' personal experience of the Chinese. That, and education.

The Charlie Chan books and films are thick with plot, mystery, twists and turns, but are no more representative of the Chinese than are any other such creations. The 1960s Broadway play and, later, film "Flower Drum Song" also romanticized and misrepresented the Chinese in America (some of the actors were in fact Japanese or Japanese-Americans, and Juanita Hall, the matriarch, was not even Asian) years after the draw of Charlie Chan had come to an end. The movie adaptation of Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth, which portrayed the hardships of China's peasants during the Japanese invasion, showed the Chinese more realistically than the Charlie Chan movies did, yet the actors still were Caucasians made up to look, unconvincingly, like Chinese.

But both films are entertaining, not consciously racist, and both kept the Chinese in the purview of the non-Chinese, albeit briefly, whether the presentation was realistic or not. Chinese buy into this, too: Chinese restaurants in the U.S. still give out fortune cookies (even chocolate ones), tidbits unknown in China. Ironically, perhaps, fortune cookies are stuffed with paper strips bearing pithy sayings that might be modern Charlie-Chanisms with verbs. At least Chan did not populate his wise retorts with lottery numbers and useless learn-a-[Mandarin] Chinese-word-a-day fillers. And even Huang himself employs the mis-translated term "Honorable" in the book's sub-title.

Perhaps the most valuable parts of this book cover the life and career of Earl Derr Biggers, the development of films based on his novels (some films were written by others after his death), the biographical sketches of actors who played Charlie, the advent of Sax Rohmer and his Fu Manchu stories, the reception Anna May Wong received in the Fu Manchu films and in China. The Chan movies also introduced audiences to Chinese-American actors Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung; the latter eventually became a cook---in the TV show "Bonanza."

Huang, himself an immigrant from China, has a PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo and writes effortlessly but somewhat annoyingly. His overuse of similies (so many situations are "like" others, but are not) exasperates and at the same time seems to both emulate and mock Charlie Chan's own one-liners. Huang's numerous digressions, in which he too often interjects his own life story into the narrative, would best be confined to footnotes or to an afterword rather than interrupting the narrative flow of his story. A long digression on a crime committed in Honolulu is revealing of racism at the time but has nothing at all to do with Biggers or Chan. One of the most annoying and distracting practices of the author is his commitment to referring to the Chinese in Hawaii as "Chinamen." Although some people adopt the terms of approbation applied to them by others as terms of self-identification, such as the use of "queer" used by gays to self-identify, Huang's use of "Chinaman" is grating and appears to sanction its unfortunate use in 21st century rhetoric. While that term was, indeed, once the accepted word to refer to Chinese people, it is now seen almost exclusively as a form of approbation, verging on racism. The fact that some Chinese-American writers use it to effect, such as Frank Chin in his novel The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. and his play "The Chickencoop Chinaman," does not, to this reviewer, justify Huang's continual use of it. (Chin, by the way, recently appeared on a call-in program on public radio that featured Huang and vehemently excoriated Huang for taking a positive approach to Charlie Chan, and Huang deals with Chin's objections in this book). But nobody owns the depiction of the Chinese, so the door is open to all.

The American image of the Chinese changes in tune with economic and political realities and perceptions. In the 1870s, Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were depicted in the popular press as rat-eating, opium-smoking corruptors of American women, look-alike laborers in pigtails who stole jobs from Americans. The anti-Chinese movement culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress and extended by others acts, and not repealed until 1943 when the U.S. needed China's support in the war with Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chinese in the U.S. took pains not to be identified as Japanese, thereby practicing their own form of racism. Today, the Chinese are alternately admired for their hard work, cuisine, and inventions, and excoriated for their human rights record, degradation of the environment, and absorption of American industries and dollars. But Charlie Chan has to be viewed as he "was": he was not Chinese, but American, and he was fictional.

Those people who rail against Charlie Chan as a racist stereotype of the Chinese miss the point: he's entertaining, and that's all he was intended to be.

To quote Chan himself, "Mind like parachute, only function when open."

Raymond Lum

3B_Raymond_LumRaymond Lum (林希文) is Librarian for Western Languages in the Harvard-Yenching Library, where he is also curator of historic photographs. A native of Chicago's Chinatown, he studied Chinese there and in Taiwan. He holds a master's in library science from the University of Michigan, and an MA and PhD in East Asian Languages & Civilizations from Harvard University. From 1968 through 1970, he was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Sarawak, Malaysia. Formerly, he also was Harvard's librarian for South and Southeast Asia and Instructor in Chinese in the Harvard University Extension School. He is the book review editor for a new (debuting 2010) online scholarly journal, TransAsia Photography Review, and contributes the column "Asia Resources on the World Wide Web" to the Asian Studies Newsletter of the Association for Asian Studies. He has directed several Harvard projects that digitized photographs and other visual images of Asia.

 

 

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