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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Charlie Chan Captured
A new study of the Asian shamus finally gets him right.
10 September 2010

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton, 354 pp., $26.95)

Back when, Hollywood studios regularly cast Occidentals as Orientals. Paul Muni played Wang Lung in The Good Earth and Katherine Hepburn was Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. John Wayne took the title role of Genghis Kahn. Mickey Rooney overplayed a Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Marlon Brando impersonated Sakini, the Okinawan narrator of Teahouse of the August Moon.

In the B-picture genre, Dr. Fu Manchu, the personification of the Yellow Peril, was represented by Boris Karloff. Peter Lorre made eight films as the Japanese investigator Mr. Moto. But no Asian gave more work to Caucasians than Charlie Chan. The protagonist of 44 feature films, this appealing sub-gumshoe was played by Warner Oland (1931–1938), Sidney Toler (1938–1947), and Roland Winters (1947–1949) before spinning off into the 1957 TV series, starring J. Carrol Naish. Only one sleuth has inspired more depictions: the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Chan has been the subject of numerous books, most of them tongue-in-cheek compilations of Charlie’s heavily accented aphorisms:

Theories like fingerprints—everybody has them.

Silence big sister to wisdom.

Door of opportunity swing both ways.

Fear is cruel padlock.

Friends, like fiddle strings, should not be stretched too tight.

But Yunte Huang’s work is different. Born in China, the author is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rather than adopt the standard campus tone, accusing the U.S. of historical bigotry and ongoing intolerance, he remains cool, witty, and highly original in his research. Giving his study a wide-screen billing—Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History—he provides a rare example of truth in advertising. Huang’s examination takes readers on an epic journey through popular culture in the days before political correctness throttled academia, politics, and the media.

Charlie Chan was the invention of Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate and resourceful writer whose 1913 debut, Seven Keys to Baldpate, hit the mother lode. This novel about a novelist was bought by George M. Cohan, who turned it into a long-running stage production. Twelve years later, Biggers published The House Without a Key. He based its protagonist, a Chinese detective, on the true-life adventures of an aggressive, bullwhip-toting Honolulu cop named Chang Apana. The author toned down the hero and made him Holmesian, patient and intellectual—but retained his race. The reading public was mildly amused. The moviegoing public, however, was totally beguiled when, in 1931, Swedish actor Warner Oland assumed the title role in Charlie Chan Carries On.

During the decades that followed, the Chinese detective rose from a second-feature diversion to a cultural icon. There were, of course, instances of bias in the Chan films. This was a time when the phrase “a Chinaman’s chance” meant “hopeless,” and when Abercrombie & Fitch offered a tee shirt with the legend “Wong Brothers Laundry Service. Two Wongs Can Make It White.” But Chan rose above all this. He was perceptive, kind, home-loving, and full of rectitude. On screen and off, people of every race afforded him great respect—with good reason. Once he arrived at the scene of the crime, the perpetrator was in trouble; by the final reel, he was doomed.

Campus agitators and benighted sociologists continue to underestimate Chan’s significance; Huang does not. He deduces that the Asian shamus is a “peculiar American brand of trickster prevalent in ethnic literature and incarnated by Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Herman Melville’s Confidence Man.” Disdaining cheap shots, Huang thus arrives at a conclusion that’s both generous and accurate. Indeed, it’s a point that Charlie Chan himself might have made. After all, it was he who voiced the inarguable commentary:

Human mind like umbrella; only function when open.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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