By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 26, 2010; C02
The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History
By Yunte Huang
Norton. 354 pp. $26.95
We Americans go at life freestyle; we ignore boundaries, break taboos, appropriate and exploit the arts, cuisines, styles and beliefs of every people and country we encounter. There's nothing clean and pure or thoroughbred about us. We're a nation of alley cats and mongrels. As Stanley Crouch put it, "the catalyst of American experience" is "cultural miscegenation."
So it seems appropriate that this study of Charlie Chan, the Chinese-Hawaiian detective created by Earl Derr Biggers and the hero of more than 40 movies, should itself be a heady mixture of scholarship, essay and memoir. "In many ways," writes Yunte Huang, "Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America." Chan is also a lens through which one can examine 20th-century anxieties about race, the "yellow peril," immigration and class.
Huang comes at Charlie Chan from four different angles. First, he takes up the life and career of Chang Apana , the actual Honolulu police officer who loosely inspired the fictional detective. Apana -- unlike the rotund and cultivated Chan -- was small, wiry and illiterate. In his youth he worked as a Hawaiian cowboy and later made the bullwhip his signature tool of law enforcement. While describing Apana's tough and colorful life, Huang also provides a potted history of Hawaii and its Chinese population.
Chan's creator, Biggers (brought up, appropriately, near Canton, Ohio), naturally provides the book's second thread. After graduating from Harvard in 1907, the future novelist worked as a reporter for various newspapers and was occasionally taken to task for embroidering the facts to produce better stories. Eventually, though, Biggers -- planning to marry and needing money -- drew on his nascent talent for fiction, and in less than three months he produced his first mystery: the evocatively titled "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1913). Its success -- there have been at least seven filmed versions -- encouraged him to become a full-time writer and to produce a second mystery, "The House Without a Key" (1925) in which an obese Charlie Chan appears halfway through as a relatively minor character, but one who quickly caught readers' imaginations.
To account for Chan's appeal, Huang surveys various images of the "Chinaman" in the American psyche. He looks closely at Bret Harte's notorious poem "The Heathen Chinee," P.T. Barnum's Siamese twins Chang and Eng, our fascination with the insidious "devil doctor" Fu Manchu, Richard Condon's classic thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," and the long-held view that Charlie Chan is nothing more than an Asian Uncle Tom played in yellow-face by Caucasian actors.
The Chan movies are the third theme of Huang's study. Because of the popularity of Biggers's novels -- there were six before his death at age 48 -- Hollywood started to make Charlie Chan films as early as 1926, though the series only took off in the 1930s when the Swede Warner Oland assumed the role. Oland specialized in Asian characters, maintaining that some touch of Mongolian blood through his Russian mother allowed him to forgo any special makeup. Oland made 16 Charlie Chan movies, and after his death he was succeeded by Sidney Toler, who acted in over 20 more, presenting a rather more acerbic and irascible Chan.
In perhaps his most sensitive pages, Huang counters the accusations of racial stereotyping and reductionism that have often been assigned to Chan and the Chan films. He notes that the moguls who made and financed these movies were Eastern European Jews, themselves outsiders. He discusses Stepin Fetchit's campy histrionics in "Charlie Chan in Egypt" as a form of stylish black mockery of the white establishment. He underscores that Charlie Chan is throughout presented as an affectionate father, a sagacious and admired professional and a valued friend. Some of the movies even address the issue of anti-Chinese prejudice. When I recently watched "Charlie Chan at the Opera," I was surprised that one of the film's themes is Chan's admirable poise as he gradually wins the respect of a choleric, deeply xenophobic police detective.
The fourth and last thread in this model of popular scholarship is the author himself. Having emigrated from China in 1991, Huang first lived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he attended college and ran a restaurant before going on to graduate studies at SUNY-Buffalo. In many ways, his own experiences as a Chinese in America are as important to this book's appeal and authority as his actual research. Today Huang is a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Still, while "Charlie Chan" is almost as wide-ranging as it is enthralling, Huang does somehow neglect the most obvious aspect of the Chan books and movies: their status as mysteries, as minor works of art. Two or three times he hints, to no good purpose in my view, at the solutions to Biggers's whodunits, but he otherwise tends to employ the books as sociological documents, seldom giving any indication of their particular merits. Are the books still worth reading? Which is the best? You won't find the answers here.
Similarly, while Huang does comment on the charm of Chan's pseudo-Chinese turns of phrase and his enigmatic Confucianisms ("Theory like mist on eyeglasses -- obscures facts" or "Door of opportunity swing both ways"), he fails to note the likely literary influence of Ernest Bramah's immensely popular tales of Kai-Lung. Starting with "The Wallet of Kai-Lung," which appeared in 1900, these stories contain the very same kind of odd diction and fortune-cookie aphorisms that we find in the Chan whodunits. Significantly, Bramah was also a major writer of mystery stories, being the creator of the blind detective Max Carrados.
Not least, I wish that Huang had properly pointed to the most obvious appeal of the Charlie Chan films: They are, in general, excellent puzzles. Some, like "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum" and "Meeting at Midnight," are highly atmospheric; many -- deftly observing the Aristotelian unities -- restrict the entire action to a single setting and a small number of suspects. And they really are clever. Why, for instance, would the murderous villain of "Charlie Chan in Paris" draw attention to himself by wearing dark glasses and an unmistakable costume?
But, to coin a Chanism, "picky reviewer like fly on Ming vase -- fly soon gone, but valuable vase remain." 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.
Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.