CHIEF: "Let me tell you something, sister. You may be the most infamous women in the Islands, but Charlie Chan is the greatest detective in the history of law enforcement. He finds clues where nobody else can."
ANGLE FAVORING DRAGON QUEEN: She drags on her cigarette smugly. BACK TO SCENE. The group manifests various symptoms of nervousness.
HAYNES: "I'm getting jumpy. Where is Chan, anyway? I'd like to get out of here."
CHIEF: "Nobody leaves this room until Charlie Chan arrives."
HAYNES: "Say what you like. I don't have to put up with this. I'm leaving."
Angle-HAYNES. As he moves to the door and opens it, blocking his path is the figure of CHARLIE CHAN, just as we remember him. Copyright 1979 American Cinema Productions Inc.
JERRY SHERLOCK does not understand what the fuss is about.
Tomorrow, according to the working schedule, his $8 million production of the new feature movie "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" will move north from Los Angeles to begin filming in San Francisco's Chinatown. The picture is supposed to be a comedy. Its central characters are a Jewish grandmother who converses with the urn containing her husband's ashes; a Jewish-Chinese grandson who trips over things, eats his lox and eggs with chopsticks, and nearly commits something akin to hari-kari while trying to slice open a bagel; and "just as we remember him," Charlie Chan.
Slant-eyed, arch-eyebrowed, Fu Manchu-mustached, clever, courteous, unobtrusive, aphorism-spouting Charlie Chan.
His first words in the script are, "Contradiction, please. Hasty departure merely indicate guilty mind."
"You have people who are so hypersensitive" Sherlock says. "There are a lot of Jewish people who are sensitive to the word 'Jew.'"
The part of Charlie Chan will be played by Peter Ustinov. The production company declines to discuss details of Ustinov's makeup, but the last well-known Charlie Chan actor -- since 1961 they have all been white -- was made to look Chinese by wearing flesh-colored eyepieces that hid his Caucasian eyelids. That was in 1957, when the late J. Carrol Naish starred in the television series "The New Adventures of Charlie Chan." James Hong, the Chinese-American actor who played Number One Son opposite Naish, says Naish was not able to blink or move his head to either side on camera while wearing the eyepieces. "He tried to hold his lip against his top teeth," Hong says rapidly, in mocking fakey sing-song, "and den talk like dis."
Then James Hong, his voice pure American again over the telephone from Los Angeles, gets angry. "It wasn't an acting job," he says. "It was an impersonation. . . . It's a great insult to me, as an actor, and as a citizen of the community -- of the Asian and the American community -- to have, at this time, an actor put on Chinese makeup and portray a Chinese. I think the time has passed for that. You don't find producers insisting on a Caucasian actor putting on black makeup to imitate a black actor."
And a Chinese-American executive, a woman in her 30s who grew in the Bay Area, is remembering how it feels to watch a Charlie Chan rerun, through Asian eyes. "I sit there and go, 'Oh my God, I don't believe this,'" she says. "I sit there and think, 'All right, maybe he is polite, but he talks like a fortune cookie. Nobody speaks English like that' . . . my parents, who are immigrants from China, don't even speak that way. He is a stereotype that we are trying to break away from. . . ."
When this woman was a teen-ager, her family moved to a neighborhood that had been all white. "The first thing I heard when I was trying to walk to take the bus to school," she says, "was, 'Ching chong, Chinaman, Charlie Chan!'"
This time, in the growing clamor over Hollywood's treatment of the nonwhite, the nonheterosexual, and the otherwise outnumbered, the angry voices belong to Chinese-Americans. "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" has kicked off a highly unfriendly row between Jerry Sherlock (who keeps pointing out that he was once married to a Japanese woman, leaving him with a Jewish-Japanese son) and a vocal collection of West Coast Asian actors and activists (who suggest that Sherlock's marital history is beside the point). The very idea of resurrecting Charlie Chan, who became for some Asian-Americans roughly what Amos and Andy represented to blacks, offended a few Chinese-Americans even before the production got underway; when Ustinov won the Chan part, leading a cast that has whites in every major role, the real noise began.
In Los Angeles, the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists held a small demonstration on the Charlie Chan set. In San Francisco, after a meeting with Sherlock at the Chinatown YMCA, some Chinese organizers are still threatening protests when the location filming begins here.
"I don't think racism is funny any more," says Eliza Chan, the 23-year-old San Francisco woman who helped organize the Chinatown meeting. "We have been called Charlie for so many years. We have been made fun of -- the way we speak, the way we act -- people expect us to be like Charlie Chan, and we can't stand that any more."
"This script has been given to over a hundred Asian Americans, including my son," counters Sherlock. "I say, 'Is there anything you conceive as racist or degrading?' . . . If I thought there was a hint of racism, I wouldn't have given the script to anyone."
There is a point of utter frustration, in almost every battle over ethnic stereotyping, where the outsider throws up his hands and simply cannot understand what the big problem is supposed to be.
So the first half of the Charlie Chan debate -- whether the celebrated fake-Asian detective ought to simply go away and leave real Chinese-American people alone - tends to turn on what you see when you and your personal history sit down in front of a Charlie Chan rerun. wWhere Sherlock hears the philosophical musings of a character who really belongs in a comic book, the Chinese-American woman executive hears a talking fortune cookie, well-enough established in American mythology to make her remember the Midwestern woman who recently exclaimed, in some astonishment, "My goodness, you speak English perfectly! All the movies I've seen. . . ."
But the clincher, for most of the Chinese-Americans who have objected to the new Charlie Chan, was the lead role. Forty-four Charlie Chan movies reached the American public between 1931 and 1952, each starring a made-up Caucasian (Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters) deporting himself with what Hollywood whites thought were proper Chinese mannerisms, and Hong says there was some hope at first that an Asian might be able to give the role a dignity he thought it never had.
No such luck.
"It would have been nice if we could have cast an Asian-American in the part," Sherlock says. "I just couldn't do it. When you package a film, expensive film like this, you've got to have box-office names."
This produces a resounding series of snorts from Asian actors and agents. The Hollywood word for the quality Sherlock wanted is "bankable," and it is enormously frustrating for an Asian actor to lose the only major part in years to a Caucasian because no Asian is "bankable."
"Not many years ago, they were saying not many black actors were bankable," says Hong. Adds Guy Lee, a theatrical agent who handles mostly Asian actors: "Do you mean to tell me these people" -- meaning white -- "were born bankable?"
Ustinov himself dismissed all the hubbub in a Los Angeles Times interview last week: "When I played Hercule Poirot in 'Death on the Nile,' they welcomed me happily in Belgium," he said.
It is unlikely that many Belgian-American teen-agers have had "Hey, Hercule!" shouted mockingly to them on the city streets; still, Sherlock is growing increasingly testy with the whole Charlie Chan flap. He has offered to consider rewriting certain portions of the script, and says he is currently waiting for the organizers of the Chinatown meeting to declineate by letter their specific objections to the film, but little will probably come of that -- the letter will explain that the organizers' primary goal is to stop the picture. Failing that, they would like a rewrite of Charlie Chan's entire speaking part.
"The Chinese, or any group, are not going to come off in a derogatory way at all," Sherlock insists. "When I was at this meeting, I said, 'My God, you mean nobody has ever heard of Deng Xiaoping? No one has ever heard of Sun Yat Sen?' If they're so shallow -- there must be 10,000 Kung Fu movies out. Every Asian-American goes around doing Kung Fu? Nobody believes that for a second."
And there are Asians who answer, just as firmly, that you have to be Chinese in America to understand just how many people do believe that. "They see so few Asian-American roles on TV," says former San Francisco supervisor Gordon Lau; he has not joined in the active protest, but is particularly irritated by Sherlock's plan to come film in Chinatown. "No one goes to school and hears someone say,'Gee, you remind me of this Dr. Wong, who won this prize for research.'. . ."
Besides, says Lau, "Would you hire a detective who spoke like the Oracle at Delphi?"