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Charlie Chan and stereotyping
By Xu Qin


YOU may not fully realize that the English word “Chinaman” not only refers to a Chinese male but is a racist term. At least for me, that was the case until I read Huang Yunte’s book “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.”

So, what is a Chinaman?

At first, Huang said in a recent interview with Shanghai Daily, the Chinese were welcomed in America, especially in California, which had just joined the Union in 1850. Chinese arrivals were routinely reported in the Daily Alta California as increases to a “worthy integer of population.” But as competition in the gold fields became more intense, feelings turned sour.

Such was the social context in which Chang Apana, the Chinaman in Huang’s book, came of age. Born to a Chinese coolie (unskilled laborer) family around 1871 in Hawaii, an era when anti-Chinese sentiment gained currency in the United States, Chang first worked as a cowboy herding cattle. In 1898, when Hawaii was annexed by the United States, he joined the Honolulu police force.

“He almost immediately became a local legend because as a former cowboy he would walk the most dangerous beats in Chinatown carrying a bullwhip,” Huang said. “He never carried a gun. He didn’t need that.”

Chang’s bravado and bravery soon won the confidence of his superiors. He was promoted from street officer to detective, despite having no formal education and being unable to read English or Chinese.

“Becoming a detective sealed Apana’s fame in the annals of history,” Huang wrote in his book. “He was a cop, pure and simple.”

However, Chang later acquired a more fascinating moniker: Charlie Chan, a character he inspired that was created by American novelist Earl Derr Giggers. From 1925 onward, there were six novels and 47 films, in addition to radio programs, newspaper comics and countless faux-fortune-cookie witticisms, that made Charlie Chan one of the most enduring cultural icons of 20th century America, Huang writes.

So, who is Charlie Chan?

Like Chang, Charlie Chan in Biggers’ novels came from colonial Hawaii. As a detective, he traveled extensively in the islands, the American West, Asia, and Europe. He stood witness to the plight and sufferings of his fellow Chinese as indentured laborers on sugarcane plantations, as gold miners bullied by their white competitors, as railroad builders taking on the most dangerous jobs, and as laundrymen toiling away with steam and starch.

But, “Make no mistake: Charlie Chan is an American stereotype of the Chinaman,” Huang wrote in his book.

Biggers may have learned about Changfrom Honolulu newspapers, Huang said. With his first Charlie Chan novel “The House Without a Key,” published in 1925 and the first film released one year later, the chubby Chinese detective Chan, though not the central character in Biggers’ early conception of the novel, soon charmed millions of readers and viewers in the 1920s.

Biggers took on Chang’s persona in his Charlie Chan novels, Huang said, as “both of their careers spanned a critical period when America emerged as a world power, when Hawaii evolved from an independent kingdom to a US territory. The most unlikely of comrades, they together had given birth to an unforgettable character who is strangely both American apple pie and Chinese chop suey.”

Chang and Biggers first met in 1928 when Biggers, with three bestselling Charlie Chan novels to his credit, sailed for Honolulu, looking for new material for his future work. They met again in May 1931 on a beach, when Chang was invited to watch the filming of the adaptation of “The Black Camel,” the fourth Charlie Chan novel. Chang showed Biggers his favorite restaurants, Wing Sing Wo and Wo Fat. On the day of Biggers’ departure, Chang arrived at the dock to see his friend off. In his still broken English, he said: “Old man now. Maybe I no be here when you come back. Aloha!”

In April 1933, Biggers died in Pasadena after suffering a massive stroke. He was 48. Major newspapers and journals ran obituaries lamenting the passing of the celebrated, bestselling author.

A few months later, Chang, 62, also died as a local legend, his reputation enhanced by the exploits of his fictional counterpart.

But Huang’s book about the untold story of the Chinese detective and his encounter with American literature didn’t stop. He further explored why some Asian Americans are still very sensitive over this Charlie Chan character.

“Before my book came out, Charlie Chan movies had been banned for about 40 years in some ways, not strictly banned but effectively banned, because Asian Americans resisted, or protested his movies,” Huang told Shanghai Daily.

Huang compared the Charlie Chan character to another negative Chinaman character, Fu Manchu, who was played by the Swedish silent film actor Warner Oland, who also played Charlie Chan. Fu Manchu was a more severe and negative Hollywood stereotype with its yellowface performance.

Huang argued: “Charlie Chan, America’s most identifiable Chinaman, would live on — immortalized as a symbol of both racial bias and the nation’s cultural fantasy.”

How did you find the story of Charlie Chan?

I was in the graduate school in Buffalo at that time. One Saturday there was an estate sale. I found two volumes of Charlie Chan novels. Out of curiosity I bought them. Immediately I was hooked, not just by the mystery but also the images of this very funny Chinese detective from Honolulu.

What propels you to think of writing such a biography of Chang Apana?

After I got my PhD, I taught at Harvard as an assistant professor of English. The writer of the Charlie Chan novels, Earl Derr Biggers, turned out to be a graduate of Harvard College. It was kind of accidentally I learned that behind the Charlie Chan character there was a real Chinese detective. As a scholar not just as a writer, I was deeply fascinated.

What’s the most fascinating part you have discovered during your process of writing?

I found in the 1930s, the Charlie Chan movies were very popular in Shanghai. Even Lu Xun, perhaps China’s greatest 20th century writer, would not miss a single show of the hilarious Detective Chan. The lead actor, Warner Oland, came to visit Shanghai in 1936 and he was literally mobbed by journalists and cameras in Shanghai. After he left, Chinese studios started to make their own Charlie Chan movies.

Do you think we can do away with racial stereotypes and other forms of discrimination in arts, in writings and in real life eventually?

We can’t do away with it, you know, completely overnight. But we can do it slowly. One of the purposes for me to write the book is to write about that part of history, to be honest with history, rather than to forget all about racial stereotypes or everything ... but to go back and to understand how racial stereotypes developed in literature and art in the United States.

As a new generation of Chinese immigrants, are you still facing the same problems Chang used to deal with in his times? Has the situation changed so far?

Not a whole lot, I would say honestly. The stories of Charlie Chan have made me see that what’s so fascinating about American culture is its racial humor, and how important this racial humor is to the development of American culture. Racial humor is of course racism oftentimes. But racial humor is the driving force of the American imagination.

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