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
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
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
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
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.