I must have a thing about old movie detectives. First, it was Sam Spade (May 21), then Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man, July 18), and now Charlie Chan.
My interest was triggered by an August 9 New Yorker book review by Jill Lepore on the new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang who grew up in China and now teaches American Literature at UC at Santa Barbara.
Charlie Chan has been vilified as “the yellow Uncle Tom” with his “fortune-cookie English” since the 1970s racial awareness movement. But it didn’t stick. When a group of people are comfortable with their accomplishments they are not insulted by exaggerated depictions of one of their kind, no more than I am insulted by the depiction of Li’l Abner as an American white male. Unfortunately, however, local libraries purged Charlie Chan from their books and video collections, so a free source of either is hard to find. Author Yunte Huang is an unabashed fan. “Sometimes, late at night, I turn on the TV and a Chinaman [Aggg! He said the “C” word.] falls out. He is hilarious.”
My Asian wife has always had the nickname “Missy” which should be insulting because it parodies what the early Chinese immigrants called their white female employers—and my wife is not even Chinese. But she was never insulted by it and could never be convinced she should be. It is that same “comfortable with your accomplishments” thing.
The Charlie Chan series was written by Earl Biggers, a former Cleveland police reporter, and was loosely based on an actual detective, Chang Apana, with the Honolulu police. Chan began in 1925 as a minor character in the mystery The House Without a Key, set in Honolulu where Biggers had briefly visited, and was never meant to be any more than that. (Another minor character is named Roger, but Rogers never make it big.) Charlie Chan became instantly popular, as unlikely as that seemed, and from then on, Biggers wrote virtually nothing but Chan. In The House Without a Key (which I had to buy), he appears strange, especially for a detective: “He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.” He spoke in a “high, sing-song voice.” Biggers seems to be describing a eunuch, but Chan reveals he has a wife and nine children at home, so perhaps he just has a hormonal imbalance. The other characters are not surprised by his appearance, only that he is a Chinese working as a detective. This is almost unbelievable for them, as it must have seemed to the readers of the time. At any rate, Chan walked away—in light dainty steps, no doubt—with the novel and Biggers’ career.
The sweet spot for detective novels was between the World Wars, and Charlie Chan was solidly in that period. Detective novels were read by all walks of life, and writers of all types tried their hands at it. The pattern required a quirky detective who could be easily distinguished from all of the others. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was also effeminate, and her other famous creation, Miss Marple, was an unimposing little old lady. Sherlock Holmes would lie on his couch in a cocaine haze and shoot bullets into the walls. Nick Charles was an alcoholic dandy. More recently, we have the rumpled Lieutenant Columbo and Peter Seller’s bumbling Jacques Clouseau. Compared to them, Charlie Chan was conservative.
Hawaii was an exotic place in 1925. Biggers mentions avocados, mangoes, and lanai with descriptive adjectives since most readers would not know what they were. He refers to actual roads, which I can see on Google Earth, although the deserted beaches he says they lead to are now covered with high-rise hotels. Even then, in 1925, his characters describe Hawaii as ruined by commercialism. The real Hawaii they nostalgically remember of the 1880s is gone with the wind.
I enjoy reading a book written in 1925 more than a book of today set in 1925. It is like watching an old movie. Not only is the setting interesting, but also the attitudes. The House Without a Key assumes that people taken into police custody will be beaten until they confess, and no one is upset when they appear the next day a little worse for wear. People often climb into the tonneau of the car. What’s that? In those days, it was the high, back seat of an open car, like the Model T Laurel and Hardy used to drive.
The earliest Charlie Chan movies used a variety of actors, but no prints survive. Almost all after that initial period are played by Warner Oland who had previously played Chinese villains, such as Dr. Fu Manchu. Oland’s mother was Russian and his Slavic features were enough, at that time, to pass for Chinese. Biggers was pleased with his understanding portrayal of Chan.
Chang Apana, the prototype Honolulu detective, was nothing like Chan except for being Chinese. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a bullwhip, which he readily used. His well-publicized escapades included capturing forty gamblers single-handed and leaping from rooftop to rooftop like a “human fly.” People even began calling him “Charlie Chan,” but he made no money from the popular series.
Chan has the underlying steeliness of a real no-nonsense detective. In the book, he says, smiling and bowing to a reluctant female witness, “Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind.”
I can use that at home.