A Very Superior ‘Chinaman’

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20th Century Fox / Photofest
Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan at the Race Track, 1936

Charlie Chan, the fictitious Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, makes his first appearance in the movie Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) looking out the window of an airplane while flying over the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We next see him, looking awkward and unhappy, on a donkey, which takes him to the headquarters of an archaeological excavation in Luxor. There he announces why he has come, his polite manner verging on the deferential: he has been hired by the French Archaeological Society to investigate the disappearance of some ancient objects on the black market.

The archaeologists know very well who Chan is, and they address him respectfully, nobody expressing any surprise that a member of the Honolulu Police Force would have come to hunt for missing antiquities in Egypt. Moviegoers wouldn’t have been surprised either. In the early Chan films he is shown solving crimes close to home in Hawaii. But later he became a kind of global celebrity, a Chinese-American version of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Corpulent, indefatigable, his large eyes under heavy brows missing nothing, Chan travels solo and works alone (except in a few cases when he is helped by one of his numerous grown children), using brainpower to solve cases that have stymied local authorities.

Viewers of Charlie Chan in Egypt had already seen the detective in London and Paris, and they would later see him in Shanghai, San Francisco, New York, and other places. They would also suspect that Chan’s original mission would be overtaken by some murderous development, and sure enough, he’s soon informed in Charlie Chan in Egypt that the leader of the excavation is missing. When Chan is shown an ancient sarcophagus on a tour of the site, he observes, as he puts it, that “varnish on three-thousand-year-old object isn’t completely dry,” and this leads to the discovery of the corpse of the missing archaeologist inside it.

Soon a second murder takes place, inducing the archaeologists to squabble, one of them giving way to hysteria. But Chan, stolid and unruffled, in his calm, formal, elaborately courteous manner questions witnesses, examines clues, and performs a forensic experiment, proving that a vial of poison gas hidden in a violin was designed to shatter when a certain note was struck, which explains the second murder. All the while, as viewers have come to expect, he provides faux-Confucian aphorisms by way of comment: “Theory, like mist on eyeglasses, obscures facts.”

Some forty-nine movies featuring Chan were made in Hollywood between 1926 and 1949, all of them based on the character invented by Earl Derr Biggers in his novel The House Without a Key (1925). Biggers’s six Chan novels were best sellers, and the cinematic Charlie Chan was one of the best-known and most-liked fictional characters in America for nearly twenty years. Biggers said that in creating Chan he wanted to counter the demeaning portrayals …

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