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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 of Asians that were standard at the time, particularly the evil Fu Manchu, the most recognizable Chinese character in Western books and movies before Chan came along. And indeed, unlike Fu, the epitome of supposed Oriental cruelty and cunning, Chan is decent, brave, and honorable, as well as extremely good at nailing the bad guy.

Except that Chan is also a “Chinaman,” the word advisedly used by Yunte Huang in his astute and engaging cultural history, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History. As any number of Asian-American writers and critics have pointed out since the 1960s and 1970s, Chan may be benevolent and likable, but he bears the stereotypical features of American images of Asians since the nineteenth century, including his elaborate politeness, his dark, slicked-back hair, his downward-sloping mustache, and his habit of dropping articles and the first-person pronoun, as in “May ask question please?”

It is in this sense that a movie like Charlie Chan in Egypt has been seen by critics as deriving from the era of Asian exclusion and Jim Crow. In the film, Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood’s best-known black movie actor, plays a character named Snowshoes, an employee of the archaeologists who is superstitious, befuddled, and easily frightened—a Negro stereotype put in for comic relief. Charlie Chan was an aphorism-spouting, pidgin-speaking “Chinaman” who took soft, feminine steps and had fake slanted eyes. It is clear why he has given offense to writers like Jessica Hagedorn, Frank Chin, and the novelist Gish Jen—even while many Caucasians still probably see nothing wrong with him.

In the first three Charlie Chan movies, beginning with The House Without a Key in 1926, Chan was played by Asian actors, but none of these adaptations of Biggers’s novels had commercial or critical success. It was only when the Swedish actor Warner Oland began playing the role that Chan became one of Hollywood’s biggest hits. Oland, who performed in sixteen of the Charlie Chan films before the role was taken over by Sidney Toler (and who also starred in Hollywood’s early Fu Manchu films, until that role was taken over by Boris Karloff), had roughly handsome features, a head like a Roman statue, and a sort of laconic, brooding charisma that no doubt contributed to the success of the Chan franchise. But the use of white actors to play a Chinese hero demonstrated the appeal of yellowface, which, like blackface, provided the element of demeaning racial parody that appealed to audiences of the time. A third major fictional Asian character of the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese international detective Mr. Moto, was played by Peter Lorre. And even in the ethnically enlightened early 1980s when Charlie Chan was revived in a new Hollywood movie, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, the actor playing him was Peter Ustinov.

By the 1960s the writers and critics who decried the Charlie Chan stereotype had a powerful effect. “Under pressure,” Huang writes, “major TV networks and local stations, which had been running Charlie Chan films for decades, decided to take him off the air. Thus began what Ken Hanke has dubbed ‘The Great Chan Ban.’” In 2003, in response to a letter-writing campaign organized by several Asian-American organizations, the Fox Movie Channel canceled a planned festival of restored Charlie Chan prints. And while Fox has released DVDs of many of the Chan titles, clearly the great Chinese detective, like his evil twin, Fu Manchu, and the Japanese Mr. Moto, has become a dubious figure in American culture, not unseen exactly, but a suspect relic of an unlamented past.

Yunte Huang ranges widely and sometimes unpredictably over this history, with comments on racially troubled Hawaii, on the life of Earl Biggers, and on such post–Charlie Chan movies as The Manchurian Candidate. He writes with the sensibility of an outsider who has mastered the insiders’ references. Huang attended Beijing University, China’s most exclusive institution of higher learning, and then emigrated to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1991. “Out of desperation and economic necessity,” he writes, he ran a Chinese restaurant there; it was one of the “lowdown chop-suey joints that once populated Western mining towns in the nineteenth century, and it’s tough to shake off that stigma in the Deep South.” Cooking cheap Chinese food to suit American tastes is one of the things that “Chinamen” were expected to do, and doing it made Huang feel “like a bottom-feeding fish, one that cannot see the light of day in the muddy pond of America.”

Now a professor of English at the University of California–Santa Barbara, Huang remains sensitive to “the historical weight of the Asian American experience,” which, in addition to racial taunts and insults—“Ching Chong Chinaman sitting on a fence/Trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents”—also included sixty-four years during which Chinese emigration to the United States was banned by acts of Congress. A standard character of the minstrel shows that were probably the country’s most popular nineteenth-century entertainment was John Chinaman in his wooden shoes and flapping breeches, lamenting how his “lillee gal nicee” was stolen from him by a white man. Huang writes:

All of these popular cultural representations joined forces to create a demeaning stock image of the Chinaman: a yellow coolie who is either an emaciated walking chopstick or fat and greasy like an oafish butcher: With slits for eyes and a bland, round face, he wears a pair of blue pantaloons and a skullcap, his long queue swinging like a rat’s tail. What comes out of his mouth, if he speaks at all, is pidgin English, grating singsong of dubious significance.

Fu Manchu, though neither oafish nor wearing blue pantaloons, fit this deeply prejudicial view, but Charlie Chan is far from it. In the movies, he wears a well-tailored suit, and he certainly has no queue. His Confucian aphorisms may be spoken in a mild sort of pidgin—actually a good deal less pungent than real Chinese-American pidgin—but they have a point. “Must turn up many stones to find hiding place of snake,” he says in Charlie Chan in Paris (1935). He faces danger with equanimity. Knives are thrown at him; bricks are aimed at his head; he is warned to get out of town by a message wrapped around a stone that shatters his taxi window, a warning he ignores. Sometimes he carries a gun and even draws it, though he doesn’t seem to have fired it.

In contrast to the Biggers novels, where we see Chan at home, wearing a Chinese gown and silk shoes, surrounded by porcelain and lanterns, in the movies he has little in the way of a private life; we never see where he lives, but he is not rootless or unattached. Two of his children, a boy and a girl, for whom he shows great affection, appear in some of the films. Chan tries to convince the son he meets up with in Shanghai to have a good time rather than get involved in the father’s dangerous business. “Joy in heart better than bullet,” he tells him, but the son helps solve the crime anyway.

Despite all this, Huang agrees with some of Chan’s detractors. “Make no mistake,” he writes, “Charlie Chan was an American stereotype of the Chinaman.” And yet Huang isn’t very bothered by this, seeing Chan as a benign stereotype, perhaps even a subversive one; he believes he illustrates the mingling of foreign and local elements that have often gone into the making of the hybrid American culture.

It turns out—though Huang is not the first writer to discover this—that there was a real Charlie Chan in American life who inspired the fictional one. A man named Chang Apana was a legendary figure in the Honolulu police force in the first third of the twentieth century, the only ethnic Chinese during those years to make detective. Apana, who spent most of his early childhood in China’s Guangdong province, was an American hybrid. For some years he was a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy, working on the biggest cattle ranch on the island of Hawaii. When he became a policeman around the turn of the twentieth century, the wiry, five-foot-tall Apana was famous for carrying a rawhide whip as his only weapon. He was the scourge of the gambling and opium dens that proliferated in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Earl Derr Biggers went to Hawaii for a health cure in 1920 and got the idea for a novel there, but he doesn’t seem to have met or heard of Apana on that trip. Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1884, graduated from Harvard in 1907, and had achieved modest fame as a writer of mysteries, romances, and magazine articles by the time of his visit to Hawaii. According to his own account, he first learned about Chang Apana in 1924, coming across a reference to him in a Honolulu newspaper in the New York Public Library. Huang thinks that Biggers’s account is false. He’s found that there was a Chinese laundry in Akron, Ohio, not far from Biggers’s home town of Warren, and the owner of this establishment was a pidgin-speaking Cantonese immigrant named Charlie Chan. His laundry was near the Akron train station, so Biggers would likely have seen it.

What is remarkable is that such a singular and benevolent Chinese character could have emerged from the Midwest and become a huge popular success in an America of intensely nativist, anti-Chinese feeling. Fu Manchu in this sense would seem to have been the more predictable cultural expression of the larger attitude toward “Chinamen.” Fu came along on the eve of World War I, the creation of the British writer Sax Rohmer, whose first Fu Manchu novel was published in the United States in 1913 and went into at least twenty printings. Rohmer followed this effort with a succession of novels, each one more lurid than the last. Fu, satanically inventive, gets his victims to handle perfume and then kills them with scorpions drawn to the scent. He kills with snakes, incantations, and a poison known as “silence of flower.”

It can’t be a coincidence that the era of Fu Manchu was also the era of book titles like Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Immigration restrictions, like the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which renewed the earlier exclusion act of 1882, were enacted explicitly to avoid what was commonly called “mongrelizing taints.” Meanwhile, the Chinese already living in the United States suffered discriminatory regulations. The San Francisco Laundry Ordinance set licensing fees of $15 every three months for Chinese laundries, compared to $2 to $4 for laundries run by whites.

Biggers’s first novel about Charlie Chan came a decade after Sax Rohmer’s first Fu Manchu novel, but the two were simultaneous hits in Hollywood, both at the height of their popularity in the 1930s. That both Fu and Chan were popular at the same time shouldn’t be surprising—we’ve seen bigger contradictions. Still, Chan does seem to mark a shift in attitudes away from the sort of unadulterated bigotry that produced the Asian Exclusion Act and toward a willingness on the part of the public to accept Asians as admirable, even if still stereotypes.

Chan in this regard bears considerable resemblance to Mr. Moto, another benign stereotype and perhaps even stranger in his benevolence than Chan, because he was a Japanese loyal to his emperor at a time when Japan’s rising power in Asia was being seen as a threat to America. Both are unfailingly polite and formal, and they both beat whitey at his own game. Chan operates more cerebrally than Moto, though he shows plenty of aplomb when faced with danger. Mr. Moto first appeared in 1935 in a novel by John P. Marquand, who had been sent to Japan by The Saturday Evening Post to find an Asian detective who might prove as commercially viable as Chan. A precursor to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, he is more physical than Charlie Chan, and an expert in judo, which he uses frequently to subdue his opponents. He disappeared after Pearl Harbor.

Those who find all of these characters objectionable describe Charlie Chan in particular as effeminate, wimpy, ingratiating, and inoffensive, a sort of self-effacing, singsong know-it-all, or perhaps, as Gish Jen put it, a “yellow Uncle Tom.” But Huang argues that the Charlie Chan one actually reads about in the novels or sees on the screen is far more complex and impressive than these descriptions suggest. The man who sets up traps to catch murderers in the act seems hardly wimpy or effeminate. Chan is even capable of snuffing out racist opposition to his presence with his singular blend of courtesy and firmness. “Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility,” he says at one point in The House Without a Key. “Quench it, if you will be so kind.” Even in Charlie Chan in Egypt, which some critics have found especially objectionable, Huang finds a subtext that undermines the film’s very racial hierarchy, with whites at the top, yellows in the middle, and blacks at the bottom. Both Chan and Snowshoes, the character played by Stepin Fetchit, are racial stereotypes to be sure, but it’s the whites who are scheming, larcenous, greedy, and murderous. “In fact,” Huang writes,

the whole film pitches colored—black, yellow, Arab—men against Anglo-European whites, with the former united by their interest in truth and justice and the latter condemned by their insatiable hunger for material wealth.

The American unease over Chan is complicated by the cinematic Chan’s reception in China itself, which was very nearly worshipful. When Warner Oland went there in 1936 to film Charlie Chan in Shanghai, he was given full celebrity treatment, his roles as Fu Manchu conveniently forgotten. At his press conferences, he even adopted the Charlie Chan persona, answering questions in the same pidgin he used on screen. The Chinese appreciated that in Chan, finally, a brilliant, charming, and esteemed Chinese figure was being portrayed in American movies, and this at a time when the Chinese public was highly sensitive to racial slights.

Many movies, including classics like The Thief of Baghdad (1924)—in which a wily Oriental despot is the bad guy—and all the Fu Manchu movies were banned in China, but Charlie Chan was extremely popular. There was even a series of Chinese knockoffs of the character, this time played by a Chinese actor who, according to Huang, “followed Oland’s incarnation closely in almost all aspects.” In other words, as he puts it, “we seem to have reached the final, if not slightly bizarre, frontier of yellowface, where a real Chinaman imitates a Swede’s imitation of a Chinaman.”

That would suggest a certain success for precisely the racial stereotyping that Chan’s detractors have decried—the artificial Chinaman becoming more real than the real thing. Chang Apana himself came to be addressed, admiringly, as Charlie Chan on the streets of Honolulu, his real persona having been captured by the fictional character he inspired. Huang makes a quiet plea to Chan’s detractors to see him in a less unfavorable light:

If every time we smelled the odor of racism in arts and literature we went out and rallied in the street, then we probably would have killed off everything from jazz to hip-hop, from George Carlin to Jerry Seinfeld.

Huang sees Chan in this sense less as a Chinese Uncle Tom and more as a Chinese Nigger Jim, whose own sort of pidgin was transformed by Mark Twain into an expression of courage and morality greater than could normally be imagined in the racist culture of the era. Himself “a Chinese man come to America,” as Chang Apana did, Huang makes the case that a reevaluation of Charlie Chan might be in order. Huang’s deeper point is indisputable. Charlie Chan is an entirely American creation and an entirely American story. To know him is to know ourselves.

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