Charlie Chan Book Review

A new book has unearthed the story of the man behind the famous movie and book character, Charlie Chan. Paul Devlin on a great work of cultural history that will have you watching the movies all over again.

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The dustbin of history is full of politically incorrect trash, chucked there by the heavy hand of reactionary sensitivity. Rightfully forgotten characters, sports mascots, actors, and films reside there alongside slang terms and old sayings, but every so often a great escape is made by the falsely imprisoned. In this case, the sagely Charlie Chan, a portly, aphoristic fictional detective of once-enormous popularity, has been liberated by Yunte Huang in a major work of complex cultural archeology, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Huang's great achievement is unearthing and narrating the life and times of Chang Apana, the real life detective who was the inspiration for Chan. Huang ties Apana's life to the lives of Earl Derr Biggers (the Ohio-bred/Harvard-educated mystery novelist who created Chan) and Warner Oland (the Swedish-born actor who best portrayed the character on screen). Though all three men receive very rich portrayals, Huang's attention is properly focused on Hawaiian-born Chinese detective Chang Apana, whose daring exploits first inspired Biggers. Already a successful writer (and visitor to Hawaii in 1920) Biggers claimed to have had the idea for Charlie Chan when reading about Chang Apana in a Hawaiian newspaper in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library in 1924. (Huang is a good detective himself, and finds several odd inconsistencies in Biggers' claim.) In the course of this original book, old Hawaii, old Harvard, and old Hollywood meet in an unexpected tangle of pop culture and cultural politics.

An unashamed Charlie Chan fan, Huang is not afraid to note understandable Asian-American objections while at the same time he notes that in his heyday Chan was very popular in China.

Charlie Chan takes on a mystery at the wax museum.

Through these seemingly disparate worlds, Huang finds the strands of myth and reality behind the Charlie Chan character. He vividly recreates the rough and tumble world of old Honolulu, where detective Chang Apana served on the police force from 1898-1932, and tells his remarkable story for the first time. Born in Hawaii, sent to China as a child, and then sent back to Hawaii, Apana had been a paniolo (cowboy); a “charismatic stableman” of the wealthy parents of Helen Kinau Wilder. Wilder founded the first Hawaiian chapter of the Humane Society and suggested that Apana be the officer in charge of investigating cruelty to animals. Animal protection was soon folded into the larger police department and Apana proved an indispensable figure in dealing with crime in Chinatown. As a savvy and imaginative solver of crimes, not to mention bold and fearless when fighting criminals (often with a bullwhip!), Chang Apana would prove an essential member of the force. Apana would dress up in disguise to gather information and confront large bands of criminals single-handedly. “Apana once climbed up walls like a pre-Spiderman sleuth and slipped into an opium dive,” writes Huang. Some reviewers have raised eyebrows at these descriptions, but various sources seem to confirm Apana's bravado. Apana was a family man of high morals and was untouched by a barrage of corruption scandals that plagued his department. After reading Huan's reconstruction of Apana's career, it is not hard to see how Biggers found initial inspiration in his story (even if Charlie Chan would not simply be an imitation of Apana).

While the Charlie Chan books and movies were making money hand over fist for Earl Biggers, Bobbs-Merrill (his Indianapolis publisher), Warner Oland, and Fox Studios, Chang Apana never made a penny from inspiring the franchise. Huang does not harp on this point and perhaps it goes without saying that it was a heinous injustice. From the portrait of Apana that Huang paints, it is clear that he was a man with far too much pride to ask for anything. Yet Apana reveled in the Chan character: autographing books, showing up on set to watch on-location filming, watching the Chan movies in Hawaiian theaters, and befriending Biggers.

In Huang's skillful hands the story of Chan/Apana becomes a fascinating cultural survey full of engaging tangents, on say, cattle ranching in Hawaii or the career of the actress Anna May Wong. But one of Huang's greatest accomplishments is his vivid narration of the history of Chinese immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century. Huang has delivered an outstanding thumbnail history of the subject. But he also is deft in handling the dilemmas posed by other Asian-inspired pop culture phenonmena, especially in the case of Fu Manchu, the villainous character created around the same time as Charlie Chan and popular during the same years. (Later on, Huang ties his Fu Manchu riff to the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate and argues that the film hurt the Chan franchise.) Chan-the-hero represented appreciation for and fascination with Asia while Manchu-the-villain played on Western fears of Asians and things Asian. And Warner Oland played both roles in the movies! (The hilarious and incisive Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee has dealt with Fu Manchu and I only hope she sees fit to tackle Charlie Chan.)

Huang can be an intriguing interpreter of cultural trends but can also write straight forward history. He delivers an enthralling account of nineteenth century Hawaii, when Hawaii was like a de facto colony of the United States and whites and Asians poured into the islands. In the style of say, Louis Menand, Huang is that rare literary scholar with the light touch of a popular historian.

Huang notes that the 1960s and 1970s the Chan movies were hard to see on TV due to protests by Asian American groups. He must be right, because growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, and rather immersed in pop culture, I don't remember Charlie Chan at all. I remember watching the Peter Sellers version of Fu Manchu (made in 1980), but I don't believe I ever heard of Charlie Chan until the 00s. Yet the Charlie Chan/Fu Manchu (“wise, helpful good Asian/scheming, villainous bad Asian”) dichotomy of the 20s did sort of reappear in the 80s, with kids appreciating and quoting the wisdom of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid and rooting against the treacherous Mr. Fuji of professional wrestling. And I can safely say that most young viewers of Hawaii Five-O re-runs or Magnum, P.I. knew nothing of the original Hawaiian detective.

A cursory glance at the Charlie Chan books and movies can (and does) elicit reflexive cries of racism (Charlie Chan known for many wise quotes, like fortune cookie), but closer inspection reveals complicated and wily subversion, coupled with wisdom and dignity. Huang, who teaches English at UC Santa Barbara writes “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. Out of the crucible we call art, there is rarely if ever what might be described as good clean fun. Indeed, comedy can sting even more so.” While this may have been the heresy of heresies in say, 1993, today such statements can hold their ground, especially in the wake of the recent rehabilitations of Stepin Fetchit (co-star of Charlie Chan in EgyptM).

In occasional dashes of interesting and strategically placed memoir, Huang hints and suggests that he believes fate brought him to his subject. And why not? Who if not Huang was going to write this tale? In an early 1990s, as a still-recent transplant to America, Huang drove from Tuscaloosa to Buffalo and passed Canton, Ohio. He was surprised by the name of the town. Later he found out it was the hometown of Earl Biggers. Then at an estate sale in Buffalo he found old Charlie Chan paperbacks. A well-meaning if politically incorrect secretary at Harvard compared Huang to Charlie Chan. An old Kung Fu movie, sampled on the 1995 album Liquid Swords by the GZA of Wu Tang Clan says it best: “you can never escape...your fate.”

Huang is a man of diverse experiences, having been at Tianamen Square as a college student and lured away by a family ruse and having worked in Chinese restaurants in America. An unashamed Charlie Chan fan, Huang is not afraid to note understandable Asian-American objections while at the same time he notes that in his heyday Chan was very popular in China. Who knows what might have happened if the crucial Chan trio had not died while their creation was still roaring. The inspiration, Apana (in his 60s, in 1933), the creator, Biggers (at 49, in 1933) and interpreter, Oland (at 58, in 1938) all died during the height of Chan's popularity. If they had lived into the 1940s or 1950s, perhaps the franchise would have grown (commercially and artistically) instead of dying out in 1949. Huang's book is perfectly timed for the era of YouTube and Netflix and so hopefully will reintroduce what was created, with all its wisdom and imperfection.

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Paul Devlin has written for the New York Times Book Review, Slate and the Root.