Charlie Chan and his creator get a scholarly makeover.
Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By JON L. BREEN
Keye Luke, Warner Oland, 1937
John Springer Collection/CORBIS
The Untold Story
by Yunte Huang
Making the Detective Story American
Biggers, Van Dine and
by J.K. Van Dover
In the 1920s, by our standards, America was a racist land. The image of the Chinese, who were explicitly excluded from immigration, was defined in fiction and media by sinister villains, comic servants, and laundrymen. A popular writer from Ohio introduced a character who would be loved by millions while giving the lie to every negative cliché about the Chinese. For his trouble, he would be posthumously reviled by some Asian Americans as a pernicious racist, and his creation as an undesirable stereotype. Over the years, many non-Asian defenders have protested this unfairness, but in the end, only a Chinese scholar could definitively set the record straight about Earl Derr Biggers and Charlie Chan.
Biggers (1884-1933) wrote six novels about the Honolulu policeman Chan, from The House Without a Key (1925) to Keeper of the Keys (1932). Between 1926 and 1949, Chan would be a character in 47 films, including two silents and one early talkie in which he was reduced to a minor role. In the 44-film Chan series, he would be played by three actors—most definitively Warner Oland, most frequently by Sidney Toler, least notably by Roland Winters—who had one significant feature in common: none was Asian, or Asian American. This fact was the principal reason for Asian-American hostility to Charlie Chan.
Chinese student Yunte Huang came to the United States in 1991, terminally disillusioned about his country’s future after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He landed in Buffalo for graduate study in English and worked as a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant. After finding a two-volume omnibus of the Chan novels at an estate sale, he became “an avid fan” of both the books and the movies. Now a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he writes eloquent English prose without a hint that it is his second language.
His book is really a triple biography: of Chang Apana, the Honolulu cop considered to have inspired the creation of Chan; of Biggers; and of the character himself in his literary and cinematic incarnations. Along the way, Huang touches on the history of Hawaii and the Chinese in America, depictions of Chinese in American literature (with special attention to Sax Rohmer’s notorious villain Dr. Fu Manchu), the place of Asians in the silent film industry, including the careers of Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong, and Hawaii’s notorious 1932 Massie-Fortescue murder trial, in which Clarence Darrow’s inability to get the seven Caucasian jurors to vote to acquit his white defendants is used to illustrate the complexity of Hawaiian race relations, and to prove that not all haoles (whites) were racist.
Earl Derr Biggers owed much of his success as a professional writer to his deep affinity with the popular tastes of his time. In his Harvard days, he was notorious for preferring contemporaries such as Richard Harding Davis, Franklin P. Adams, and Rudyard Kipling to the canon of literary classics. A native of Warren, Ohio, Biggers was a Boston journalist and drama critic before establishing himself as a writer of plays and popular fiction in the decade of World War I. His 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan. By the 1920s, delicate health and a desire to break into screenwriting brought Biggers and his family to California, where he would live the remainder of his life. During a trip to Hawaii, he devised the basic plot of The House Without a Key, which was not intended to be the beginning of a series. Indeed, Charlie Chan was not even the main character. But the Chinese-American cop captured the public fancy, proving Biggers so understood his audience that he could achieve major success by the counterintuitive introduction of a sympathetic character from a generally despised population. Biggers would concentrate his literary efforts on the Honolulu sleuth until his death.