The Magazine

Laughing Detective

Charlie Chan and his creator get a scholarly makeover.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

 

Laughing Detective

Keye Luke, Warner Oland, 1937

John Springer Collection/CORBIS

Charlie Chan

The Untold Story
of the Honorable Detective
and His Rendezvous
with American History

by Yunte Huang
Norton, 354 pp., $26.95

Making the Detective Story American

Biggers, Van Dine and
Hammett and the Turning Point of the Genre,
1925-1930

by J.K. Van Dover
McFarland, 231 pp., $35

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.

Though Biggers has never been the subject of a book-length biography, the two most extensive treatments of his life coincidentally have appeared in the same year. J. K. Van Dover’s Making the Detective Story American discusses Biggers alongside S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) and Dashiell Hammett as the three key figures in the development of the American detective story in the late 1920s. Since Van Dine and Hammett had been the subject of book-length biographies, the largest section of Van Dover’s biographical appendix covers Biggers, with many details of the author’s career beyond those included by Huang. Between Huang and Van Dover, readers can get an excellent summary of Biggers’s contribution to American popular fiction and his ultimate achievement in creating an immortal character who has served to bridge cultures rather than separate them.

Biggers was famously inspired to create Charlie Chan after seeing the newspaper account of an arrest by two Honolulu police sergeants, Chang Apana and the less euphoniously named Lee Fook. Charlie Chan was already famous by the time Biggers and Chang first met in 1928, so saying the character was based on Chang Apana is a bit of stretch. Chang, a fine man and a highly effective policeman, was more like a contemporary action hero than a cerebral sleuth, closer to Jackie Chan than Charlie. Thin and wiry, he struck fear into desperadoes with the bullwhip he carried. In his use of disguise, often as a “See Yup Man,” or street peddler, he bore more resemblance to Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Moto. Rather than specializing in murder investigation, Chang had a variety of jobs in his police career, including a stint as a “humane officer,” enforcing animal cruelty laws. Illiterate in both Chinese and English, he communicated in pidgin English, which Charlie Chan emphatically did not.

It is true, as Huang asserts, that Charlie Chan was a purely American creation, no more authentically Chinese than chop suey or fortune cookies, but he reflected many admirable characteristics of his countrymen and does not deserve to be a front-and-center symbol of racism. Huang quotes Frank Chin, “probably the most articulate and forceful” of Chan’s Asian-American detractors, describing Biggers as “the reincarnation of an antebellum southern cracker overseer sitting on the verandah, sippin’ his mint julep, listening to the happy darkies choppin cotton in the fields making racial harmony . .  . sitting on the lanai, sippin’ his mai tai.” Chin also pairs Chan with Fu Manchu as “visions of the same mythic being, brewed up in the subconscious regions of the white Christian’s racial wet dream.” Chin’s ultimate charge is that Chan represents Christian efforts to convert the Chinese—which is odd, since I don’t recall any overt religious references in the character on screen or page. 

Huang gives Chin his due, but exposes the defamation of Biggers and Chan in his discussion of the main charges against the character, none of which is persuasive. With his huge family of children, Chan could hardly be effeminate or asexual. Courteous without ever being a doormat, he is certainly not accurately described as obsequious or subservient. In the six novels, Chan does all his investigating in Hawaii, in Northern California, or on shipboard between the two. On screen, though, he would become a world traveler, solving cases in New York, Paris, London, Egypt, Monte Carlo, Panama, and Berlin at the time of the 1936 Olympics. Contrary to legend, the first actors to play him on film were Asian: George Kuwa in The House Without a Key (1926), Kamiyama Sojin in The Chinese Parrot (1927), and E.L. Park in Behind That Curtain (1929). But none of these was the star of the film in which he appeared, and none of them returned to the role. 

The first starring Chan was Warner Oland, a Swedish actor who had made something of a specialty of playing Asian roles, including the dreaded Fu Manchu. He needed little specialized makeup to look Chinese and he immersed himself in the role, studying Chinese culture and sometimes playing the Chan character offscreen as well as on. He established a unique chemistry with studio artist-turned-actor Keye Luke, who played Number One Son Lee. Luke, who would become one of the most prominent and successful Asian-American performers on stage and screen, understandably was one of the most outspoken defenders of the Charlie Chan character. After the death of Warner Oland, the role of Chan was recast and Luke chose to leave the series as well.

Both of the major screen Chans were versatile and accomplished theatrical professionals. Oland was a friend of August Strindberg, some of whose plays he and his wife translated into English. His successor Sidney Toler, an older man, was a prolific writer, composer, and producer as well as actor. Toler required more makeup and took a somewhat different approach to the role: Where Oland had been lovable and avuncular, Toler was more wisecrackingly acerbic. Number Two Son Jimmy, played by Sen Yung, was less capable and used more for comic relief than Keye Luke’s Number One, giving Toler a lot to be acerbic about.

One oddity of Huang’s excellent and balanced treatment is his insistence that Charlie Chan spoke pidgin English. True, Chan had some grammatical problems peculiar to second language learners. His very first recorded speech confuses verb agreement: “No knife are present in neighborhood of crime.” He often left out initial articles, which do not exist in the Chinese language. But pidgin is defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary as “a simplified language containing vocabulary from two or more languages, used for communication between people not having a common language.” From the beginning, Chan has no problem being understood by English speakers. His vocabulary is rich and extensive; the words he uses to communicate are entirely English and carefully chosen for both beauty and precision. 

Ironically, some of Huang’s own examples demonstrate this and demolish the pidgin charge: “The man who is about to cross a stream should not revile the crocodile’s mother.” By what definition can that be called pidgin? Only in The Chinese Parrot (1927), undercover as a Chinese servant, does Chan deign to speak pidgin English, and even then is determined not to say “velly.” By Keeper of the Keys, the last novel in the series, his language, though colorful and elaborate as ever, is hardly distinguishable grammatically from that of other educated speakers.

If Chan did not speak pidgin English, a more interesting question remains: Did anybody ever really talk like that? Biggers had an answer, according to J. K. Van Dover. In a 1929 letter to a friend in Hawaii, he expressed himself, “sorry if Honolulu is still distressed by Charlie’s way of putting things. .  .  . [I]f he talked good English, as he naturally would, he would have no flavor, and if he talked pidgin, no mainland reader would tolerate him for one chapter.” Instead, he based Chan’s speaking style on letters from his Chinese cook and other Chinese writers of English as a second language, which he found “flowery, elegant .  .  . [with] some amazing turns of phrase.”

Several years after the end of the Chan film series, Peter Ustinov took on the role in a not especially good spoof called Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981). The most memorable, and perhaps best, scene takes place in a movie theater in Chinatown where a deadly accurate black-and-white pastiche of a Chan film is on the screen and a crowd of Chinese Americans watch with rapt attention and obvious hero worship. At the time the film appeared, it seemed clear this was intended as a joke: The demonization of Chan by Asian-American social critics was well underway, and some devotees of his adventures were coming to regard them as a guilty pleasure. 

The depiction of Asians as admiring Charlie Chan was certainly intended ironically; but judging from the testimony of Yunte Huang, it may have been more accurate than anyone realized.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers