The Magazine

Laughing Detective

Charlie Chan and his creator get a scholarly makeover.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.

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