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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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.

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