Book aims to redefine Charlie Chan for Asian-Americans

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Yunte Huang has a secret.

He loves Charlie Chan, the pudgy Chinese detective from 1920s Hollywood films who solved inscrutable crimes and has long been reviled by many Asian-American scholars as a negative stereotype best left to the dusty shelves of history books.

Huang’s “Charlie Chan,” which hit bookstores this week, looks at the real-life roof-jumping, opium den-busting cop upon whom the book and movie character was based, and it explores how the fictional character was loved by Americans at the same time many fierce, anti-foreigner laws were being passed.

“To many Caucasians, Chan is an hysterical Chinaman with funny grammar who dishes out fortune cookie aphorisms,” Huang told Reuters. “On the other hand, he feeds into all these negative stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans; that they can’t speak English well, they are overly polite and subservient to their boss.

“What I wanted to do was try to reconcile these two sides of him.”

Huang grew up in China and discovered Chan after stumbling on some books by Earl Derr Biggers at an estate sale in New York. That led him to the original detective on whom the character is based, Chang Apana, who was born in Hawaii, raised in China and returned to the island to become a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy.

Eventually Apana, who was illiterate, joined the Honolulu Police Department, where he became one of the most respected detectives on the squad. He died in 1933.

“Charlie Chan” uses old newspaper clippings, anecdotes and interviews to tell about Apana, and it uses his life and career as a sort of mirror to reflect the experiences of many Asian Americans.

The book reads like an Asian version of a slice of American history, telling of the Chinese laborers who arrived to work on Hawaiian sugarcane plantations as well as the broad impact of the Chan character on U.S. culture.


Huang searches for Chan’s legacy in old Hollywood movies, recounting Tinseltown’s reluctance in the 1930s to cast Asian actors in films.

The author details the practice known as yellowface, in which white actors were cast as Asian characters and given “Asiatic” makeup, which often made them look sinister. Chan, for example, was popularized by Swedish actor Warner Oland and later by Sidney Toler, an American.

Huang further looks at why American movie audiences fell in love with the detective, who wore a suit and a dapper hat to crime scenes and used lines like “Caution, very good life insurance” and “Murder, like potato chip, cannot stop at just one.” Yet at the same time, Americans embarked on a dark era in U.S. history as Asians went from being viewed as exotic to foreigners believed to carry disease and steal jobs.

In 1924, the U.S. Immigration Act barred new Chinese immigrants and prevented those already in the United States from applying for citizenship. Chinese immigrants were also not allowed to own land or marry Caucasians.

In reviewing “Charlie Chan,” New Yorker magazine writes that “the trick of Huang’s book, which he doesn’t quite pull off, is to explain why so many Americans became so enamored of Charlie Chan.

“Huang’s history is bracing and expansive, moving from (Apana’s) exploits to chronicle the squalor of Honolulu’s Chinatown and the miseries endured by each wave of immigrant a world of brutal and unbending racial hierarchy.”

Huang told Reuters his goal was simply to shine a spotlight on Apana, the longest serving officer on the Honolulu Police Department, and encourage Asian-Americans to embrace a hated cultural reference whose real-life counterpart had an impact that -- like other immigrants -- deserves to be celebrated.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte