'Charlie Chan': An New Take on the Honorable Detective

Honolulu detective Chang Apan (L) with actor Warner Oland (circa 1917)

Wily trickster or Chinese Uncle Tom? Chinese-American scholar Yunte Huang offers his interpretation on the legacy of Charlie Chan.

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

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Length: 354 pages
Author: Yunte Huang
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-08

The main thing you need to understand about Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History is that the Charlie Chan books and movies are not the main subject of this book. Instead, the fictional Chan character serves as a jumping-off point for Huang, a Chinese émigré who currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, for a series of interlocking explorations about, among other things, the sandalwood and sugar trades in Hawaii, the Fortescue-Massie case and the history of lynching in the US, the life of Earl Derr Biggers, the reception of the Charlie Chan films in China, ethnic stereotypes in American popular culture, and Huang’s personal history as a Chinese-born, American-educated scholar.

Charlie Chan is written as a series of interlocking digressions so those hoping for a straightforward history may find it maddening and self-indulgent. To give you an idea, the subjects covered in the opening chapter of 15 pages run something like this: birth of Ah Pung (Chang Apana, the real-life model for Biggers’ Charlie Chan character)→ Hawaii/US relations since the 18th century→ the sandalwood and sugar trades→ the history of the Chinese in Hawaii→ Hawaii as a supplier of food for the 1848 Gold Rush→ Mark Twain and Hawaii→ importation of Chinese laborers (“coolies”) to Hawaii.

The secret to enjoying Charlie Chan is to just go with the flow and let Huang take you on a journey through hundreds of years and thousands of miles. He’s an engaging writer, so the trip is never dull, and along the way you’ll encounter a wealth of information which Huang always manages to connect to his larger purpose of using the character of Charlie Chan to understand what it means to be a Chinese person in the United States.

As much as there is a central focus in Charlie Chan it is on Chang Apana, a Chinese immigrant whose story provides a window into life in pre-statehood and early 20th century Hawaii. Born Ah Pun in a small village near Honolulu around 1871, the second son of a Chinese coolie father and a Hawaiian-born Chinese mother, Apana became an accomplished horseman and was hired by the wealthy Wilder family (Samuel Garner Wilder was a shipping magnate who also built the Hawaiian Railroad) to take care of their stable. Prevention of animal cruelty was a cause supported by Helen Wilder and she hired Apana as the first humane officer in Honolulu.

Apana proved so successful in this role that when Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898 he was invited to join the Honolulu Police Department. Apana was noted for carrying a bullwhip, a reminder of his days as a paniolo, rather than a gun, and was reputed to be able to leap from rooftop to rooftop like a human fly. Despite his small stature (a slender 5’) and the fact that he never having learned to read or write in any language Apana proved to be an outstanding detective who solved many a gambling and opium case through cleverness (he was a master of disguise, often passing himself off as a poor merchant) and intelligence rather than force.

Biggers acknowledged that Apana was his model for Charlie Chan and Apana delighted in the role, signing copies of Biggers’ novels and making regular visits to the set of The Black Camel, the only Chan movie filmed in Honolulu. So although later generations including notable authors such as Gish Jen and Elaine Kim have found the Chan character to be an embarrassment (particularly the films in which Chan was most often played by a Caucasian) the source of the character seems to have had no problems with his fictional counterpart. The American-made Charlie Chan films were popular in China as well and imitation Chan movies were produced in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

While acknowledging that his status as an immigrant Chinese might give him a different point of view than Chinese-Americans who grew up in this country Huang spends some time considering the arguments for and against the Charlie Chan character. His conclusion is that Chan should be celebrated as a sort of trickster character who used his outsider status to succeed in an American society which sought to exclude him.

While most of Charlie Chan is written in a straightforward prose style Huang occasionally chooses to imitate the style of a potboiler. It’s most obvious in his prologue which is replete with sentences like “Telling them the jig was up, the Chinaman, known to the locals as ‘Kuna Pung,’ lined up the gamblers, 40 in all, and marched them out of the room and down to the police station on Bethel Street” but recurs throughout the book. Since Huang is clearly not aiming for consistency of style I have no problem just going with whatever authorial voice he chooses to use at any moment, but it may grate on the nerves of readers who like their authors to pick a genre and stick with it.


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