Friday, September 24, 2010


There's an amazing amount of information jammed into this 350-page history of Earl Derr Biggers' Honolulu-based Chinese detective. Heck, we don't even get to talking about Charlie Chan per se until Huang, a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, has doled out potted histories of Hawaii, Chinese immigration to the U.S., and early stereotypes of the Chinese in American culture (e.g. Bret Harte's once-famous poem, "The Ballad of the Heathen Chinee"). In tracing the links between the whip-cracking, incorruptible Honolulu police detective Chang Apana and the sleepy-eyed sleuth made famous by half a dozen Biggers novels and over 40 Hollywood movies, Huang lets the air out of some of the more fanciful claims about Chan, such as Biggers' declaration that he got the idea for the character by reading about Apana in a Hawaiian newspaper at the New York Public Library. (In fact, the NYPL didn't subscribe to any Hawaiian papers until after Chan had made his first appearance in the 1925 novel THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY.) Huang's goal is somewhat broader than a mere blow-by-blow description of how Chan came to be, though. As a post-Tiananmen Square immigrant to America, Huang has the considerable luxury of being able to write seriously about Chan and his appeal without being dismissed out of hand as a stereotype-mongering apologist for "Orientalism." He seems able to appreciate many of the sources of modern-day antipathy towards Chan (which led to the cancellation of a "Charlie Chan Film Festival" on Fox Movie Channel a few years ago, among other things) without being ideologically fettered to any sort of "politically correct" response to a character who, for all his aphorism-spouting and supposed "model-minority subservience," was almost certainly the single most proactively positive portrayal of a Chinese-American seen in American culture up to that time -- the good "yin," if you will, to the evil Dr. Fu Manchu's "yang."

How thorough is Huang's discussion of Chan's role in popular culture -- not to mention his love for the character? He describes the long-forgotten early-70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan as a "phenomenal success."  Given that Clan lasted only 16 episodes, you might as well also term the show's exact contemporary The Roman Holidays a "phenomenal success." One interesting feature of Clan was the presence of Robert Ito (then "Bob") in the voice cast as one of Chan's ten kids. After his live-action stint on Quincy, Ito would become animation voice-acting's main "go-to" guy for "Oriental" characters for a number of years. (Keye Luke, who played Chan's #1 son in many of the movies and voiced Chan on Chan Clan, was outspoken in his admiration for Chan as a role model, as Huang notes.)

While he does mention the Alfred Andriola-drawn CHARLIE CHAN newspaper strip, Huang's discussion of print-based Chinese pop-culture figures akin to Chan is lacking in some ways. He really ought to have mentioned Ching Chow, a spin-off character from THE GUMPS who dispensed philosophical one-liners in a panel that ran for many years (it was in the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS at least until the early 1990s). When it came to images of the Chinese, Ching Chow was neither fish nor fowl (General Tso's chicken?) in that he was dressed like and looked like a stereotypical "Manchu Dynasty Chinaman" throughout much of his career, yet steered "velly" clear of the pidgin English that numerous other Chinese comics characters of the day employed (and which, strangely, Huang claims Chan himself used, though he clearly did not). Chow certainly didn't contribute as much to a more positive image of Chinese people as Chan did, but he must have contributed something. It's too bad Huang didn't discuss him.

Fans of pop culture will enjoy this book, which really does have something for everyone -- even if Huang's narrative sometimes becomes fractured as a result of his multiple (and admittedly entertaining!) digressions.

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