Watching the Detective

Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan study is a Chinese look at how America has looked at China

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EVERETT COLLECTION

On closer inspection Swedish actor Warner Oland poses as Charlie Chan in 1937

Chang Apana walked the mean streets of Honolulu dressed in a Panama hat and brandishing a 5-ft. (1.5 m) bullwhip he'd designed himself. Though barely 5 ft. tall, the former cowboy patrolled such Chinatown areas as Blood Town and Hell's Half Acre for years, even as he was slashed at by fugitive lepers and thrown out of windows by drug fiends. In one celebrated case, he arrested 44 gamblers single-handedly, without firing a shot.

It has long been assumed that Earl D. Biggers had heard of the real-life Chang when he dreamed up a fictional Chinese detective in Honolulu called Charlie Chan; yet it is the achievement of Yunte Huang, in his irrepressibly spirited and entertaining Charlie Chan, to suggest that life imitated art as much as the other way around. The star of six books, 47 movies, comic strips, a board game and a 1970s animation series, Chan is, for Huang, "as American as Jack Kerouac" precisely because of his theatrical implausibility and his mixed-up origins.

A virtuoso of curiosity, Huang shows how life is more complex and interesting than racial stereotyping or academic theory would suggest. Hollywood's most famous Chinese gentleman was, after all, played by two Japanese actors and a Korean actor before Warner Oland, a Swede, took over the part. Yet far from resenting this, audiences in China, as Huang points out, were grateful to have a likable hero in Hollywood — Chan was the counter – Fu Manchu — and studios in Shanghai and Hong Kong soon began cranking out their own Chan films. When Oland went to Shanghai in 1936, answering media questions in mock-Chan pidgin, he was greeted as a hero.

While outlining this history, Huang digs up fascinating research on everything from the demographics of capital punishment in Honolulu to the origins of The Manchurian Candidate. And who knew that the first recorded American use of Chinaman, according to the OED, came from Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1854? Or that Thomas Edison made two short films in the 1890s called Chinese Laundry Scene and Dancing Chinamen-Marionettes?

Even tastier are the glimpses Huang offers of his own story. After taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations as a Peking University student, he left for America where he ended up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., working as a dishwasher, delivery boy, waiter and co-owner of a fast-food restaurant. Somehow the immigrant who had learned English at 11 by listening to a radio in his village became a teacher at Harvard and Santa Barbara (where he is a professor of English today).

Huang's style is as eccentric as his subject. A writer facing a deadline becomes "as desperate as an ant in a hot wok." Chinese men grin "like josses [gods] in a temple." Yet the very pulpiness of the prose is, of course, part of Huang's point in showing how China can still remake America as much as the other way round. And when you read of the Harvard-educated Biggers writing books "with moonlight streaming in through the casement ... and a bag of peanut brittle at his elbow," you realize that Charlie Chan is that rarest of treats: a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance.

This article originally appeared in the August 23, 2010 issue of Time Asia magazine.