Somewhere in the 80s, I was out with three friends of mine, all Asian. I can't remember exactly how or why, but the discussion turned to Charlie Chan. "Oh, I loved Charlie Chan," I said, sincerely and innocently. "Those were my favorite old movies!" And they were. My husband and I used to watch them religiously back in Buffalo in the 70s, where one of the local stations would broadcast one every week at around 11 o'clock. It was my first experience with appointment television since counting the minutes until five o'clock waiting for the Mickey Mouse Club twenty years earlier.
"Ugh. You can't be serious," was the collective reply of my friends. "He is one of the worst stereotypes for Asians."
I felt like someone hit me in the chest. First, to think that I would willingly subscribe to that kind of thinking about people was an embarrassment. But, more important, I did not even see the reason for their disgust with the character (and hopefully, not me). My husband and I loved him and loved son number one (played by Warner Oland and Keye Luke respectively). In my mind, Charllie made everyone else around him look positively stupid, goofy, awkward, and incapable of seeing the details. He, on the other hand, was brilliant, had a fantastic gift for dry humor, and was all-knowing and all-seeing without being obnoxious. What's not to love? What better kind of stereotype can one ask for?
Reading the August 9th edition of the New Yorker yesterday I came upon a wonderful review by Jill Lepore of a brand new book by Yunte Huang: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History. Ms. Lepore offers some enjoyable information about Earl Derr Biggers, the author who first brought to character of Chan to book form and the movies themselves. But, even better, is reading about Huang's book which reveals that Charlie Chan was based on an actual Chinese detective with the Honolulu police force, by the name of Chang Apana, who was a legend in his own time for solving crimes. There are more wonderful facts to glean from the book, so get a hold of it and dig in. It is available now for pre-order (I made sure to order mine, you betcha).
Just as intriguing to me, is the story about the author, Yunte Huang. Mr. Huang was born and brought up in China, and may well have not been around to write this book had his parents not sent him a deceptive telegram some years earlier saying that his mother was gravely ill and that he needed to return home immediately. He came home and she was actually fine. But the place we was lured from was Tiananmen Square, where he would have been the next day when the massacre took place. Ultimately, Huang ends up in the US to study, needing to leave China,a country that is no longer a place he wants to be. At some point he ends up in, of all places, Buffalo, getting a P.H.D. in English ("going through the alphabet" as he puts it in his interview with Charles McGrath for the New York Times). Up in Buffalo, he happens upon a garage sale where he buys a couple of Biggers novels and becomes hooked on the character of Charlie Chan, especially after renting some videos. The rest is history.
So what it is about Buffalo that people who live there end up discovering their passions? I have to say that I love the fact that Buffalo is some sort of epicenter for Charlie Chan appreciation. Maybe there is something in the Lake Erie air. For me, I not only fell in love with Charlie Chan in Buffalo, but that is the place I discovered my true life's direction in art. Another story altogether....
In the meantime, take a moment and read both Jill Lepore's piece in the New Yorker as well as Charles McGarth's piece in today's Times. And then REALLY do yourself a favor and buy the book and rent or buy every Chan movie you can get your hands on. The films are great. Even though I think Warner Oland was the best Chan, I did come to eventually appreciate Sidney Toler, as well, and son number two, played by Victor Sen Yung, who was as charming as Keye Luke.
Incidentally, Warner Oland was a half-Russian Swede who actually did have Slavic/Asian features. He also played a Jewish character in The Jazz Singer. And, for the record, the Chan movies were very popular in China as well as with Chang Apana, who was, after all, the inspiration for the famous detective character. Keye Luke, who passed away in 1991, loved them. When told how politically incorrect they had become he responded, "We were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood." Nuff said.
The one thing we can count on in this world is that attitudes change when it comes to popular culture and what is politically correct or not. It's a good thing. And the honorable detective would be very pleased, I am sure.