Charlie Chan

I am reading a new book written by a Chinese Professor of English at Berkley. Yunte Haung first lived in Tuscaloosa after “escaping” from  Tianamen Square and immigrating to the US. Hard to imagine the cultural shock that must have been. He has written very penetrating and surprising history of one of the great movie Icons of the 20’s 30’s and 40’s. Majoring in American Studies this kind of “cultural history” is right in the middle of my sweet spot. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas to come since ordering the book (not on the stands yet) when it came yesterday I opened it just like a present and I haven’t been able to put it down. I don’t want to finish it but I still can’t put it down.

While growing up in the Florida  panhandle in the 50’s was great fun, there was a limit to cultural entertainment. In fact there really was none except what came from the library, movies, radio and TV. So I read and watched a lot of movies, both at the air conditioned theater and on TV. One of my favorite genres was mystery . I inhaled The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Pirot, Dr. FuManchu and Charlie Chan. I loved all their eccentricities. Living around an ethnically diverse Air Force Base was kinda interesting for me. I just naturally embraced people of different cultures cause they were much more interesting to talk to than the red necks that would have comprised the entire population if not for the Base. So I just never “got” prejudice and bigotry until later when MLK and the Civil rights workers were slain.

Anyway I loved Charlie Chan for the entertainment and it never occurred to me that he was a stereotype and that people really disliked Asian folks long before Pearl Harbor. Turns out that Charlie was based on a real life detective on the Honolulu PD, Chang Apana, whose real life history is just as interesting as Charlie’s character. Haung divides the book into 5 sections: The Real Charlie Chan (Apana), Charlies Pop (author Earl Biggers ) Charlie Chan, The Chinaman, Charlie Chan At The Movies, Charlie Chan Carries On. The book covers 70 years and moves smoothly around the world for cultural and factual background, spending just enough time to tell one the time without building a clock.


Haung includes a list of “Chanisms” in the Appendix’s and I select one to conclude.

“Front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of house, always look in back yard.”

He really looked in America’s back yard.


6 Responses

  1. That actually sounds like a very interesting book, even though I never liked the Charlie Chan movies. Probably the same reason I didn’t like the Three Stooges, too buffoonish. Plus the Stooges did all that slapping around. As a preteen I was into horror–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, etc. (I always cried when they killed Lon Chaney.) I didn’t like the Hardy Boys, because they were, well, boys. But I read every Nancy Drew book there was, along with Sue Barton, Student Nurse.

  2. And books about animals. Call of the Wild and White Fang, of course (speaking of crying) and my all-time favorite, Misty of Chincoteague.

  3. Well I wouldn’t concede CC and 3 Stooges were in the same church much less the same pew. I loved the exotic locations CC frequented and his self deprecating charm appealed. It’s amazing to discover the impact his character made on an American public that was incredibly xenophobic at the time. It is also interesting to discover how extraordinary the evolution of film was from dingy nickelodeons to opulent theaters in just a few dozen years, emerging coincidentally to the birth of CC i.e.

    ” Outside on the sidewalk stood a doorman, attired in frock coat with white gloves, waiting to open your car door and direct you to the ticket booth. If it was raining, he held an umbrella over your head; if snowing, an usher from the lobby rushed forward to brush off your coat. You passed from usher to usher as you moved through ornate lobby corridors, hushed by the atmosphere of an Egyptian temple or a baroque palace that had provided the inspiration for imitation……….it was during that time that Skylar calls ‘the radiant dawn of popular mass culture’ that Charlie Chan appeared as an icon in the American imagination.”

    He was first played by a Japanese (only in Hollywood) then by a Swede, Werner Oland then by a Missourian, Sidney Toler.

    As for monster movies I was a purist, I loved the first round, Frankenstein, Wolfman, Mummy and painstakingly assembled painted the Aurora models for my dresser top. I thought the Japanese monsters Rodan and Godzilla were just awful shit and wouldn’t watch them.

    Loved Jack London.

  4. Clue #1….Chan speak like no China man I know.

  5. “Hasty deduction like ancient egg, look good from outside”

  6. I like it! I’ll remember that to use in a work related situation….

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