Yunte Huang arrived in America in 1991, leaving post-Tiananmen Square China to reinvent himself as an academic and poet. His background makes him a seemingly ideal candidate to consider the history, iconography, and nuances of the now-infamous Charlie Chan. Huang unpacks the contradictions of a seemingly simple stereotype; he aims to “return and explore further the legend of Charlie Chan.” From original detective Chang Apana down through the books, movies, and gradual vilification of the character, Huang digs up a lot of fascinating cultural context.
The problem is sorting through all that information: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story Of The Honorable Detective And His Rendezvous With American History is the kind of popular history that has to stop and backtrack every time new people show up, running through their entire family histories and their cities’ backstories where a few sentences would suffice. It’s hard to build up any kind of momentum when so much chronological back-and-forth is going on, and Huang further confuses the issue by inserting his personal history, or attempts at lyrical writing (“the sun hung like a Chinese lantern, about to be extinguished”), whenever he feels like it. The book is already a slog: inessentials swamp the point.
Still, a lot of Charlie Chan is essential. After doing the spade-work to trace out Hawaii’s history, Huang more or less gets down to business in telling Apana’s story before getting to Earl Derr Biggers’ creation. Huang argues in part that Chan isn’t a simple manifestation of racist “yellowface” caricature (like the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu), but a more ambivalent response to his climate. 1924 saw the serialized publication of the first Chan novel against the background of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which effectively barred all “Asiatic” immigrants. Chan arrived at a moment of especially pitched anti-Chinese hostility, and the character won over American readers en masse; Biggers didn’t live to enjoy his wealth long, but the character became a staple of film and TV well into the ’70s.
Huang’s argument is sound: Chan speaks in a stereotypically “Chinese” tongue, but his famous Chan-isms (e.g. “Even bagpipe will not speak when stomach is empty”) are designed to obfuscate his meaning as much as to be cutely clever stand-alone gems. By staying seemingly obsequious, Chan perseveres and thrives, making a place for himself in an overwhelmingly hostile society. Back in China, readers were appalled by sinister Asiatic caricatures like Fu Manchu, but loved the clever, triumphant Chan, even producing their own rip-off films. Huang teases out such complexities admirably; it’s too bad they’re jumbled at random with context that really doesn’t matter.