So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang

Yunte Huang was born in China, came to the US in 1991, and is now an English professor at UC Santa Barbara. Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese police detective created by the White American author Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote six popular Charlie Chan mystery novels. Biggers based Charlie Chan on a real Honolulu Chinese detective named Chang Apana who was a respected member of the department. Hollywood made 47 Charlie Chan movies with White actors in "yellowface" makeup playing the Chinese detective. Many Chinese find these movies to be racist and offensive.

In this book the author looks at Chang Apana, and the literary and film versions of Charlie Chan, and puts them into the context of very negative American attitudes and perceptions of the Chinese over the past 150 years. This survey of America's troubled relationship with its Chinese population is what gives this book its broad value. It also sets into context the stereotyped Chan and the use of "yellowface" actors to portray him in the film industry. When seen against the much more negative images and attitudes that also existed at the time, the author makes Charlie Chan seem like a positive portrayal of the Chinese in American popular media.

This book leaves unasked an interesting question. Are the original Charlie Chan novels fatally flawed because they were written by a White American author? The White American author James Patterson writes novels about a Black Washington DC detective Alex Cross. His books have been made into movies with Morgan Freeman playing the lead. Could a Chinese actor play Charlie Chan in a way that would reflect the racial tensions of the 1920s?


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