He was calm, rational, and insightful. We can hardly applaud the practice of yellowface1 with which the character has become associated, but we can at least separate him from the grotesque Asian villains generated by the Yellow Peril. He was a pop-culture hero to North American audiences in an era when the western mass media vilified people of Asian descent and the laws excluded them from public life. And, despite his broken English and love of fortune cookie aphorisms, the character did not speak pidgin, as has often been stated by those critiquing the character.
He is Charlie Chan, and he has been celebrated and reviled since 1925.
A Caucasian author created Chan: Earl Derr Biggers, born in Warren, Ohio, 1884. He graduated from Harvard in 1907; he often recounted that he was kidded by friends and professors alike about his preference for popular writers over classic literature. After graduation he found work with the Boston Traveler writing theatrical reviews and a humour column. He married and moved to New York City shortly before the publication of his first major play, If You're Only Human (1912) and his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913). He found success as a playwright, known for crowd-pleasing comedies and mysteries. In 1919 while vacationing in Hawaii, he read of real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana, and used him as the inspiration for a fictional character, a Hawaiian-based variation on Sherlock Holmes.2
The Charlie Chan of the novels was born in Canton province, China in the 1880s and moved to Hawaii sometime in his early teens. He joined the Honolulu police and eventually became a detective. He married and had fourteen children. The children rarely play any major part in the original novels; Chan instead employs a Japanese assistant named Kashimo. The early novels often allowed significant plot development before the detective became involved. Indeed, in the first novel, he appears as a secondary character. Chan's popularity meant he played a more prominent role in the second and third books and the central role in the films. The final Biggers novels follow Hollywood's lead in many ways.
The novels were first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and then published as books. They include:
The House Without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1926)
Behind that Curtain (1928)
The Black Camel (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
The Keeper of the Keys (1932)
Biggers also published several short stories, finally collected in The Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan in 1985. The author died of a heart attack in 1933. Charlie Chan by then was a phenomenon.
Film adaptations began immediately, with the first three novels appearing on the silver screen:
House Without a Key (1926) (with George Kuwa as Charlie Chan)
The Chinese Parrot (1927) (Kamiyama Sojin took the role)
Behind that Curtain (1929) introduced two elements that would characterize the future films: sound, and a Caucasian actor in "yellowface" as Charlie Chan-- in this case, one E.L. Park. Twentieth-Century Fox would spin Chan into a highly successful series.
Warner Oland established the movie Chan. Although Swedish, he looked vaguely Asiatic (at least, white Hollywood directors of the period thought so, and had previously cast him as an Asian), and he did not apply the exaggerated eye make-up typical of yellowface performances. His work as Chan includes:
Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) (this film also received a Spanish-language co-production, Eran Trece, starring Manuel Arbo).
The Black Camel (1931)
Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932)
Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933)
Charlie Chan’s Courage (1934)
Charlie Chan in London(1934)
Charlie Chan in Paris(1935) (this film introduces Keye Luke as Lee Chan, "No. 1 Son" and sidekick).
Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)
Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)
Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) (this film would be the one I recommend if you wish to get a sense of these movies).
Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) (Lee is a gold medalist on the American Swim team at the Berlin Games)
Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)
Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938)
Oland began Charlie Chan at Ringside in 1938, but became ill. He would die later that year. The film was completed as Mr. Moto's Gamble, featuring the short-lived imitation Chan played by Peter Lorre. Moto had first appeared in 1937; his series could not survive Pearl Harbor.
Sydney Toler took over the role. Victor Sen Yung played #2 son Jimmy Chan in the early Toler films. The elder boy was now married and could no longer fulfill his sidekick obligations.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)
Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)
Charlie Chan in the City of Darkness (1939)
Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)
Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)
Murder Over New York (1940)
Dead Men Tell (1941)
Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)
Castle in the Desert (1942)
(At this point #3 son Tommy Chan, played by Benson Fong, picked up the sidekick position).
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)
The Chinese Cat (1944)
Meeting at Midnight aka Black Magic (1944)
(this film features a Chan daughter, Frances, played by, appropriately, Frances Chan).
The Jade Mask (1945) (Eddie Chan, played by Edwin Luke, accompanies his pop).
The Scarlet Clue (1945) (Benson Fong returns in this film).
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
The Red Dragon (1945)
Dark Alibi (1946)
Shadows Over Chinatown (1946)
(Victor Sen Yung returns)
Dangerous Money (1946)
The Trap (1947)
Celebrated low-budget studio Monogram took over the series when it was abandoned by Fox. Roland Winters played Charlie. Victor Sen Yung appeared as Tommy Chan in the first five of these:
The Chinese Ring (1947)
The Docks of New Orleans (1947)
Shanghai Chest (1948)
The Golden Eye (1948)
The Feathered Serpent (1948)
The Sky Dragon (1949) (Keye Luke returns as Lee Chan for this last film).
Charlie Chan spread to other media as well. The 1930s saw both a board game and a card game based on his adventures; the Great Charlie Chan Detective Mystery Game resembles more than a little the later Clue. The sleuth appeared weekly on radio from 1932 to 1948. J. Carroll Nash and James Hong appeared as Charlie and No. 1 son Barry Chan in a 1957 tv series, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. More than twenty years later Martin Ross played the detective in 1979's The Return of Charlie Chan, a wildly unsuccessful tv pilot. Even at this late date, yellowface remained acceptable to some producers.
In 1971, Hanna-Barbara Scooby-Dooized Charlie Chan, giving him a Saturday morning cartoon, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, in which he solved spooky mysteries, aided by his 10 offspring and a shape-shifting "Chan Van." The movies' No. 1 Son Keye Luke gave Charlie his voice; Jodie Foster also worked on this cartoon. The names of the children do not entirely jibe with the novels and movies: Numbers 1 and 2 sons, for example, are called Henry and Stanley. In addition to their groovy 70s van, the Chan brood play in a rock band, as did other toon teens of the era. One of their onscreen hits was "Number One Son." Predictably, Gold Key made a comic book from the show-- but they were neither the only nor the first company to see Chan's graphic potential.
From 1938 to 1942, a Charlie Chan strip ran in many North American newspapers. Oriental villains were commonplace in the era's comics. Chan ranked among the only heroic Asians in the funnies; the other was Chop-Chop, the idiotic caricature from Blackhawks. DC Comics produced a Charlie Chan comic, inspired by the TV series, in 1958; it lasted only six issues. Despite his portliness, the comic-book Chan was a master of judo, which permitted action sequences. The DC Universe has also been home to a Charlie Chan knock-off, Harry Wan, who first appeared in All Star Comics #57 in 1951.
Spoofs of the iconic character have appeared many times: "Charlie Clam" was a player piece in the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock board game. Get Smart's Maxwell Smart worked alongside Chan parody Harry Hoo on a couple of occasions.3 In 1976, Peter Sellers sent up the character and the yellowface tradition as "Sidney Wang" in Murder by Death. Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981) featured Peter Ustinov as the man himself, played for laughs; it failed to generated many. The film bombed, and ignited the debate over the portrayal of Asians in American cinema.
That debate continues to this day, and it necessarily must examine the problematic example of Charlie Chan. Roger Fan, an actor, appeared on a Fox Movie Channel panel that accompanied a 2003 showing of some Chan movies. Despite criticism of Golden Age Hollywood's racism, Fan later noted that "currently on national network tv today-- and cable-- we do not have roles as big or as three-dimensional or as good" as those found in the better Chan movies(Hanke 76). While arguably true, this seems less an endorsement of the Charlie Chan series than a criticism of contemporary pop culture. Yunte Huang in his 2010 book on Chan displays affection for the character, noting "it is certainly true that there are stereotypical aspects of Charlie Chan that smack of racial parody and mockery. After all, he is a product of his time... But if every time we smelled the odor of racism in arts and literature we went out and rallied in the street, then we would probably have killed off everything from jazz to hip hop, from George Carlin to Jerry Seinfeld" (283).
Charlie Chan is a caricature, but he is also noble, intelligent, determined, and heroic. His reputation suffers more than it should, perhaps, because of his association with the racist tradition of yellowface. Still, most iconic pop-culture characters are caricatures to some degree. Possibly, the culture may retain a place for Charlie Chan, even after all objections have been noted. In the 21st century, two different writers using the name "Robert Hart Davis" have published licensed Chan novels, The Pawns of Death (2002) and the Temple of the Golden Horde (2003). A film originally slated for release in 20094 and starring Lucy Liu as Chan's crime-solving granddaughter never made it out of preproduction. Nevertheless, the prospect of new books and films could mean a reappraisal of this influential though controversial figure.
1.Yellowface refers to the practice of using non-Asian actors in Asian roles, often applying grotesque make-up that creates racial caricatures. Yellowface films, predictably, often trade on exoticism and racist stereotypes, and the Chan films are not free of these elements.
2. Biggers claimed he first read about the Chinese-born detective sometime after his Hawaiian vacation, but Yunte Huang in Charlie Chan: The Untold Story Of The Honorable Detective And His Rendezvous With American History notes that the article he references does not seem to exist, and it is likely he heard about Apana while in Hawaii. The real-life detective apparently enjoyed his connection to the famous fictional one. He happily autographed Chan novels, accepted the "Charlie Chan" nickname, and eventually met with the author.
"Chang Apana" is a Hawaiianized name; he was born "Chang Pung."
3.Thanks to JudyT for reminding me of the Get Smart character.
Bill Asakawa and Leland Rucker. The Toy Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
The Charlie Chan Family Home. http://charliechanfamily.tripod.com/thecharliechanfamilyhome/index.html
The Charlie Chan Fan Page. http://members.aol.com/meow103476/charliechan.html
Earl Derr Biggers. Fantastic Fiction. http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/authors/Earl_Derr_Biggers.htm
Earl Derr Biggers. “Selected Bibliography.” Ohio Reading Road Trip. http://www.ohioreadingroadtrip.org/biggers/bibliography.html
Ken Hanke. "The Great Chan Ban." Scarlet Street #50, 2004: 26-7.70-1, 76.
Yunte Huang. Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History. New York: Norton, 2010.
The Internet Movie Database. www.imdb.com
Robert Ito. "A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface." Bright Lights Film Journal. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/18/18_yellow.html