Giving 'Charlie Chan' A Second Chance
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang
Hardcover, 354 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $26.95
In the spring of 2002, I was scheduled to give a talk on my new book, Transpacific Displacement, followed by that rite of passage most authors come both to anticipate and to dread, the book signing. Without my knowledge, an amiable secretary in the English Department at Harvard, where I was then teaching, made a flyer for the event at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Her concoction was -- how shall we say it -- an intriguing collage. My name and the book title were highlighted in bold, with a map of the Pacific Rim fading out in the background. A silhouette of the Swedish actor Warner Oland, playing Charlie Chan, stood atop the sprawling, vast Asian continent and peered menacingly in the direction of North America. The secretary told me that she, a Caucasian woman in her late fifties, had grown up watching Charlie Chan movies. My inveterate -wisecracking -- which I was not shy to dispense around the -department -- had reminded her of her favorite, aphorism-spouting Chinese detective. Given my affection for her and my own sense of civility, I did not dare question her creative enterprise, informing her that this image of a bellicose Chan would be offensive to most Asian Americans. I did not initiate that conversation because I knew it would take a book's worth of pages to explain the tortured legacy of Charlie Chan in America, even to myself. Instead, I thanked her in my polite Chinese manner for her sprightly design. And now I have written this book about Charlie Chan, in part to carry on my imaginary dialogue with this well-meaning lady.
So, who is Charlie Chan?
To most Caucasian Americans, he is a funny, beloved, albeit somewhat inscrutable -- that last adjective already a bit loaded -- character who talks wisely and acts even more wisely. But to many Asian Americans, he remains a pernicious example of a racist stereotype, a Yellow Uncle Tom, if you will; the type of Chinaman, passive and unsavory, who conveys himself in broken English. In this book, however, I would like to propose a more complicated view. As a ubiquitous cultural icon, whose influence on the twentieth century remains virtually unexamined, Charlie Chan does not yield easily to ideological reduction. "Truth," to quote our honorable detective, "like football -- receive many kicks before reaching goal."
To write about Charlie Chan is to write about the undulations of the American cultural experience. Like a blackface minstrel, Charlie Chan carries both the stigma of racial parody and the stimulus of creative imitation. It is no coincidence that Stepin Fetchit, the most celebrated black comic actor in the 1930s, and one of the most reviled since the civil rights movement, had also starred in Charlie Chan movies. Fetchit played a lazy, inarticulate, and easily frightened Negro. And so did Mantan Moreland, another popular black comedian, who brought to the Chan movies his extraordinary vaudeville talent. Charlie Chan's racial ventriloquism in the hands of such white actors as Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters finds strong historical parallels with Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Nigger Jim. Before jumping to any ideologically reductive conclusion, we should pause and think: What would American culture be without minstrelsy, jazz, haiku, Zen, karate, the blues, or anime -- without, in other words, the incessant transfusion (and co-opting) of diverse cultural traditions and creative energies?
A glance at Charlie Chan's fictional biography reveals just how far his nimble steps have taken him into the American psyche. Most Americans don't realize that he is based on a real person: Chang Apana, a legendary Honolulu police officer, whose biography will make up a large part of this book. Like Apana, Charlie Chan came of age in colonial Hawaii, riven by endemic racial tension. As a young man, he worked as a houseboy for a rich white family in Honolulu. As a detective, he traveled extensively in the islands, the American West, Asia, and Europe. He stood witness to the plights and sufferings of his fellow Chinese as indentured laborers on sugarcane plantations, as gold miners bullied by their white competitors, as railroad builders taking on the most dangerous jobs, and as laundrymen toiling away with steam and starch, supposedly muttering, "No tickee, no washee." Some of these ethnic experiences and stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in American culture that even as late as the 1990s, a Republican senator would use the infamous phrase, "Not a Chinaman's chance," when addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs to China at a congressional hearing. Abercrombie & Fitch would sell T-shirts that read, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service. Two Wongs Can Make It White." In many ways, Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America.
Although Charlie Chan embodies some stereotypical traits, his fictional creator, the early twentieth-century novelist Earl Derr Biggers, succeeded in minting a unique and appealing image. As a Chinaman, Charlie Chan is like a multilayered Chinese box or a Russian doll. He may have slanted eyes, a chubby and inscrutable face, and a dark goatee, but he prefers Western suits to his native garments and wears a Panama hat in the tropical sun. He is no fan of tea; he prefers to drink sarsaparilla. Moreover, unlike a timid, inarticulate Chinaman, Chan is voluble and enjoys spouting fortune-cookie witticisms that are alternately befuddling and enlightening. This is the strength of his character: his beguiling Oriental charm, his Confucian analects turned into singsong Chinatown blues.
When Chan debuted on the silver screen in 1926, anti-Chinese hysteria had already quieted down on the West Coast and in Hawaii. A series of anti-Chinese laws in place since 1882 had effectively limited immigration from China. America was ready for an image of a Chinaman more benign than the chimera of a decade earlier, Dr. Fu Manchu, a Mongol Satan who plotted to take over the West. Chan's Hollywood career took off. The film series had a grand run of more than two decades, and Chan became one of America's most beloved movie characters.
Being the country's first beloved Chinaman is not, however, the only legacy of Charlie Chan. In the decades after World War II, his influence reached into the hard-boiled world of film noir, where characters with Chinese names and Charlie Chan mustaches loom ominously in the dark background. Terms such as Shanghai, Manchurian, and opium den ricochet around like eerie echoes from a stylized underworld. Chinatown becomes synonymous with all that is rotten in the sordid urban space of midcentury America, standing in abject contrast to the clean, white, suburban sprawls of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. In the hackneyed symbolism of Chinatown and the clichéd notion of Chinese inscrutability, Charlie Chan has maintained a haunting presence.
Given the perpetuation of this insidious brand of Orientalism, it was hardly surprising that Asian American activists and writers, pioneers such as Frank Chin and Jessica Hagedorn, began a campaign in the 1980s to heighten the public's awareness of these negative racial tropes and deeply trenched stereotypes. Given this climate of silence that had stilled debate or scrutiny for decades, one can hardly blame Hagedorn for pronouncing, "Charlie Chan is dead." Carrying the historical weight of the Asian American experience, Hagedorn's shocking rhetoric was necessary to create a new consciousness, to make all Americans aware of how Charlie Chan had been used in the past to reinforce negative cultural symbols. But, contrary to Hagedorn's dramatic pronouncement, rumors of Chan's death may have been exaggerated. Newly restored versions of the old movies are being released on DVD every year to enthusiastic response, Web sites extol his mystique, and spoofs and sequels are produced constantly. We can no longer explain Chan's longevity by referring simply to the persistence of racism. There is a deeper American story we need to retrieve and properly frame.
As a detective, Charlie Chan should take his place in film history alongside sagacious gentlemen like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, and Lieutenant Columbo, yet his ethnic identity marks him as different. Charlie Chan is far from the emasculated Chinaman his critics have claimed he is. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the movies and novels would know that Chan can be as mentally brazen and combative as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. His courage matches that of his real-life original, Chang Apana, who, despite his diminutive height, walked dangerous beats carrying a coiled bullwhip and caught dozens of criminals singlehandedly without firing a shot.
But the core strength of Chan's character lies in his pseudo-Confucian, aphoristic wisdom. Unlike the Kung Fu movies, which showcase a Chinese penchant for ass-kicking and sword-brandishing, Chan reveals the Chinaman as a sage: a wise, calm, responsible, and commonsensical man who also happens to be a hilarious wisecracker. These depictions prepared television audiences of the 1970s for Kung Fu, featuring David Carradine as a Shaolin master wandering the American West and fighting for justice in a constant sea of flashbacks. There is even a good deal of Charlie Chan's wit in the torqued physicality of Jackie Chan's slapstick.
For me, a real Chinaman, who didn't grow up in this country but hasn't been shielded from the arrows of American racism, it is fascinating that Charlie Chan is an American original, "made in the U.S.A." Make no mistake: Charlie Chan is an American stereotype of the Chinaman. Anyone who believes that Chan is Chinese would probably also believe that the fortune cookie is a Chinese invention. Charlie Chan is as American as Jack Kerouac, that stalwart of the American hipster who was born French Canadian and spoke the dialect of joual as his first language. Call it the melting pot or the pu pu platter, but Brahmin Boston is where the chop suey of Charlie Chan was first stir-fried by the Harvard-educated Biggers, only to be recast later by wisecracking screenwriters and directors in bronzed and lacquered Hollywood. What Stanley Crouch calls cultural miscegenation as the catalyst of the American experience has found another exemplar in Charlie Chan. Simply put, Charlie Chan's Chinatown beat, like jazz, is a distinctly American brand, not a Chinese import.
My goal in writing this book, then, is to demonstrate that Charlie Chan, America's most identifiable Chinaman, epitomizes both the racist heritage and the creative genius of this nation's culture. To my chagrin, because I am a big fan of the genre, this book is no high-speed detective fiction with gun molls and badinage. The mystery of Charlie Chan is as deep as any "Confucius say." I have had to unravel it by tracing several dry streams to the source of long dormant wells. It wasn't hard to get them roiling again, like an old and faithful geyser in the American psyche that dependably gives insult. The clues I found in these backwaters would not always converge, but I have come to see this as the true nature of American legends: they need something foreign to make them live again. Hollywood has always known this, with such directors as Billy Wilder and Ang Lee producing scalding interpretations of the most American of stories. But I must confess that I am not in the packaging business. The legends that Hollywood perpetuates can never be entirely circumscribed, wrapped up with string. Instead, in my far-flung research and peripatetic travels, I found not one but four unique stories of Charlie Chan.
The first story, of course, is the man himself, beginning with Chang Apana, the bullwhip-toting Cantonese detective in Honolulu. Then there is Earl Biggers's story, unwinding from the cornfields of small-town Ohio to the old-boy parlors of Harvard Yard, followed by Chan's reinvention on the silver screen, a legend annealed in Hollywood and America's racial tensions. And, finally, there is Chan's haunting presence during the era of postmodern politics and ethnic pride in contemporary America. Each of these streams is a story in itself, a slice of bona fide Americana. Together, they form the biography of Charlie Chan, the honorable detective whose labyrinthine matrix we have only now begun to fathom.
Excerpted from Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. Copyright 2010 by Yunte Huang. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.
For the Australian pianist and composer, see Charlie Chan (composer). For the Chinese swimmer, see Charlie Chan (swimmer). For the Japanese professional wrestler who wrestled under the name Charlie Chan, see Ryan Sakoda.
Charlie Chan is a fictional Honolulu police detective created by author Earl Derr Biggers for a series of mystery novels. Biggers loosely based Chan on Hawaiian detective Chang Apana. The benevolent and heroic Chan was conceived as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes and villains like Fu Manchu. Many stories feature Chan traveling the world beyond Hawaii as he investigates mysteries and solves crimes.
Chan first appeared in Biggers' novels and then was featured in a number of media. Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan were made, beginning in 1926. The character, featured only as a supporting character, was first portrayed by East Asian actors, and the films met with little success. In 1931, for the first film centering on Chan, Charlie Chan Carries On, the Fox Film Corporation cast Swedish actor Warner Oland; the film became popular, and Fox went on to produce 15 more Chan films with Oland in the title role. After Oland's death, American actor Sidney Toler was cast as Chan; Toler made 22 Chan films, first for Fox and then for Monogram Studios. After Toler's death, six films were made, starring Roland Winters.
Readers and moviegoers of America greeted Chan warmly, seeing him as an attractive character who is portrayed as intelligent, heroic, benevolent, and honorable in contrast to the racist depictions of evil or conniving Asians which often dominated Hollywood and national media in the early 20th century. However, in later decades critics increasingly took a more ambivalent view of the character, finding that despite his good qualities, Chan also reinforces condescending Asian stereotypes such as an alleged incapacity to speak idiomatic English and a tradition-bound and subservient nature. Many also now find it objectionable that the role was played on screen by Caucasian actors in yellowface. No Charlie Chan film has been produced since 1981.
The character has also been featured in several radio programs, two television shows, and comics.
The character of Charlie Chan was created by Earl Derr Biggers. In 1919, while visiting Hawaii, Biggers planned a detective novel to be called The House Without a Key. He did not begin to write that novel until four years later, however, when he was inspired to add a Chinese-American police officer to the plot after reading in a newspaper of Chang Apana and Lee Fook, two detectives on the Honolulu police force. Biggers, who disliked the Yellow Peril stereotypes he found when he came to California, explicitly conceived of the character as an alternative: "Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used."
It overwhelms me with sadness to admit it … for he is of my own origin, my own race, as you know. But when I look into his eyes I discover that a gulf like the heaving Pacific lies between us. Why? Because he, though among Caucasians many more years than I, still remains Chinese. As Chinese to-day as in the first moon of his existence. While I – I bear the brand – the label – Americanized.... I traveled with the current.... I was ambitious. I sought success. For what I have won, I paid the price. Am I an American? No. Am I, then, a Chinese? Not in the eyes of Ah Sing.
— Charlie Chan, speaking of a murderer's accomplice, in Keeper of the Keys, by Earl Derr Biggers
The "amiable Chinese" made his first appearance in The House Without a Key (1925). The character was not central to the novel and was not mentioned by name on the dust jacket of the first edition. In the novel, Chan is described as "very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman" and in The Chinese Parrot as being " … an undistinguished figure in his Western clothes. According to critic Sandra Hawley, this description of Chan allows Biggers to portray the character as nonthreatening, the opposite of evil Chinese characters, such as Fu Manchu, while simultaneously emphasizing supposedly Chinese characteristics such as impassivity and stoicism.
Biggers wrote six novels in which Charlie Chan appears:
Film, radio, stage and television adaptations
The first film featuring Charlie Chan, as a supporting character, was The House Without a Key (1926), a ten-chapter serial produced by Pathé Studios, starring George Kuwa, a Japanese actor, as Chan. A year later Universal Pictures followed with The Chinese Parrot, starring Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin as Chan, again as a supporting character. In both productions, Charlie Chan's role was minimized. Contemporary reviews were unfavorable; in the words of one reviewer, speaking of The Chinese Parrot, Sojin plays "the Chink sleuth as a Lon Chaney cook-waiter … because Chaney can't stoop that low."
In 1929, the Fox Film Corporation optioned Charlie Chan properties and produced Behind That Curtain, starring Korean actor E.L. Park. Again, Chan's role was minimal, with Chan appearing only in the last ten minutes of the film.
For the first film to center mainly on the character of Chan, Warner Oland, a white actor, was cast in the title role in 1931's Charlie Chan Carries On, and it was this film that gained popular success. Oland, a Swedish actor, had also played Fu Manchu in an earlier film. Oland, who claimed some Mongolian ancestry, played the character as more gentle and self-effacing than he had been in the books, perhaps in "a deliberate attempt by the studio to downplay an uppity attitude in a Chinese detective." Oland starred in sixteen Chan films for Fox, often with Keye Luke, who played Chan's "Number One Son", Lee Chan. Oland's "warmth and gentle humor" helped make the character and films popular; the Oland Chan films were among Fox's most successful. By attracting "major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A's" they "kept Fox afloat" during the Great Depression.
Oland died in 1938, and the Chan film Charlie Chan at the Ringside was rewritten with additional footage as Mr. Moto's Gamble, an entry in the Mr. Moto series, another contemporary series featuring an East Asian protagonist; Luke appeared as Lee Chan, not only in already shot footage but also in scenes with Moto actor Peter Lorre. Fox hired another white actor, Sidney Toler, to play Charlie Chan, and produced eleven Chan films through 1942. Toler's Chan was less mild-mannered than Oland's, a "switch in attitude that added some of the vigor of the original books to the films." He is frequently accompanied, and irritated, by his Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan, played by Sen Yung.
When Fox decided to produce no further Chan films, Sidney Toler purchased the film rights. Producers Philip N. Krasne and James S. Burkett of Monogram Pictures produced and released further Chan films starring Toler. The budget for these films was reduced from Fox's average of $200,000 to $75,000. For the first time, Chan was portrayed on occasion as "openly contemptuous of suspects and superiors."African-American comedic actor Mantan Moreland played chauffeur Birmingham Brown in 13 films (1944–1949) which led to criticism of the Monogram films in the forties and since; some call his performances "brilliant comic turns", while others describe Moreland's roles as an offensive and embarrassing stereotype. Toler died in 1947 and was succeeded by Roland Winters for six films. Keye Luke, missing from the series after 1938's Mr. Moto rework, returned as Charlie's son in the last two entries.
Three Spanish-language Charlie Chan films were made in the 1930s and 1950s. The first, Eran Trece (There Were Thirteen, 1931), is a multiple-language version of Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). The two films were made concurrently and followed the same production schedule, with each scene filmed twice the same day, once in English and then in Spanish. The film followed essentially the same script as the Anglophonic version, with minor additions such as brief songs and skits and some changes to characters' names (for example, the character Elmer Benbow was renamed Frank Benbow). A Cuban production, La Serpiente Roja (The Red Snake), followed in 1937. In 1955, Producciones Cub-Mex produced a Mexican version of Charlie Chan called El Monstruo en la Sombra (Monster in the Shadow), starring Orlando Rodriguez as "Chan Li Po" (Charlie Chan in the original script). The film was inspired by La Serpiente Roja as well as the American Warner Oland films.
During the 1930s and 1940s, five Chan films were produced in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In these films, Chan, played by Xu Xinyuan (徐莘园), owns his detective agency and is aided not by a son but by a daughter, Manna, played first by Gu Meijun (顾梅君) in the Shanghai productions and then by Bai Yan (白燕) in postwar Hong Kong.
Chinese audiences also saw the original American Charlie Chan films. They were by far the most popular American films in 1930s China and among Chinese expatriates; "one of the reasons for this acceptance was that this was the first time Chinese audiences saw a positive Chinese character in an American film, a departure from the sinister East Asian stereotypes in earlier movies like Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger (1929), which incited riots that shut down the Shanghai theater showing it." Oland's visit to China was reported extensively in Chinese newspapers, and the actor was respectfully called "Mr. Chan".
In Neil Simon's Murder By Death, Peter Sellers plays a Chinese detective called Sidney Wang, a parody of Chan.
In 1980, Jerry Sherlock began production on a comedy film to be called Charlie Chan and the Dragon Lady. A group calling itself C.A.N. (Coalition of Asians to Nix) was formed, protesting the fact that non-Chinese actors, Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson, had been cast in the primary roles. Others protested that the film script contained a number of stereotypes; Sherlock responded that the film was not a documentary. The film was released the following year as Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and was an "abysmal failure." An updated film version of the character was planned in the 1990s by Miramax. While this Charlie Chan was to be "hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and... a martial-arts master," nonetheless the film did not come to fruition. Actress Lucy Liu was slated to star in and executive-produce a new Charlie Chan film for Fox. The film was in preproduction since 2000. As of 2009 it is slated to be produced, but as of 2020 it has not been made.
On radio, Charlie Chan was heard in several different series on three networks (the NBC Blue Network, Mutual, and ABC) between 1932 and 1948 for the 20th Century Fox Radio Service.Walter Connolly initially portrayed Chan on Esso Oil's Five Star Theater, which serialized adaptations of Biggers novels.Ed Begley, Sr. had the title role in N.B.C.'s The Adventures of Charlie Chan (1944–45), followed by Santos Ortega (1947–48). Leon Janney and Rodney Jacobs were heard as Lee Chan, Number One Son, and Dorian St. George was the announcer.Radio Life magazine described Begley's Chan as "a good radio match for Sidney Toler's beloved film enactment."
Valentine Davies wrote a stage adaptation of novel Keeper of the Keys for Broadway in 1933, with William Harrigan as the lead. The production ran for 25 performances.
- In 1956–57, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, starring J. Carrol Naish in the title role, were made independently for TV syndication in 39 episodes, by Television Programs of America. The series was filmed in England. In this series, Chan is based in London rather than the United States. Ratings were poor, and the series was canceled.
- In the 1960s, Joey Forman played an obvious parody of Chan named "Harry Hoo" in two episodes of Get Smart.
- In the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera produced an animated series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Keye Luke, who had played Chan's son in many Chan films of the 1930s and '40s, lent his voice to Charlie, employing a much-expanded vocabulary. The series focused on Chan's children, played initially by East Asian-American child actors before being recast, due to concerns that younger viewers would not understand the accented voices. The title character bears some resemblance to the Warner Oland depiction of Charlie Chan. Leslie Kumamota voiced Chan's daughter Anne, before being replaced by Jodie Foster.
- The Return of Charlie Chan, a television film starring Ross Martin as Chan, was made in 1971 but did not air until 1979.
Comics and games
A Charlie Chancomic strip, drawn by Alfred Andriola, was distributed by the McNaught Syndicate beginning October 24, 1938. Andriola was chosen by Biggers to draw the character. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the strip was dropped; the last strip ran on May 30, 1942. In 2019, The Library of American Comics reprinted one year of the strip (1938) in their LoAC Essentials line of books (ISBN 978-1-68405-506-7).
Over decades, other Charlie Chan comic books have been published: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Prize Comics' Charlie Chan (1948), which ran for five issues. It was followed by a Charlton Comics title which continued the numbering (four issues, 1955). DC Comics published The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, a 1958 tie-in with the TV series; the DC series lasted for six issues. Dell Comics did the title for two issues in 1965. In the 1970s, Gold Key Comics published a short-lived series of Chan comics based on the Hanna-Barbera animated series. In March through August 1989 Eternity Comics/Malibu Graphics published Charlie Chan comic books numbers 1 - 6 reprinting daily strips from January 9, 1939 to November 18, 1939.
In addition, a board game, The Great Charlie Chan Detective Mystery Game (1937), and a Charlie Chan Card Game (1939), have been released.
On May 21, 2020 game developers Play'n GO released Charlie Chance in Hell to Pay for desktop and mobile browsers. This is not an officially branded game, however, the game's main character Charlie Chance is directly based on the original Charlie Chan character, sharing a similar name, trademark moustache and sharp dress sense. This game was followed by two sequels in 2021, Charlie Chance XREELZ and Charlie Chance and the Curse of Cleopatra.
Modern interpretations and criticism
The character of Charlie Chan has been the subject of controversy. Some find the character to be a positive role model, while others argue that Chan is an offensive stereotype. Critic John Soister argues that Charlie Chan is both; when Biggers created the character, he offered a unique alternative to stereotypical evil Chinamen, a man who was at the same time "sufficiently accommodating in personality... unthreatening in demeanor... and removed from his Asian homeland... to quell any underlying xenophobia."
Critic Michael Brodhead argues that "Biggers's sympathetic treatment of the Charlie Chan novels convinces the reader that the author consciously and forthrightly spoke out for the Chinese – a people to be not only accepted but admired. Biggers's sympathetic treatment of the Chinese reflected and contributed to the greater acceptance of Chinese-Americans in the first third of [the twentieth] century." S. T. Karnick writes in the National Review that Chan is "a brilliant detective with understandably limited facility in the English language [whose] powers of observation, logic, and personal rectitude and humility made him an exemplary, entirely honorable character."Ellery Queen called Biggers's characterization of Charlie Chan "a service to humanity and to inter-racial relations." Dave Kehr of The New York Times said Chan "might have been a stereotype, but he was a stereotype on the side of the angels." Keye Luke, an actor who played Chan's son in a number of films, agreed; when asked if he thought that the character was demeaning to the race, he responded, "Demeaning to the race? My God! You've got a Chinese hero!" and "[W]e were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood."
Other critics, such as Yen Le Espiritu and Huang Guiyou, argue that Chan, while portrayed positively in some ways, is not on a par with white characters, but a "benevolent Other" who is "one-dimensional." The films' use of white actors to portray East Asian characters indicates the character's "absolute Oriental Otherness;" the films were only successful as "the domain of white actors who impersonated heavily-accented masters of murder mysteries as well as purveyors of cryptic proverbs. Chan's character "embodies the stereotypes of Chinese Americans, particularly of males: smart, subservient, effeminate." Chan is representative of a model minority, the good stereotype that counters a bad stereotype: "Each stereotypical image is filled with contradictions: the bloodthirsty Indian is tempered with the image of the noble savage; the bandido exists along with the loyal sidekick; and Fu Manchu is offset by Charlie Chan." However, Fu Manchu's evil qualities are presented as inherently Chinese, while Charlie Chan's good qualities are exceptional; "Fu represents his race; his counterpart stands away from the other Asian Hawaiians."
Some argue that the character's popularity is dependent on its contrast with stereotypes of the Yellow Peril or Japanese people in particular. American opinion of China and Chinese-Americans grew more positive in the 1920s and 30s in contrast to the Japanese, who were increasingly viewed with suspicion. Sheng-mei Ma argues that the character is a psychological over-compensation to "rampant paranoia over the racial other."
In June 2003, the Fox Movie Channel cancelled a planned Charlie Chan Festival, soon after beginning restoration for cablecasting, after a special-interest group protested. Fox reversed its decision two months later, and on 13 September 2003, the first film in the festival was aired on Fox. The films, when broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel, were followed by round-table discussions by prominent East Asians in the American entertainment industry, led by George Takei, most of whom were against the films. Collections such as Frank Chin's Aiiieeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers and Jessica Hagedorn's Charlie Chan is Dead are put forth as alternatives to the Charlie Chan stereotype and "[articulate] cultural anger and exclusion as their animating force." Fox has released all of its extant Charlie Chan features on DVD, and Warner Bros. (the current proprietor of the Monogram library) has issued all of the Sidney Toler and Roland Winters Monogram features on DVD.
Modern critics, particularly Asian-Americans, continue to have mixed feelings on Charlie Chan. Fletcher Chan, a defender of the works, argues that the Chan of Biggers's novels is not subservient to white characters, citing The Chinese Parrot as an example; in this novel, Chan's eyes blaze with anger at racist remarks and in the end, after exposing the murderer, Chan remarks "Perhaps listening to a 'Chinaman' is no disgrace." In the films, both Charlie Chan in London (1934) and Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) "contain scenes in which Chan coolly and wittily dispatches other characters' racist remarks." Yunte Huang manifests an ambivalent attitude, stating that in the US, Chan "epitomizes the racist heritage and the creative genius of this nation's culture." Huang also suggests that critics of Charlie Chan may have themselves, at times, "caricatured" Chan himself.
Chan's character has also come under fire for "nuggets of fortune cookie Confucius" and the "counterfeit proverbs" which became so widespread in popular culture. The Biggers novels did not introduce the "Confucius say" proverbs, which were added in the films, but one novel features Chan remarking: "As all those who know me have learned to their distress, Chinese have proverbs to fit every possible situation." Huang Yunte gives as examples "Tongue often hang man quicker than rope," "Mind, like parachute, only function when open," and "Man who flirt with dynamite sometime fly with angels." He argues, however, that these "colorful aphorisms" display "amazing linguistic acrobatic skills." Like the "signifying monkey" of African-American folklore, Huang continues, Chan "imparts as much insult as wisdom."
- Biggers, Earl Derr. The House Without a Key. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925.
- —. The Chinese Parrot. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926.
- —. Behind That Curtain. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.
- —. The Black Camel. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.
- —. Charlie Chan Carries On. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930.
- —. Keeper of the Keys. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1932.
- Davis, Robert Hart. Charlie Chan in The Temple of the Golden Horde. 1974. Charlie Chan's Mystery Magazine. Reprinted by Wildside Press, 2003. ISBN 1-59224-014-3.
- Lynds, Dennis. Charlie Chan Returns. New York: Bantam Books, 1974. ASIN B000CD3I22.
- Pronzini, Bill, and Jeffrey M. Wallmann. Charlie Chan in the Pawns of Death. 1974. Charlie Chan's Mystery Magazine. Reprinted by Borgo Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-59224-010-4.
- Avallone, Michael. Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. New York: Pinnacle, 1981. ISBN 0-523-41505-2.
- Robert Hart Davis. "The Silent Corpse". Feb.1974. "Charlie Chan's Mystery Magazine".
- Robert Hart Davis. "Walk Softly, Strangler". Nov. 1973. Charlie Chan's Mystery Magazine".
- Jon L. Breen. "The Fortune Cookie". May 1971. "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine".
Unless otherwise noted, information is taken from Charles P. Mitchell's A Guide to Charlie Chan Films (1999).
|Film title||Starring||Directed by||Theatrical release||DVD release||Notes||Production company|
|The House Without a Key||George Kuwa||Spencer G. Bennet||1926||Lost|
|The Chinese Parrot||Sojin||Paul Leni||1927||Lost|
|Behind That Curtain||E.L. Park||Irving Cummings||1929||Charlie Chan, Volume Three (20th Century Fox, 2007)||First sound film in the series||Fox Film Corporation|
|Charlie Chan Carries On||Warner Oland||Hamilton MacFadden||1931||Lost|
|Eran Trece||Manuel Arbó||David Howard(uncredited)||1931||Charlie Chan, Volume One (20th Century Fox, 2006)|||
|The Black Camel||Warner Oland||Hamilton MacFadden||1931||Charlie Chan, Volume Three (20th Century Fox, 2007)|
|Charlie Chan's Chance||John Blystone||1932||Lost|
|Charlie Chan's Greatest Case||Hamilton MacFadden||1933||Lost|
|Charlie Chan's Courage||George Hadden and Eugene Forde||1934||Lost|
|Charlie Chan in London||Eugene Forde||Charlie Chan, Volume One (20th Century Fox, 2006)|
|Charlie Chan in Paris||Lewis Seiler||1935|
|Charlie Chan in Egypt||Louis King||20th Century Fox|
|Charlie Chan in Shanghai||James Tinling|
|Charlie Chan's Secret||Gordon Wiles||1936||Charlie Chan, Volume Three (20th Century Fox, 2007)||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints.|
|Charlie Chan at the Circus||Harry Lachman||Charlie Chan, Volume Two (20th Century Fox, 2006)|
|Charlie Chan at the Race Track||H. Bruce Humberstone|
|Charlie Chan at the Opera|
|Charlie Chan at the Olympics||1937|
|Charlie Chan on Broadway||Eugene Forde||Charlie Chan, Volume Three (20th Century Fox, 2007)|
|Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo||Oland's last film.|
|Charlie Chan in Honolulu||Sidney Toler||H. Bruce Humberstone||1939||Charlie Chan, Volume Four (20th Century Fox, 2008)|
|Charlie Chan in Reno||Norman Foster|
|Charlie Chan at Treasure Island||Charlie Chan, Volume Four (20th Century Fox, 2008)|
|City in Darkness||Herbert I. Leeds|
|Charlie Chan in Panama||Norman Foster||1940|
|Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise||Eugene Forde||Charlie Chan, Volume Five (20th Century Fox, 2008)|
|Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum||Lynn Shores|
|Murder Over New York||Harry Lachman|
|Dead Men Tell||1941|
|Charlie Chan in Rio|
|Castle in the Desert||1942|
|Charlie Chan in the Secret Service||Phil Rosen||1944||The Charlie Chan Chanthology (MGM, 2004)||Monogram Pictures|
|The Chinese Cat|
|The Jade Mask||1945|
|The Scarlet Clue||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints.|
|The Shanghai Cobra||Phil Karlson|
|The Red Dragon||Phil Rosen||1946||Charlie Chan 3-Film Collection (Warner Archive, 2016)|
|Dangerous Money||Terry O. Morse||TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection (Turner Classic Movies, 2010)||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints.|
|Dark Alibi||Phil Karlson|
|Shadows Over Chinatown||Terry O. Morse||Charlie Chan Collection (Warner Home Video, 2013)|
|The Trap||Howard Bretherton||TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection (Turner Classic Movies, 2010)||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints. Toler's last film.|
|The Chinese Ring||Roland Winters||William Beaudine||1947||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints. Winters' first film.|
|Docks of New Orleans||Derwin Abrahams||1948||Charlie Chan Collection (Warner Home Video, 2013)|
|Shanghai Chest||William Beaudine|
|The Golden Eye||Public domain due to the omission of a valid copyright notice on original prints.|
|The Feathered Serpent||William Beaudine||Charlie Chan 3-Film Collection (Warner Archive, 2016)|
|Sky Dragon||Lesley Selander||1949|
|The Return of Charlie Chan (aka: Happiness Is a Warm Clue)||Ross Martin||Daryl Duke||1973||TV film||Universal Television|
|Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen||Peter Ustinov||Clive Donner||1981||American Cinema Productions|
|Film title||Starring||Directed by||Theatrical release||DVD release||Notes||Production company|
|La Serpiente Roja||Aníbal de Mar||Ernesto Caparrós||1937||Cuban film|
|El Monstruo en la Sombra||Orlando Rodríguez||Zacarias Urquiza||1955||Mexican film|
|Film title||Starring||Directed by||Theatrical release||DVD release||Notes|
|The Disappearing Corpse (in Chinese)||Xu Xinyuan||Xu Xinfu||1937|||
|The Pearl Tunic (in Chinese)||1938|||
|The Radio Station Murder (in Chinese)||1939|||
|Charlie Chan Smashes an Evil Plot (in Chinese)||1941|||
|Charlie Chan Matches Wits with the Prince of Darkness (in Chinese)||1948|||
|Mystery of the Jade Fish (in Chinese)||Lee Ying||Lee Ying||c.1950 (distributed in New York in 1951)|||
- ^Mitchell (1999), xxv.
- ^This point is debated. Hawley says Apana directly inspired Biggers (135); Herbert says Apana may have done so (20). However, Biggers himself, in a 1931 interview, cited both Apana and Fook as inspirations for the character of Charlie Chan ("Creating Charlie Chan" ). When Biggers actually met Apana a few years later, he found that his character and Apana had little in common.
- ^ abcdefghi"Charlie Chan in China". The Chinese Mirror: A Journal of Chinese Film History. May 2008. Archived from the original on 8 July 2011. Retrieved 18 April 2011.
- ^Earl Derr Biggers, quoted in "Creating Charlie Chan" (1931).
- ^Quoted in Sommer (), 211.
- ^ abQueen (1969), 102.
- ^Biggers, Earl Derr (1925). The House Without a Key. New York : Grosset & Dunlap. p. 76.
- ^Biggers, Earl Derr (2013). The Chinese Parrot. A&C Black. p. 25. ISBN .
- ^ abHanke (1989), xii.
- ^Mitchell (1999), xviii.
- ^Quoted in Soister (2004), 71.
- ^ abMitchell (1999), 2.
- ^Balio (1995), 336.
- ^Quoted in Hanke (2004), 1.
- ^ abHanke (1989), 111.
- ^ abcKehr, Dave (20 June 2006). "New DVD's: Charlie Chan". The New York Times.
- ^Balio (1995), 316.
- ^Balio (1995), 317.
- ^ abLepore, Jill. "CHAN, THE MAN'" The New Yorker, 9 August 2010.
- ^ abcHanke (1989), 169.
- ^Hanke (1989), 111-114.
- ^ abHanke (1989), 170.
- ^ abCullen, et al (2007), 794.
- ^ abcKarnick (2006).
- ^Hanke (1989), 220.
- ^Mitchell (1999), 153.
- ^Mitchell (1999), 153-154.
- ^ abcMitchell (1999), 235.
- ^Chan (2001), 58.
- ^Pitts (1991), 301.
- ^ abcSengupta (1997).
- ^Littlejohn (2008).
- ^Yang Jie (2009).
- ^Huang, Yunte; Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, pp. 265-266; W. W. Norton & Company, 15 August 2011
- ^Dunning (1998), 149.
- ^Cox (2002), 9.
- ^Quoted in Dunning (1998), 149.
- ^1932-, Lachman, Marvin (2014). The villainous stage : crime plays on Broadway and in the West End. McFarland. ISBN . OCLC 903807427.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
- ^Mitchell (1999), 237.
- ^Mitchell (1999), 238.
- ^Mitchell (1999), 240.
- ^Young (2007), 128. Ma (2000), 13 gives the dates as 1935 to 1938; however, Young's obituary in The New York Times states that the strip began in 1938.
- ^ abMa (2000), 13.
- ^Holtz, Allan (2012). American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. p. 100. ISBN .
- ^Anderson and Eury (2005), 1923.
- ^Rinker (1988), 312.
- ^"Charlie Chance in Hell to Pay Online Slot by Play'n GO". Slot Gods. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
- ^Soister (), 67.
- ^Michael Brodhead, quoted in Chan (2001), 56.
- ^Quoted in Hanke (2004), xv.
- ^Quoted in Hanke (2004), xiii.
- ^Kato (2007), 138.
- ^Le Espiritu (1996), 99.
- ^Dave (2005), xiii.
- ^Huang (2006), 211.
- ^Michael Omi, quoted in Chan (2001), 51.
- ^Ma (2000), 4.
- ^Dave (2005), 339.
- ^The Chinese Parrot, quoted in Chan (2007).
- ^Huang (2011)
- ^Huang (2011), p. 280.
- ^Struss (1987), 114.
- ^"2005 Archive of Screened Films: Mary Pickford Theater (Moving Image Research Center, Library of Congress)". loc.gov. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
- ^Hanke states that Chan was played by "Juan Torenas"; however, the more recent Guide to Charlie Chan Films by Charles P. Mitchell states that a Juan Torena played a supporting role and that Arbó was the star (Mitchell , 153). Mitchell's book features a reproduction of the original movie poster, which lists Arbó's name before Torena's and in larger print.
- ^Hardy (1997), 76, suggests the date is 1932.
- ^Spanish-language version of Charlie Chan Carries On.
- ^Remake of The House Without a Key.
- ^Remake of The Chinese Parrot.
- ^Later retitled Meeting at Midnight for TV
- ^ abReid (2004), 86.
- ^ abPitts (1991), 305.
- ^Filmed in 1971; aired on British television in 1973; aired on ABC in 1979 as The Return of Charlie Chan (Pitts , 301).
- ^Brunsdale, Mitzi M. (26 July 2010). Icons of Mystery and Crime Detection: From Sleuths to Superheroes. ABC-CLIO. ISBN . Retrieved 21 March 2018 – via Google Books.
- ^Willis (1972), 329.
- ^"CHARLIE CHAN: El monstruo en la sombra (1955)". tommenterprises.tripod.com. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
- ^New York State Archives Movie Script Collection (dialogue continuity in English).
- "Alfred Andriola (obituary)". The New York Times. 30 March 2009. pp. A28.
- Anderson, Murphy; Michael Eury (2005). The Justice League Companion: A Historical and Speculative Overview of the Silver Age Justice League of America. TwoMorrows Publishing. ISBN .
- Balio, Tino (1995). Grand design: Hollywood as a modern business enterprise, 1930–1939. University of California Press. ISBN .
- Chan, Fletcher (26 March 2007). "Charlie Chan: A Hero of Sorts". California Literary Review. Archived from the original on 25 July 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2009.
- Chan, Jachinson (2001). Chinese American masculinities: from Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee. Taylor & Francis. ISBN .
- "Charlie Chan in China". The Chinese Mirror: A Journal of Chinese Film History. May 2008. Archived from the original on 8 July 2011. Retrieved 21 May 2009.
- "Creating Charlie Chan" (22 March 1931). In Popular Culture (1975). Ed. by David Manning White. Ayer Publishing. ISBN 0-405-06649-X.
- Cox, Jim (2002). Radio Crime Fighters: Over 300 Programs from the Golden Age. McFarland Publishing. ISBN .
- Cullen, Frank; Florence Hackman; Donald McNeilly (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. ISBN .
- Dave, Shilpa; LeiLani Nishime; Tasha G. Oren (2005). East Main Street: Asian American popular culture. New York University Press. ISBN .
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN .
- Gevinson, Alan (1997). Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911–1960. University of California Press. ISBN .
- Hanke, Ken (1989). Charlie Chan at the Movies. McFarland Publishing. ISBN .
- Hardy, Phil (1997). The BFI companion to crime. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN .
- Hawley, Sandra (1991), Goldstein, Jonathan, Jerry Israel and Hilary Conroy (ed.), The Importance of Being Charlie Chan, Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, pp. 132–147, ISBN
- Herbert, Rosemary (2003). Whodunit? : a who's who in crime & mystery writing. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN .
- Huang, Guiyou (2006). The Columbia guide to Asian American literature since 1945. Columbia University Press. ISBN .
- Huang, Yunte (2010). Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History. New York: W W Norton. ISBN . Retrieved 24 May 2016.
- Karnick, S. T. (25 July 2006). "The Business End of Ethnic Politics". National Review Online. Archived from the original on 9 January 2009. Retrieved 19 May 2009.
- Kato, M.T. (2007). From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, revolution, and popular culture. SUNY Press. ISBN .
- Kim, Elaine H. (1982). Asian American Literature, an introduction to the writings and their social context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN .
- Le Espiritu, Yen (1996). Asian American Women and Men. Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN .
- Littlejohn, Janice Rhoshalle (14 January 2008). "Lucy Liu returns to television". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 25 August 2009.[dead link]
- Ma, Sheng-mei (2000). The deathly embrace: orientalism and Asian American identity. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN .
- Mitchell, Charles P. (1999). A Guide to Charlie Chan Films. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN .
- Odo, Franklin (2002). The Columbia documentary history of the Asian American experience. Columbia University Press. ISBN .
- Pitts, Michael R (1991). Famous movie detectives II. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN .
- Queen, Ellery (1969). In the Queens' Parlor, and Other Leaves from the Editors' Notebook. Biblio & Tannen. ISBN .
- Rinker, Harry L. (1988). Warman's Americana and Collectibles. Warman Publishing. ISBN .
- Sengupta, Somini (5 January 1997). "Charlie Chan, Retooled for the 90's". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 May 2009.
- Soister, John (2004). Up from the vault: rare thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s. McFarland Publishing. ISBN .
- Sommer, Doris (2003). Bilingual games: some literary investigations. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN .
- Struss, Karl; Scott Eyman (1987). Five American cinematographers: interviews with Karl Struss, Joseph Ruttenberg, James Wong Howe, Linwood Dunn, and William H. Clothier. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN .
- Willis, Donald C. (1972). Horror and Science Fiction Films: A Checklist. Scarecrow Press. ISBN .
- Young, William H (2007). The Great Depression in America: a cultural encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN .
Charlie Chan Films
Quick Look: The Charlie Chan Films channel contains 37 feature films from the late 1920s through the 1940s. Films are loosely categorized according to the decade released and include the following titles:
-- Information is current as of August 15, 2019
Roku Channel Store Description: Charlie Chan is a fictional Honolulu police detective created by author Earl Derr Biggers for a series of mystery novels. Biggers loosely based Chan on Hawaiian detective Chang Apana. The benevolent and heroic Chan was conceived of as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes and villains like Fu Manchu.
CHANNEL STORE CATEGORY:Comedy
DEVELOPER: TV Time Media
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.Charlie Chan in Paris 1935 - Classic Detective Film - Warner Oland, Pat Paterson, Thomas Beck.
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