Feature

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

Charlie Chan is politely ignored by most critics and scholars, but Yunte Huang, who was born and grew up in China, is obsessed with the character and says Chan shows how cultural assimilation happens.

(W.W. Norton, 354 pages, $26.95)

“To many Asian-Americans, Charlie Chan is an offensive stereotype, another sort of Uncle Tom,” said Charles McGrath in The New York Times. “Pudgy, slant-eyed, and inscrutable,” the fictional Honolulu detective solved crimes in six potboilers written by creator Earl Derr Biggers between 1923 and 1933, as well as in dozens of films made in the following decades. A pop-culture phenomenon who came to be reviled as a racist caricature, the character is now politely ignored by most critics and scholars. “But Yunte Huang, who was born and grew up in China, can’t get enough of Chan and has written a book about his obsession.” The story of the character’s long life in the American imagination reveals much, Huang insists, about how cultural assimilation happens.

This book is “that rarest of treats: a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance,” said Pico Iyer in Time. Charlie Chan overflows with unlikely historical details and good-natured humor about cross-cultural misunderstandings. Yet it hardly shrinks from the racism rampant in early 20th-century America, said Benjamin Moser in Harper’s. “With his Confucius-say aphorisms (‘Murder like potato chip—cannot stop at just one’),” Chan was clearly a crude caricature created by a man with limited experience of actual Chinese people. Surprisingly, though, he had countless Chinese fans “who were mostly, if ambiguously, happy to see a Chinese hero in Hollywood.” They were as amused as anyone by his loopy broken English.

Chan’s “fortune cookie wisdom” was never really meant to imitate the way Chinese actually spoke, said David Thomson in The New Republic. It was a verbal gimmick, and one that helped make Chan one of talking pictures’ first hit figures. When Biggers turned his creation over to Hollywood, his “timing was acute, or lucky—‘Smart man act as if luck his pet dog.’” The character would be played by several actors of European extraction—a fact that provokes the “cheerfully digressive” Huang into a whole new series of ruminations about how race is treated in popular culture. Definitively documenting the detective’s all-American story, Charlie Chan is “one of the most entertaining, informative, and provocative books I have read in a long time.”

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