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Investigating The Real Detective Charlie Chan

Sep 7, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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Action speak louder than French.

Door of opportunity swing both ways.

Smart fly keep out of gravy.

Tongue often hang man quicker than rope.

All gems of fortune-cookie-worthy wisdom spoken by Charlie Chan, the crafty, fictional Chinese detective. In a series of novels and movies, Chan captured American imaginations between the 1920s and the 1950s. But today, he's considered a stereotypical relic from a less racially sensitive time.

English professor Yunte Huang hopes to change that with his new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.

Huang was a student in Buffalo, N.Y., when he first stumbled onto Chan's character. "I went to an estate sale, and I found these two Charlie Chan novels," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "I had never been to an estate sale before because they don't really exist in China." (In China, there is a stigma attached to buying items that belong to a person who has died, Huang explains.)

"I was literally terrified to buy these two books," he admits. " But I did anyway, and I took them home — and I was immediately hooked."

Huang subsequently left Buffalo to teach at Harvard, where he researched E.D. Biggers, the author who created the character of Charlie Chan. Huang was surprised to learn that Chan was based on a real Chinese policeman who "had been neglected in history," he says.

Huang set out to give that honorable policeman, Chang Apana, the recognition he deserves. Apana "was a 5-foot-tall Cantonese cop in Honolulu in the early 20th century," Huang explains. Originally, Apana had worked as a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. In 1898 — the same year that the United States officially annexed Hawaii — he joined the police force.

"As a police officer, he worked almost the most dangerous beats in Chinatown, carrying a bullwhip in hand," says Huang. "He never used a gun, and he was a master of disguise. One time, he single-handedly arrested 40 people without firing a shot" — apprehending a large group of Chinese gamblers using only his bullwhip.

Though Apana was an adventurous, fearless figure, Biggers took several liberties when he transformed the Hawaiian cowboy into a wise, stereotypical detective. In his films, especially, Chan barely resembles Apana — while his real-life counterpart was small and wiry, the onscreen investigator is portly, formally dressed, and effeminate in his movements. In the well-known Charlie Chan films, the detective wasn't played by actors of Chinese descent — but rather by Swedish actor Warner Oland and American Sidney Toler.

It seems an odd casting choice now, but consider the racial climate of the U.S. in the 1920s. Chan made his first appearance in 1925, just one year after the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act was passed — a law Huang describes as "the first kind of legislative, shall we say, racism against foreigners."

The act limited immigration for people of Southern-European, Eastern-European and Japanese origin. It did not restrict Chinese immigration, but only because a different law passed in 1882 had already done so.

"At that critical moment when the country had just closed its door to so-called foreigners," Charlie Chan appeared "with all his exoticism [and] aphorisms," Huang says. The complicated reactions Americans had to Chan would be echoed later by Asian-Americans, who had a "love-hate relationship" with the character.

Curiously enough, Chinese natives were much less conflicted when they were introduced to Charlie Chan. His movies were big hits across Asia — and in China especially — despite the fact that Chan was being played by a white man.

Huang has a theory about why the Chinese embraced the faux-Chinese Chan. "I grew up in China, and I used to watch a lot of Chinese operas," he explains. "And it is a very common thing in Chinese opera to do these kind[s] of ventriloquism, or to have cross-dressing, for instance. So performing 'the other' — that kind of imitation — is always part of ... artistic culture of China."

When Chan movies were being shown in the 1930s, "people flocked to the theaters and they loved him — especially with his pseudo fortune-cookie aphorisms," Huang says.

It's hard to know what to make of Chan's odd and unexpected popularity with Chinese audiences — but perhaps its significance is in the eye of the beholder. As Chan himself might have said: Optimist only sees doughnut. Pessimist sees hole.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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