Earlier I posted a topic on the logic of Sherlock Holmes . And here is an equally famous fictional detective.
"Chan, the Man"
On the trail of the honorable detective.
August 9th, 2010
The New Yorker
On the trail of the honorable detective.
August 9th, 2010
The New Yorker
“Enter Charlie Chan” is the title that Earl Derr Biggers gave to Chapter 7 of his novel “The House Without a Key,” published serially in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925, and set in Hawaii, where Biggers—a Harvard Lampoon-er who, before he started writing novels, mainly wrote humor for a magazine called Boston Traveler—had once gone for his health. Honolulu: ukulele music, ginger blossoms, coconut palms, grass mats, a luau. Miss Minerva Winterslip, a Boston spinster far from home, discovers, on a cot on her veranda, a dead body in white pajamas. A lizard skitters over the corpse, leaving a trail of tiny crimson footprints. The spinster, shaken and trembling, telephones the dead man’s brother, Amos, who promptly summons the authorities. A police captain and a coroner arrive, followed by a third man, of appearance most curious: “He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.”
“Amos!” cried Miss Minerva. “That man—why he—”
“Charlie Chan,” Amos explained. “I’m glad they brought him. He’s the best detective on the force.”
Miss Minerva, overcome, collapses. Chan, despite being as chubby as a baby and as dainty as a woman and being, really, anything but a man, walks away with the chapter, the novel, and Biggers’s career. But first he inspects the scene on Miss Minerva’s veranda. “No knife are present in neighborhood of crime,” he reports, in inexplicably bludgeoned English spoken in a “high, sing-song voice.” The captain assigns him the case. “The slant eyes blinked with pleasure. ‘Most interesting,’ murmured Chan.” Miss Minerva balks. Chan steps forward and gives the lady from Boston a stare. “Humbly asking pardon to mention it,” he says, smiling and bowing. “I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind.”
A star was born. The honorable Chinese detective from Honolulu would appear in five more Biggers novels, and long before the seventh chapter. The Ohio-born Biggers, who knew very little about Hawaii and less about China, found the success of his character mystifying. Once, when a reporter wrote to ask him how he had come up with Charlie Chan, Biggers wrote back, in Chan’s voice:
Boss looks me over, and puts me in a novel, The House Without a Key. “You are minor character, always,” he explains. “No major feelings, please. The background is your province—keep as far back as is humanly possible.” Story starts to begin serial career, and public gets stirred up. They demand fuller view of my humble self. “What is the approximate date of beginning of next Charlie Chan story?” they inquire of the boss. And is my face red?
Boss glares at me, plenty gloomy. “Good Lord!” he cries, “am I saddled with you for the remainder of my existence?”
“You could be saddled with horse,” I bristle.
Chan’s Hollywood career was launched in 1926, with a film adaptation of “The House Without a Key,” starring the Japanese actor George Kuwa, after which Chan went on to appear in forty-six more movies; he was most memorably played, in the nineteen-thirties, by a Swede named Warner Oland. He also appeared in countless comic strips and, in the nineteen-seventies, in sixteen episodes of Hanna-Barbera’s “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan,” which aired on CBS television on Saturday mornings and featured a dog named Chu Chu, Jodie Foster’s voice as one of Chan’s ten children, and the cri de coeur “Wham bam, we’re in a jam!”
Charlie Chan is also one of the most hated characters in American popular culture. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, distinguished American writers, including Frank Chin and Gish Jen, argued for laying Chan to rest, a yellow Uncle Tom, best buried. In trenchant essays, Chin condemned the Warner Oland movies as “parables of racial order”; Jen called Chan “the original Asian whiz kid.” In 1993, the literary scholar Elaine Kim bid Chan good riddance—“Gone for good his yellowface asexual bulk, his fortune-cookie English”—in an anthology of contemporary Asian-American fiction titled “Charlie Chan Is Dead,” which is not to be confused with the beautiful and fantastically clever 1982 Wayne Wang film, “Chan Is Missing,” and in which traces of a man named Chan are all over the place, it’s just that no one can find him anymore.
“Role of dead man require very little acting,” as Charlie Chan liked to say. (Don’t ask me what that means. Aphorisms, like tiger in zoo, all roar, no claw.) In “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History” (Norton; $26.95), Yunte Huang, who grew up in China, went to graduate school in the United States, taught at Harvard for a while, and now teaches American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, confesses, abashedly, to being a Chan fan: “Sometimes late at night, I turn on the TV and a Chinaman falls out. He is hilarious.” Most interesting.
Earl Derr Biggers did not invent Charlie Chan. “How can I write of Chinese?” he asked Chan, in that fictional conversation with his fictional detective. “I could not distinguish Chinese man from Wall Street broker.” (Chan had an answer for that. Chan had an answer for everything. “Chinese would be the one who sold you the honest securities.”) A great delight of Huang’s quirky, smart, and entertaining book is his sleuthing out the real story behind Charlie Chan. It turns out that Chan was an actual detective with the Honolulu Police Department; Biggers read about him in the newspaper. His real name was Chang Apana. He was born, around 1871, in Waipio, a village outside Honolulu. His mother, Chun Shee, was also born in Hawaii. People from China had settled in what were then called the Sandwich Islands, beginning in the late seventeen-seventies. Sugarcane had been cultivated in China for centuries, and the first person to grow it for sugar processing in the Sandwich Islands was a man named Wong Tze-chun, who arrived from China in 1802. Chang Jong Tong, Chang Apana’s father, probably travelled from China to Hawaii in the eighteen-sixties. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some forty-six thousand Chinese laborers made that journey. In 1866, when the sugarcane trade was booming, Mark Twain went to Hawaii to report for the Sacramento Union. “The Government sends to China for coolies and farms them out at $5 a month each for five years,” Twain wrote. When Chang Jong Tong’s five years were up, he took his wife and children and headed home, to the tiny village of Oo Sack, south of Canton.
Yunte Huang himself grew up during “the waning days of Mao’s China,” he writes, in a village in southeastern China not much different from Oo Sack. Between the lines, “Charlie Chan” is as much Huang’s story as Charlie Chan’s or Chang Apana’s. Huang writes of a boyhood spent working, and playing with insects—ants, fireflies, grasshoppers—for toys, and imagines that Chang might have done the same. Imagining Chang’s life is what Huang is often reduced to, though, because Chang never learned to read or to write either Chinese or English (later in life, he taught himself to read Hawaiian), which partly accounts for his scant appearances in the historical record.
In Oo Sack, a part of the world devastated by famine and the Opium Wars, the boy and his family were starving. In 1881, when Chang was about ten years old, his parents sent him to Oahu, with an uncle; he never returned to China. Somehow—here, too, the trail vanishes—he became a cowboy, a paniolo, because, ten years later, he was a stableman for a wealthy family, the Wilders, at their horse ranch in Honolulu. When Samuel Wilder, later a steamship magnate, was married in Hawaii, in 1866, to Elizabeth Judd, the daughter of a missionary (and said to be the first white girl born in Hawaii), both Mark Twain and King Kamehameha attended the wedding. In 1897, the Wilders’ youngest daughter, Helen, hired Chang Apana as the first officer for a local chapter of the Humane Society. It was his job to stop people from beating their horses. He was very good at this. He was, for one thing, different from most of the people who lived in Honolulu’s Chinatown, the district where he mostly patrolled, making arrests and issuing fines. He was nicknamed Kanaka Pung, because he looked more Hawaiian than Chinese. “I was the only one without my queue in the ’80s and ’90s,” he later recalled. He was neither chubby like a baby nor dainty like a woman. He was five feet tall and wiry and had a nasty scar on his brow. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a bullwhip.
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain, a war waged mainly in the Pacific, and Hawaii became a territory of the United States. Chang Apana was recruited by the Honolulu Police Department, which was growing, because of those two developments. In a force of more than two hundred men—the officers mainly Hawaiian and the chiefs mostly white—he was the only Chinese. He excelled, and was promoted to detective. In the nineteen-tens, he was part of a crime-busting squad. His escapades were the stuff of legend. He was said to be as agile as a cat. Thrown from a second-floor window by a gang of dope fiends, he landed on his feet. He leaped from one rooftop to the next, like a “human fly.” When he reached for his whip, thugs scattered and miscreants wept. He once arrested forty gamblers in their lair, single-handed. He was a master of disguises. Once, patrolling a pier at dawn, disguised as a poor merchant—wearing a straw hat and stained clothes and carrying baskets of coconuts, tied to a bamboo shoulder pole—he raised the alarm on a shipment of contraband even while he was being run over by a horse and buggy, and breaking his legs. He once solved a robbery by noticing a strange thread of silk on a bedroom floor. He discovered a murderer by observing that one of the suspects, a Filipino man, had changed his muddy shoes, asking him, “Why you wear new shoes this morning?”
At times, Huang gets a little carried away by the legend, caught up in the perfumed, tropical romance of it all. “Apana once climbed up walls like a pre-Spiderman sleuth and slipped into an opium dive,” he writes. But, more often, Huang’s history is bracing and expansive, moving from Chang’s exploits to chronicle the squalor of Honolulu’s Chinatown and the miseries endured by each wave of immigrant workers—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino—in a world of brutal and unbending racial hierarchy. (Between 1917 and 1957, the year Hawaii outlawed the death penalty, twenty out of the twenty-six civilians executed on the islands were Filipino, two were Korean, two Japanese, one Puerto Rican, and one Hawaiian; as Huang observes, “not a single white man was among them.”) One of Chang’s jobs was to capture lepers, for forced transport to a leper colony on the island of Molokai, to die. Hawaiians called leprosy mai pake, “Chinese sickness,” because it came to the islands in the eighteen-thirties, and appeared to have arrived with the Chinese. Chang got that scar above his right eye while trying to capture a Japanese man who had contracted leprosy and who, armed with a sickle, refused to be sent to Molokai, on a journey over what came to be called the Bridge of Sighs.
Biggers started out as a police reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He published a lot of doggerel, many short stories, and some plays. He produced his first novel in 1913. He sailed to Hawaii seven years later. He always said, though, that he came across Chang Apana, in 1924, only back in the States, while paging through a Hawaiian newspaper in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library: “In an obscure corner of an inside page, I found an item to the effect that a certain hapless Chinese, being too fond of opium, had been arrested by Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook, of the Honolulu Police. So Sergeant Charlie Chan entered the story of The House Without a Key.”
The year Biggers decided to write about Chan, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which, among other restrictions, excluded from American citizenship foreign-born “Asiatics” (a new racial category, invented by eugenicists in the nineteen-tens and codified, in 1923, by the United States Supreme Court). The trick of Huang’s book, which he doesn’t quite pull off, is to explain why so many Americans became so enamored of Charlie Chan at just this moment. Why, hating and fearing the Chinese, did they love the Chinese detective? Was he—so unmanned, so obsequious, so humbly offering his services—reassuring? Or was something else going on? On this question, Huang dodges. He begins by rejecting cause and effect, insisting that the Immigration Act neither led Biggers to write about Chan nor created an audience for him. “Crude historical determinism is mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy, an insult to the magic of the literary imagination,” Huang insists. Then he writes about America in the nineteen-twenties, and especially about the golden age of detective fiction, to point out, quite rightly, that Chan has rather a lot in common with a certain chubby, dainty, and foreign detective named Hercule Poirot, a Belgian in England who is forever being mistaken for a Frenchman, and who is also very clever, can’t keep the order of verbs and adjectives straight, speaks in aphorisms, and was created, by Agatha Christie, in 1920. But then Huang waves Poirot away. All detectives have tics, and quirks of speech, and little affectations. Chan is, somehow, in some ineluctable way, more foreign—the original inscrutable. Huang is left to conclude, vaguely, that “the fictional Chan was part of the Zeitgeist of America in the 1920s.” Well, yes. But what else?
He was, Huang argues, a “Chinaman,” a word that, beginning in the nineteenth century, worked in the United States as a slur, in a way that, say, “Frenchman,” or even “Irishman,” never did. One of the best parts of Huang’s book is his account of the invention of the Chinaman, an account that ranges from Chang and Eng, the “Siamese twins,” who, born in Siam, were of Chinese ancestry and were displayed in the United States beginning in 1829; to gold-rushing, railroad-building California, from the eighteen-fifties onward, where white Californians wrote songs like this—
My name is Sin Sin, come from China
In a bigee large shipee, commee long here
—to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; to the laundrymen in Earl Derr Biggers’s childhood Ohio.
“What is a Chinaman?” Huang asks. And one of his answers is “I am.” Huang was a sophomore at Peking University in 1989, when the student protests broke out in Tiananmen Square. He camped out on the square, and would have been there, on June 4th, when the tanks rolled in, and killed hundreds of demonstrators, except that his family had telegrammed, three days before, that his mother was “gravely ill,” and he had journeyed home, to the countryside. His family was lying. His mother was just fine. But China, for Huang, was never the same. Two years later, he left for the United States, and landed in Tuscaloosa, running a Chinese restaurant called Si Fang. Delivering boxes of fried rice to Tuscaloosans, day after day, he gave a great deal of thought to what it meant to be seen, in America, not as a man from China but as a Chinaman, a purveyor of chop suey. He left Alabama and worked his way through graduate school in Buffalo as a deliveryman for a Chinese fast-food joint. Then, at an estate sale in upstate New York, he came across some Charlie Chan books, and fell in love with the honorable detective from Honolulu. “I have met thousands of Chans,” Huang writes. “I find him to be the strangest and most impressive Chan ever.”
Huang has written other books, scholarly studies of “transpacific imagination” and “transpacific displacement.” But finding Chan became his passion. He drove across Ohio, looking for the place in Akron where, according to the census, a man named Charlie Chan ran a laundry, in 1900. He read in endless archives. He flew to Honolulu, and went to Chang Apana’s house at 3737 Waialae Avenue. What is a Chinaman? Huang is fascinated by this question, and spent more than ten years gumshoeing all over America, trying to answer it, missing China, missing Chan, wishing for a world where soldiers don’t kill students, and where a racist parody isn’t so much racist as parody.
Chang Apana met Earl Derr Biggers in 1928. By then, people in Honolulu had taken to calling Chang Charlie Chan. In 1926, Biggers published another Chan mystery, “The Chinese Parrot,” sold eight hundred thousand copies, and, with the royalties, bought a house in Pasadena, where he hired a Chinese servant named Gung Wong. Biggers next published “Behind That Curtain”—about which the Times said Chan had earned “a prominent place in the gallery of fictional sleuths”—and “The Chinese Parrot” was made into a silent film, starring the Japanese actor Kamiyama Sôjin. (No print of either Sôjin’s “Chinese Parrot” or the 1926 film of “The House Without a Key,” starring George Kuwa, survives.) Biggers sailed from California to Hawaii in the summer of 1928, and met with Chang on July 5th, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Chang’s nephew Chang Joe served as interpreter. Biggers later recalled Chang as “a man who can laugh even as he reaches for the whip.” There is no record of what Chang thought of Biggers. The two men posed for a photograph, taken by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau. It was printed in the newspaper with the caption “AUTHOR MEETS ‘LIVE’ CHINESE DETECTIVE.”
In 1929, Biggers published “The Black Camel” and, soon after, “Charlie Chan Carries On,” which sold thirty-five thousand four hundred copies in its first four months alone. In 1930, Biggers earned more than seventeen thousand dollars in royalties. (“You know how much Apana get?” Chang’s nephew Walter Chang once asked an interviewer. “Not even nickel!”) That year, Fox cast Warner Oland as Chan, in an adaptation of “Charlie Chan Carries On” (of which no print survives). Oland, born in Sweden in 1880, had, beginning in 1917, specialized in playing Oriental villains, including Dr. Fu Manchu. (Oland’s mother was Russian, and he had Slavic features.) Biggers, on learning that Oland would be playing Chan, wrote to his publisher, “Hope to heaven he understands what sort of character Charlie is—not a sinister Fu Manchu.” But when he saw the film Biggers was pleased: “After all these weary years, they have got Charlie right on the screen.”
In the nineteen-thirties, the Chan movies kept Fox afloat. Oland studied Chinese, travelled to China, and learned Chinese calligraphy. He was paid forty thousand dollars per film. Fox made sixteen Chan films between 1931 and 1939; Oland died in the middle of shooting the seventeenth. Biggers once tried to get Chang a part in a Chan film, for which he would have been paid five hundred dollars. Chang turned it down. But Chang loved the movies. Walter Chang remembered going to meet his uncle at the police station, at two o’clock in the afternoon, to go to a matinée, to watch movies, any movies, and especially Charlie Chan movies: “He like the movies. Oh, the movies.” Keye Luke, a dashing Canton-born American artist and actor who played Lee Chan, Charlie’s No. 1 Son, in seven Oland-Chan films, loved them, too. Luke, who died in 1991, was exasperated with the argument that Oland, as Chan, “demeans the race.” “Demeans! My God!” Luke said. As he saw it, “we were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood.”
In May of 1931, Fox shot “The Black Camel” on location, in Honolulu—the only Oland-Chan movie filmed in Hawaii. The movie is about the making of movies, and the art of deception. (“Hollywood is famous furnisher of mysteries,” Chan says.) The murder victim is an actress, in Hawaii to shoot a film on location. Bela Lugosi, who had just finished being Dracula, plays a very creepy psychic named Tarneverro. Chan tries to pass himself off as a Chinese merchant; Tarneverro, “lifter of veils,” sees through him.
Chang Apana, now in his sixties, was invited to watch the filming. He and Oland met, on Kailua Beach, and posed for a photograph together. Chang looks amused. Oland is grinning. Oland inscribed the back of the photograph, “To my dear friend, Charlie Chang, ‘The bravest of all,’ with best of luck, from the new ‘Charlie Chan,’ Warner Oland.”
Chang missed hardly a day of shooting. In one scene, someone tells Charlie Chan that he ought to have a lie detector. “Lie detector?” Chan asks. “Ah, I see! You mean wife. I got one.” Chang laughed and laughed. It was only a rehearsal, though, and no one captured on tape the sound Yunte Huang most wanted to hear.
Do you like mysteries? Check out In Reference to Murder .
"The blog Philosophy of Science Portal provides the interesting background story behind the Charlie Chan series by Earl Derr Biggers and some of its lasting influence on pop culture."