Book Summary of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective

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

Book Summary

Charlie Chan is a fictional character. He’s a Chinese detective created by a white Southerner author. White actors portrayed the character in over forty films in the 1930s and 1940s. 

A real-life Hawaiian police detective, Chang Apana, partially inspired the fictional Charlie Chan. Chang Apana was born Ah Pung sometime around 1871 to a poor Chinese laborer. He spent a few years in China but was born and spent most of his life in Hawaii.

Chang Apana was an American original. He became a cowboy (paniolo), which was good training for the dangerous life of a policeman in Honolulu. Years later, the mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers saw a news article referencing his exploits. “Charlie Chan” was born.

Americans fell in love with the exploits of the fictional Charlie Chan, which led to a successful movie franchise. American filmgoers loved the mystique of the foreign. A Swedish-American actor portraying Charlie Chan did not stop his popularity in China. 

The racism of the time, especially the concern of interracial relationships, limited the opportunities of non-white actors. Anna May Wong, a talented Chinese-American actress, struggled to obtain good roles. After the Charlie Chan series ran its course, anti-Chinese feeling was particularly problematic during the Red Scare era of the 1950s.  

The story of Chang Apana, as this book affirms, is much more than just one man’s biography. Not only did his rough-and-tumble exploits inspire the creation of a memorable cultural icon, but the very creators of the Charlie Chan persona also led lives that were the stuff of legends.

Yunte Huang

Yunte Huang, a Chinese immigrant himself, fits the story of the actual and fictional Chinese detectives into the broader history of the times. Huang provides helpful historical context while telling a fascinating story. Huang’s own life story adds one more twist to the book.  

Why I Read This Book 

I first found out about Yunte Huang, a professor of English, when I saw a review of his new book about the actress Anna May Wong.  He also wrote a book about the famous Siamese twins.  

My interest in film and history encouraged me to read his Anna May Wong biography. I found the book interesting and well-written. My main complaint is that Huang used too many unnecessary background details instead of being more focused on Wong’s life story. 

This book tones down the historical “color” some, perhaps because Huang has more material to cover. I think the result is a more enjoyable book. I also liked his occasional personal details about his own life. It provided a personal touch without interfering with the main story.  

The lay reader should enjoy this book as much as those with more expertise in the material covered. He also has a balanced take, including regarding the racist aspects of the fictional characters. The book has several black and white photographs. Pictures are appreciated. 

Huang is not a professional historian. Nonetheless, he has some training in history and the book is well-sourced. The book overall is reliable.  

Film: A Window Into The Past 

I own the book  Past Imperfect, which examines a range of historical films, providing analysis of the films themselves and comparing them to the actual events involved. For instance, the film 1776 is a semi-fictional musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  

While I am writing this, Oppenheimer received much kudos for portraying the life of a prominent player in the Manhattan Project, the race to build the nuclear bomb during WWII.  Historical films, however, should always be taken with a grain of salt. They are both history and entertainment.  A lot of “dramatic license” takes place.  They are “based on history.”

Classical mystery films such as the Charlie Chan series, which YouTube allows easy access, are also historically valuable. They are a window into the past, including what mass entertainment (as it often does) “taught” people through the decades.  

Yunte Huang does not ignore the racist element, including stereotypical African-American characters in Charlie Chan films. He does argue that cinema regularly provided exaggerated versions of a range of ethnicities, including Jews, the Irish, and yes, white Protestants.  Huang argues art overall is a funhouse mirror reflection of reality.  

And, Chan overall was a heroic character, both funny and someone (unlike the real-life version), white police officials always entrusted to solve the mystery.  

Chinese-American Life 

Yunte Huang’s trilogy of books about Chinese-American celebrities each has a subtitle referencing “American history.” Huang has an interest beyond the quite intriguing characters themselves. He is concerned about their place in American history.  

Chang Apana’s story provides a window into Chinese-American history. We learn about how the United States colonized Hawaii. Chinese laborers were welcomed in Hawaii even though Asian Americans were deemed a threat on the mainland. We also discover what is happening in China, including the Japanese invasion.  

Chang Apana’s ability to become a successful Hawaiian policeman shows the complexity of the times. The same holds for an infamous trial in which Apana has a passing role. 

The chapter shows how an alleged rape that seemed likely another racist statistic involving a travesty of justice worked out somewhat differently. Biracial juries were willing to provide some genuine justice. Clarence Darrow remembered as a civil libertarian, ironically turned out to be one of the most questionable people involved in the case. 

The Anna May Wong biography has more of the same, including more information on the development of the Chinese settlement of California.  

“Yellow Face” 

Culture is a way of life, intellectual advancement, and ideal activities deemed “high art.” Ethnicity divides people by national origins and distinctive cultural activities. Race is a social construction that is often somehow tied to skin color. This book covers all three

The portrayal of race in film over the years is a case study of the social creation of race. Chinese people in film were long portrayed as exotic and dangerous.  The actor who became famous for playing Charlie Chan, for instance, first portrayed the evil mastermind, Fu Manchu.  

The portrayal of white actors (and many famous ones did so, if not as offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s) as Asians was known as “yellowface.” Keye Luke might have voiced Charlie Chan in a 1970s animated series (a young Jodie Foster voiced one of his daughters), but except in a couple of early films, all Charlie Chans were white. 

Keye Luke defended the Charlie Chan films from criticism. He argued they provided a positive character with heroic qualities. Nonetheless, over time, they became controversial and felt to be out of date. This might be why while Perry Mason, another 1930s creation, became an HBO series (with many modern touches), Charlie Chan was not. 

This is unfortunate. I think a good series, maybe about Apana himself, can be had.