Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Charlie Chan: Chinaman or Chinese Man

Charlie Chan racetrackIn the October 28, 2010, issue of The New York Review of Books, Richard Bernstein reviews Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang.

As a child of the first television generation—I was six when we got ours in 1950—I devoured Laurel and Hardy, The Bowery Boys/East Side Kids, westerns, World War II movies, and especially Charlie Chan.

This was a world before the civil rights movement. But there were stirrings. South Pacific opened in New York in 1949, addressing racial prejudice as a main theme. But contrary to the lyrics of You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, which assumes that children are pure in opinion unless they are…

taught to be afraid
of people whose eyes are oddly made,
and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

…in a January 2009 blog post, I noted that the converse is also true: you have to be carefully taught to be colorblind. In my childhood’s climate of commonplace and pervasive racial stereotypes, I was fortunate to have parents who lived and carefully taught that lesson.

Growing up Jewish in a small, racially diverse, Southern California farming town, I first became aware of prejudice contemporaneously with that original TV in our living room. I had heard stories of the Holocaust, but they were faraway and, because I had no family destroyed in its horror, unapproachably evil. Separated from children of color by the Southern Pacific tracks that ran like a fence through my town, I sat in primary school classrooms that were almost entirely white. Nonetheless, my parents were unwavering in their efforts to bring social justice into the lives of their children.

I was made aware that the typical Negro movie role of servant, laborer, or shuffling incompetent was spectacularly and unfairly stereotypical when my father’s choice to build an addition onto our home (I was ten) was an African-American contractor whose daughter, Shirley Verrett, later became a world-renown opera singer.

So when I watched Charlie Chan solve mysteries solely with his intellect, without force, I was intrigued and appreciative. Sure he talked in a fractured Chinglish

• Bad alibi like dead fish – cannot stand test of time. (“Charlie Chan in Panama”)
• Cannot see contents of nut until shell is cracked. (“Charlie Chan in Paris”)
• Innocent act without thinking; guilty always make plans. (“The Sky Dragon”)
• Mind, like parachute, only function when open. (“Charlie Chan at the Circus”)

…but his Number One Son (Keye Luke) spoke perfectly, so I assumed the immigrant detective, a transplant to Hawaii, was no less intelligent than my Old World-accented grandmothers (either whom I suspect could have solved any mystery).

The review of Huang’s book addresses how some Asian-Americans have expressed displeasure at the image that Charlie Chan projected: bowing, deferential, mincing steps, a feminine/passive demeanor.

I always saw him as the smartest man in the room. I saw him as a hero.

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Addendum: Click here for an interview with Yunte Huang, professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, about his book.

3 Comments

  1. Yunte Huang says:

    “I always saw him as the smartest man in the room. I saw him as a hero.” I can’t agree more, and that’s the central message of my book. Let me know what you think of the book when you get a chance. Thanks! YH

  2. […] The second book was Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. It deals with the reality upon which Chan’s character was based (real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana) and the racial implications of an intelligent Chinese hero in American fiction. I’ve already posted about it. […]

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