China-born poet and critic Huang (English/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara/Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics, 2008, etc.) recounts the making of an American folk hero.
Debuting as a minor character in novelist Earl Derr Biggers’ The House Without a Key (1925), Charlie Chan attained enormous popularity through six novels and nearly 50 films, as well as radio dramas and a comic strip, creating what the author calls a “tortured legacy in American culture, a legacy that at once endears and offends millions.” By the late ’40s, the genial, aphorism-spouting detective was firmly established as a funny, beloved figure, or as a Yellow Uncle Tom, depending on one’s point of view. In this original, deeply personal account, Huang illuminates every conceivable aspect of Chan and his place in American culture. His vibrant narrative tells the stories of Biggers, a newspaperman turned novelist, who created Chan as an alternative to Sax Rohmer’s villainous character Fu Manchu; Chang Apana, a legendary, crime-busting Chinese cop in Honolulu who wore a Panama hat, carried a bullwhip and became the real-life basis for Chan; and the fictional Chan, who entered American popular culture just as nativists succeeded in pushing through anti-Chinese immigrant legislation. Chan was played in hit movies by Swedish actor Warner Oland and others and has been vehemently dismissed in recent years as nothing more than a racial stereotype by author and playwright Frank Chin and other prominent Asian Americans. Huang takes a balanced view. Chan is a racist stereotype, he writes, but he is also a folk hero, exemplifying the “cultural miscegenation” that critic Stanley Crouch calls “the catalyst of the American experience.” The author makes a convincing case for Chan’s place in film history not as an Uncle Tom but rather as one in a line of wise detectives with eccentricities, including Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. An appendix offers more than 50 “Charlie Chanisms.”
Multilayered, provocative and highly accessible, this will appeal to Chan fans, scholars and general readers.