Synopses & Reviews
On a balmy July night in 1904, a wiry figure sauntered alone through the dim alleys of Honolulu's Chinatown. He strolled up a set of rickety steps and into a smoky gambling den ringing with jeers of card sharks and crapshooters. By the time anyone recognized the infamous bullwhip dangling from his hand, it was too late. Single-handedly, the feared, five-foot-tall Hawaiian cop, Chang Apana, had lined up forty gamblers and marched them down to the police station. So begins Charlie Chan, Yunte Huang's absorbing history of the legendary Cantonese detective, born in Hawaii around 1871, who inspired a series of fiction and movie doubles that long defined America's distorted perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans. In chronicling the real-life story and the fraught narrative of one of Hollywood's most iconic detectives, Huang has fashioned a historical drama where none was known to exist, creating a work that will, in the words of Jonathan Spence, "permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story." Himself a literary sleuth, Huang has traced Charlie Chan's evolution from island legend to pop culture icon to vilified, postmodern symbol, ingeniously juxtaposing Apana's rough-and-tumble career against the larger backdrop of a territorial Hawaii torn apart by virulent racism. Apana's bravado prompted not only Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate turned author, to write six Charlie Chan mysteries but also Hollywood to manufacture over forty movies starring a grammatically challenged detective with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into singsong Chinatown blues. Examining hundreds of biographical, literary, and cinematic sources, in English and in his native Chinese, Huang has pursued the trail of Charlie Chan since the mid-1990s, searching for clues in places as improbable as Harvard Yard, an Ohio cornfield, a weathered Hawaiian cemetery, and the Shanghai Bund. His efforts to refashion the Charlie Chan legend became a personal mission, as if the answers he sought would reshape his own identity--no longer a top Chinese student but an immigrant American eager to absorb the bewildering history of his adopted homeland. "With rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence," Huang has ascribed a starring role to "the honorable detective," one far more enduring than any of his wisecracking movie parts. Huang presents American history in a way that it has never been told before.
"From the decline of the native Hawaiian population that brought about the importation of Chinese laborers, to their later exclusion from the United States to the rise of the movie industry that turned Charlie Chan into a national hero, and much more, Huang has put together whatever he needed to know to make sense of the unlikely facts. Post-stereotype and -outrage-at-stereotype, he writes from the point of view of a Chinese outsider simply interested in the phenomena, using his own experience as a guide to the deeper roots of racism and assimilation, but never overdoing it." Elinor Langer, The Oregonian
(Read the entire Oregonian review
This is the first biography of the cinematic hero Charlie Chan, whose character was inspired by the real-life story of Chang Apana, a bullwhip-wielding, five-foot-tall Chinese immigrant detective whose raids on opium dens and gambling parlors made him into a legend.
Emerging against the backdrop of racially riven early-twentieth-century Hawaii, Apana's bravado inspired mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate, to write six best-selling Charlie Chan novels. The resulting Hollywood character was not a stereotypical Chinaman but a wisecracking sleuth with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into soup-alley Chinatown blues.
Yunte Huang's exploration of this remarkable story asks whether Chan is a Yellow Uncle Tom or a swell dish of chop suey mystery. Examining Charlie Chan in fact and fiction, Huang follows this untold story from the glittering beaches of Waikiki to the movie studios of Hollywood.
Fiction and reality collide head-on in this groundbreaking biography of a real Honolulu detective turned American movie icon.
Shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography and the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book: "An ingenious and absorbing book, that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through both Chinese and Western eyes. It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story."--Jonathan Spence, author of and
"An ingenious and absorbing book that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through both Chinese and Western eyes. It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story." --Jonathan Spence, author of and "Huang's deft and witty recounting of how Hollywood transformed a real-life detective from Hawaii into one of the most recognizable--and problematic--racial icons in movie history tells us much that we need to know about America's engagement with race and identity in the twentieth century. Race was clearly more than black and white, a thing to keep in mind as we move through our increasingly multicultural century." --Annette Gordon-Reed, author of "Provocative and unique, Charlie Chan expands the yellowface debate with mischievous humor and a compelling sense of irony. In bringing the actual Honolulu detective, Chang Apana, and his distorted Hollywood reflections to vivid life, Yunte Huang opens up important historical perspectives that have gone previously unexamined." --Jessica Hagedorn, author of and editor of "A significant work of American history written in a stimulating and masterful way. Most impressive is Yunte Huang's ability to create a nuanced cultural and racial history out of the fictional Charlie Chan." --Peter Kwong, author of "Yunte Huang's gripping is an exploration of the celebrated Chinese detective of popular fiction and film. Himself a brilliant sleuth, Huang follows a trail of clues that leads to Honolulu and the deeply impressive career of Chang Apana, the Chinese-born detective on whom the character was based. From here the story fans out to encompass a great swath of the social and literary cultures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tangled experience of Asian immigration to the United States, and the tormented history of American race relations. Huang writes with rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence." --Stephen Greenblatt, author of
About the Author
Yunte Huang, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Transpacific Imaginations and Charlie Chan. Born in China, he lives in Santa Barbara, California.