Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
by Yunte Huang
Reviewed by Elinor Langer
A few years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations forced many of the students who participated to leave China, Yunte Huang, a lonely graduate student in English in upstate New York, stumbled on the Charlie Chan detective series at a garage sale and became an "avid fan."
Fresh from the deep South where as a "yellow" man in a place where the primary colors are black and white, Huang had seen himself as a "bottom-feeding fish ... in [a] muddy pond." He felt an instant affinity not only for the iconic Chinese detective in pre-statehood 1920s Hawaii but for all the Chinese residents of the United States before and since who, like it or not, lived in his aura.
The result is Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, an investigation of the biographical and cultural relationships between the fictional Chan, his white American author and the real-life Honolulu detective who was comfortable with them both. It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down.
At the center of the story is neither Chan nor Ohio-born writer Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote the six novels that became 47 films, but Chang Apana. The son of a Chinese plantation worker and a Hawaiian mother, Apana rose from rounding up cattle on a ranch to rounding up troublemakers in Honolulu's Chinatown, earning the gratitude and respect of a wide range of Honolulu's citizens along the way. Whether or not Biggers knew of Apana before he invented Chan is a moot point -- Huang could not confirm Biggers' story that he had seen a newspaper item about one of Apana's more famous arrests. When they met in Honolulu at the peak of Biggers' fame, the detective regaled the writer with his solution to a vicious murder in which he snared his suspect by asking, "Why you wear new shoes this morning?" The line turned up in one of Biggers' subsequent books.
Far from being offended at his appearance in Biggers' novels, Apana evidently liked being Charlie Chan, "happily [autographing] the Chan novels for admiring locals and curious tourists," Huang reports. The Tourist Bureau publicized the 1928 meeting between the two men on the terrace of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel by releasing not the real photo of "a wizened old man in a Western suit and tie" sitting across the table from the lucky American but a staged version in which the role of Apana playing Chan is played by a Chinese bellboy in a long silk robe, only one instance of the human and social complexities Huang's book so warmly and generously explores.
And explores deeply as well. 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. Like Apana, Biggers and Chan, Huang himself -- now a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- is alive on the page.