Book aims to redefine Charlie Chan for Asian-Americans

Thu Aug 19, 2010 5:18pm EDT
 
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Karina Ioffee

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Yunte Huang has a secret.

He loves Charlie Chan, the pudgy Chinese detective from 1920s Hollywood films who solved inscrutable crimes and has long been reviled by many Asian-American scholars as a negative stereotype best left to the dusty shelves of history books.

Huang's "Charlie Chan," which hit bookstores this week, looks at the real-life roof-jumping, opium den-busting cop upon whom the book and movie character was based, and it explores how the fictional character was loved by Americans at the same time many fierce, anti-foreigner laws were being passed.

"To many Caucasians, Chan is an hysterical Chinaman with funny grammar who dishes out fortune cookie aphorisms," Huang told Reuters. "On the other hand, he feeds into all these negative stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans; that they can't speak English well, they are overly polite and subservient to their boss.

"What I wanted to do was try to reconcile these two sides of him."

Huang grew up in China and discovered Chan after stumbling on some books by Earl Derr Biggers at an estate sale in New York. That led him to the original detective on whom the character is based, Chang Apana, who was born in Hawaii, raised in China and returned to the island to become a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy.

Eventually Apana, who was illiterate, joined the Honolulu Police Department, where he became one of the most respected detectives on the squad. He died in 1933.

"Charlie Chan" uses old newspaper clippings, anecdotes and interviews to tell about Apana, and it uses his life and career as a sort of mirror to reflect the experiences of many Asian Americans.   Continued...

 
<p>Author Yunte Huang poses in this undated publicity photograph. Huang has a secret. He loves Charlie Chan, the pudgy Chinese detective from 1920s Hollywood films who solved inscrutable crimes and has long been reviled by many Asian-American scholars as a negative stereotype best left to the dusty shelves of history books. Huang's "Charlie Chan," which hit bookstores this week, looks at the real-life cop upon whom the book and movie character was based, and it explores how the fictional character was loved by Americans at the same time many fierce, anti-foreigner laws were being passed. REUTERS/Courtesy W.W. Norton/Handout</p>