Professor Yunte Huang’s recent book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton and Co, 2010) attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of a character that has for decades been considered a degrading racist stereotype. Huang’s efforts are particularly timely in light of the Chinese-American sleuth’s revival on DVD; the numerous boxed sets have sold very well, even in a depressed market for classic films on video. However, the fact that today’s Charlie Chan fans tend to be middle-aged (or older) white males does nothing to banish the specter of racism that surrounds the character. On internet fan forums dedicated to Chan, accusations of racism are usually quickly dismissed as hyper-sensitivity or failure to take into account historical context. As a Chan fan who is also a Chinese immigrant and scholar specializing in the historical intersections between Asian and American literature, Huang is in a unique position to defend the “honorable detective.”
First, Huang argues that Chan’s critics present a reductive, caricatured view of the character, who is in fact “a multilayered Chinese box” that “encapsulates both the racial tensions and creative energies of a multicultural nation” (xvii, 280). Huang acknowledges Chan’s stereotypical qualities but asserts that the stereotype is a positive one when compared to contemporaneous representations like Fu Manchu. Where critics like playwright Frank Chin see Chan as a reprehensible symbol of subservient acculturation, Huang understands Chan’s “cultural miscegenation” as “epitomiz[ing] the creative genius of American culture” (282-283). Referring to Huck Finn, hip-hop, and George Carlin, Huang argues that racism has a role to play in art. He positions Chan as an example of “a peculiar American brand of trickster prevalent in ethnic literature” that flourishes “in spite of as well as because of racism.” (287).
Huang’s arguments, erudite as they are, resemble the typical response of the Chan fan in their call to recognize but “look past” the racism. Yet for all the time Huang spends on his personal relationship with Chan (including details of his research trips for the book), he never fully explains why the character appeals to him. And for all of Huang’s references to “creative genius”, he never discusses the aesthetic merits of the books and films (xx). Isn’t Chan’s lingering popularity due in part to the fact that the films are lively, enjoyable mysteries? Does Huang especially enjoy the books because he identifies with Chan in a way that a white American-born fan cannot? He doesn’t say.
In any event, it’s unlikely that Huang’s assortment of arguments will do much to convince Charlie Chan’s most vocal critics. (Listen to Frank Chin’s highly critical response here, and note the listener comment that refers to Huang as a “Chinese Uncle Tom.”) But if Huang’s defense of Chan is not entirely satisfying, it remains perhaps the only reasonable defense, as it does not ignore the way in which the character embodies the racism of its era, while also arguing that one’s enjoyment of Charlie Chan need not be grounded in a racist condescension. But the questions remain: is it possible to enjoy a racist media text in good conscience? Can (and should) a text’s problematic racial representations be divorced from its other qualities, such as its generic appeals?
Despite what this review might imply, Huang’s book spends relatively little time defending Chan. Rather, it is a breezy pop history that tells the Chan story (including the fascinating life of Chang Apana, the Honolulu police officer that inspired the character) while also using Chan as a structuring device for the book, a highly digressive work that deals with the history of institutionalized racism against the Chinese in America and pre-statehood Hawaii. Huang deals with a tremendous variety of topics (albeit in fairly shallow fashion), including the history of Chinese immigration, Chinese representation in the American media, the notorious Massie Case, and Huang’s own personal history. Huang’s original research seems to have centered around Apana and Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers; the research in the film section is quite thin. Here Huang relies on old Chan fan histories and internet sources, making the book a fun, interesting read for the general reader, but not particularly valuable for the film scholar.