New York The Swede played him most memorably, followed by the portly middle-aged white guy from Missouri. When they were both done and the series was gasping its final breaths, the one-time radio announcer for the Boston Red Sox got a short-lived shot.
But throughout his phenomenally successful 17-year run in Hollywood movies — from the Depression’s beginnings well into postwar America — never, ever was Charlie Chan brought to life by a Chinese actor.
Unsurprising. Because from his earliest appearances in books and movies, the ethnically Chinese detective from Hawaii invented by Earl Derr Biggers was, really, always about racial politics in one way or another. Yet he was never quite what you’d expect.
It is this continual defying of expectation that breathes life into Yunte Huang’s new book, “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History,” an attempt to trace the character to its origins and link it up with a real-life Honolulu police officer named Chang Apana.
Why do this at all? Huang, a China-born English professor at the University of California, sums it up: “To write about Charlie Chan is to write about the undulations of the American cultural experience.”
Huang is an elegant and amiable, if occasionally overly hopeful, tour guide. It is fascinating to travel with him as he unearths the layers of racial significance surrounding the character’s “tortured legacy in American culture.”
While many Asians dismiss Charlie Chan as pure racism — according to Huang, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association calls the detective “one of the most offensive Asian caricatures of America’s cinematic past” — Huang finds more to the story.
First, he journeys to Hawaii to compile a semi-biography of Apana, a bullwhip-wielding Honolulu cop who resisted corruption, patrolled diligently for decades and, in an environment rife with racism, made detective and became legendary.
In the 1920s, Apana’s reputation drew the attention of Biggers, who was researching a new novel that would, ultimately, give birth to Charlie Chan. While Huang proves his case only partially in connecting Apana with Chan’s origins, he does show how both Biggers and Warner Oland — the Swedish actor who played Chan — perceived Apana as the cinematic character and met with Apana in Hawaii.
“If Charlie Chan must have an original, he could not have a better one,” Huang quotes Biggers as saying, though the evidence he presents suggests that Biggers may have retrofitted the origin story to make Apana the inspiration.
Charlie Chan had a brief life in silent movies in the late 1920s, when he was portrayed by at least two Asian actors. The character really took off, however, when Oland assumed the role in 1931, launching a series that would traverse nearly two decades and two movie studios.