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Author Investigates Real-Life Inspiration for Fictional Charlie Chan

'Charlie Chan at the Circus' (1936), starring Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke as Number One Son.

Popular character was based on Chinese-American cowboy turned detective

The fictional Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was the subject of popular books and movies for many decades. In recent years, however, the character has been criticized as a stereotyped caricature of Asian-Americans.

Author Yunte Huang says that’s not the case. He has explored the character and real-life policeman who inspired him in the book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History."

Charlie Chan has been a familiar character to readers and film-goers, beginning in the 1920s. The globe-trotting detective solved crimes in more than 40 films through the 1940s, and with the advent of television, found a new audience in the 1950s and 1960s.

Huang, an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was born in China and discovered Charlie Chan through books by American author Earl Derr Biggers, who created the character.

"One day, I was at an estate sale in Buffalo, New York, and I found these two Charlie Chan novels. At that point I thought I knew that he was a negative stereotype against Asians, but when I read the book," he says, "I was immediately hooked. And ever since then, I've been a fan of Charlie Chan."

Author Yunte Huang's 'Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History,' explores the true-life inspiration for the fictional detective.
Author Yunte Huang's 'Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History,' explores the true-life inspiration for the fictional detective.

Huang believes Chan’s broken English and unusual aphorisms - ostensibly ancient sayings - were part of his charm.

"Let me just quote a few if I may - 'Actions speak louder than French,' or 'Mind like parachute. Only function when open.' Charlie Chan always attributes these aphorisms to Confucius’ oriental wisdom, but as we know, most of these kind of fortune cookie sayings, including fortune cookies today, are made in America."

As a fan of the books and films, Huang was surprised to learn that Charlie Chan was based on a real detective named Chang Apana, who was born to Chinese parents in Hawaii around 1871. Apana worked as a cowboy herding cattle, and in 1898, when Hawaii was annexed by the United States, joined the Honolulu police force.

"And he almost immediately became a local legend because as a former cowboy," says Huang, "he would walk the most dangerous beats in Chinatown carrying a bullwhip. He never carried a gun. He didn't need that."

Author Yunte Huang
Author Yunte Huang

Biggers may have learned about Apana from Honolulu newspapers. His first Charlie Chan novel was published in 1925. The first film was released one year later. Apana died in 1933 as a local legend, his reputation enhanced by the exploits of his fictional counterpart.

But critics say the portrayal of Charlie Chan, with his broken English, is embarrassing for Asian-Americans. In early silent films, he was played by Asian actors, but later producers would cast Westerners in the part, first Warner Oland and later Sidney Toler. Chinese-American actors, including Keye Luke, who played Charlie’s "Number One Son," were relegated to supporting roles.

But Huang isn't bothered by the casting of Western actors in the leading role.

"Growing up, for instance, in Chinese operatic culture, watching Chinese operas, cross-dressing, men playing women, or someone playing others, is taken for granted. It's almost a must. It's no fun doing yourself. So, coming from that kind of culture, I was quite comfortable, really, watching a white man playing an Asian character."

Huang notes that there is a history of what he calls "racial ventriloquism" in the United States, dating from early minstrel shows with white performers wearing black-face makeup. The practice was the result of racial prejudice and restrictions on non-whites, but Huang tells Asian-Americans that Charlie Chan fought racial prejudice with quiet dignity, regardless of who played him. The character outwitted both criminals and those who looked down on him because of his race.

"And I'm trying to convince them, you cannot dismiss Charlie Chan," says Huang. "If you dismiss him, basically you are dismissing American culture and what is most interesting - troubling, sometimes - but fascinating."

For Huang, the fictional Charlie Chan is highly entertaining, while the real-life policeman, Chang Apana, is a Chinese-American success, whose story is worth telling.