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Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History

By Yunte Huang

(W.W. Norton, 354 pp., $26.95) 

Even in our fading half-life of cultural memory, the notion may endure that 1925 was a good moment for American literature. In that year, we were given Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Hemingway was writing The Sun Also Rises. But 1925 was even better than that, for it was in that year that Earl Derr Biggers published The House Without a Key, the novel that introduced the reading public to Charlie Chan: “His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.” In short, a Chinaman as perceived by an alarmed Caucasian. His first words are pure pidgin (if that is possible): “No knife are present in neighborhood of crime.”

It was the start of a franchise, and a building block in our condescending xenophobia. It was also the launching point of one of the most entertaining, informative, and provocative books I have read in a long time–an inspired and witty travel book, so long as you see cultural history as a place for travel. Charlie Chan, the title announces, and that is its linchpin, I suppose; but this is a cheerfully digressive book in which Yunte Huang tells us much also about Hawaii, the history of immigration and prejudice, the Chinese in America, the movie business, and the charm that has always made a lot of questionable characters and themes click in popular fiction–not to mention the stew of reality and mythology that lurks beneath the verdict, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” the last words of a classic American movie made by a famously uneasy Pole.

Earl Derr Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1884. A Harvard graduate with delicate health, he got a job as a crime reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but he was fired because of his inclination to turn fact into fiction. At the Boston Traveler that habit was indulged, until he was fired again. So he wrote a novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, published in 1913, and enough of a success to permit marriage. Thereupon he was taken up by the Saturday Evening Post as a short-story writer, and he also plunged into the theater, doing his own plays and doctoring those by others. But he was so furiously busy that he had a breakdown and took himself to Hawaii to recover.

It was 1920, and Hawaii seemed like paradise. Mark Twain, who had visited, called it “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” For survival the islands depended on sandalwood and sugar cane, the latter of which required an ample supply of cheap labor. And thus the Hawaiian authorities–it had been a kingdom with kings until the American takeover in 1898–called for workers from China. Twain (another journalist drawn to fiction) saw the hiring of “coolies” this way: “Some of them were cripples, some were lunatics, some afflicted with incurable diseases, and nearly all were intractable, full of fight, and animated by the spirit of the very devil. However, the planters managed to tone them down and now they like them very well. Their former trade of cutting throats on the China seas has made them uncommonly handy at cutting cane. They are steady, industrious workers when properly watched.”

Who would doubt Mark Twain–or miss the natural assurance of racism? In the second half of the nineteenth century, according to Yunte Huang, more than 46,000 Chinese laborers came to Hawaii and flourished–no matter that on the American mainland the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had curtailed immigration, inspired by feelings of resentment among white workers and the overall assumption of Chinese threat embodied in Bret Harte’s poem “The Heathen Chinee.” The number of Chinese in the United States, much increased by the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad, fell by nearly half everywhere but in Hawaii in the early years of the twentieth century.

In popular culture, nothing expressed this paranoia better than the character of Fu Manchu, launched by Sax Rohmer (whose real name was Arthur Henry Ward, from Birmingham and south London) in 1913 in his novel, The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu: Being a Somewhat Detailed Account of the Amazing Adventures of Nayland Smith in His Trailing of the Sinister Chinaman. Fu Manchu is “a superman with a satanic heart,” according to Yunte Huang. As Rohmer introduces his character, the incense of melodrama hangs in the air: “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government.”

Invest away. The Fu Manchu novel was a big hit, reprinted twenty times and doing a great deal to bolster the bad reputation of that part of east London known as “Limehouse”–“a vista of dark streets, shadowy yellow-faced forms, the brief flash of a knife blade, a scream in the night, a bloated corpse fished up from the murky waters of the Thames.” The book is one part Dickens, one part silent cinema, and one part widespread dread of the “Chink.” I use that nasty word because D.W. Griffith’s film of 1919, Broken Blossoms, comes from a story, “The Chink and the Child,” by Thomas Burke and uses that dismissive name. Lillian Gish, brutalized by a drunken father, finds sympathy and love from a Chinese man living in Limehouse. I daresay Griffith felt he was offering a sentimental rescue of the Chinese in this film, yet there are so many automatic assumptions made by the movie that we may be reminded of how, a few years earlier, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and its use of blackface rascals had done so much to resuscitate the dormant Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, the Chinese man in Broken Blossoms could not be played by a Chinese actor–it is Richard Barthelmess (a handsome romantic lead actor), with slanted eyes, a lot of makeup, and the overall instruction to be aloof, still, and inscrutable.

This was the cultural climate in which Earl Derr Biggers came to Hawaii in 1920. He took a cottage in Waikiki and sat there staring at the ocean and dreaming. He began to write: “The shadows cast by the tall cocoanut palms lengthened and deepened, the light of the falling sun flamed on Diamond Head and tinted with gold the rollers sweeping in from the coral reef. A few late swimmers, reluctant to depart, dotted those waters whose touch is like the caress of a lover. On the springboard of the nearest float a slim brown girl poised for one delectable instant. What a figure!... Like an arrow the slender figure rose, then fell; the perfect dive, silent and clean.”

It is a thriller done in tourist brochure prose. Biggers could write that stuff as easily as spreading butter on hot toast, but he also had real ingenuity. Those sentences are the opening of The House Without a Key, and its vision of a murder committed by someone who dives off a ship, comes to shore, does the foul deed, and then swims back to the ship–a murderer vanished in the night. Biggers may not have known where he was going, but as the mystery unfolds he summons up a detective, a Chinese operator living in Honolulu, to solve the case. Very quickly, the mystery yields to the enchantment of the detective. He is plump, slow, a little lazy, a man with many children and this unforgettable way of talking: “Big head is only a good place for a very large headache”; “Favorite pastime of man is fooling himself”; “Door of opportunity swing both ways”; “Optimist only sees doughnut, pessimist sees hole”–and so on. It is a shameless but amusing conglomeration of “Confucius say” and fortune cookie wisdom, and it is a way people talk only in movies–or talking pictures. More specifically, it is Charlie Chan, who from the outset was as adorable as Fu Manchu was alarming. He is as far-fetched yet as viable as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (who was introduced in 1920).

Yunte Huang’s amiable ramble of a book plays with the idea that Chan was based on a real person–Chang Apana, sent from China to live with an uncle on the Hawaiian islands as a child and raised there, a cowboy first and then a policeman with a high reputation for integrity and blunt force. He was a small, wiry man, tough-looking and tough in action–he was famous for his use of a bullwhip–but seldom given to Chan’s orotund aphorisms. There is no doubt that Biggers had heard of Apana, and it is plain that once Charlie Chan was a hit, and on screen, Apana took advantage of the resemblance and traded on it. Yet Huang is a diligent-enough researcher to note that the closest claimed links do not really fit. Biggers made it all up, and he had the unthinking good nature to make Chan appealing and almost cuddly. The House Without a Key was published in 1925 by Bobbs-Merrill, and it seems to have sold sixteen thousand copies in hardback. It was filmed the very next year, with George Kuwa in the lead role, but a silent picture. Biggers’s timing was acute, or lucky–smart man act as if luck his pet dog. In another year there would be sound to let those aphorisms roll, and the Fox Film Company eager to make pictures.

Biggers jumped on his own bandwagon. He published The Chinese Parrot in 1926, Behind That Curtain in 1928, The Black Camel in 1929, and Charlie Chan Carries On in 1930. There would be six Chan books in all, selling in mounting numbers, before Biggers died of a heart attack in 1933. But not before he had seen–and approved of–Warner Oland as Charlie. It seems likely that Biggers had personally recommended Oland for the part–not that he had any hand, except taking money, in the making of “his” films. People at Fox had told the author that Oland was “a ham” and not worth hiring. But this was a great age for hams, and it is hardly possible to play Charlie Chan by any other method.

No, “Warner Oland” does not sound Chinese, though it may be closer to Chinese than “Johan Verner Ölund,” the actor’s given name when he was born in Bjurholm, Sweden, in 1879. Oland was versatile, to say the least. He had been making pictures in America since 1915, and his most notable part previously had been as the father, the Jewish cantor, in The Jazz Singer, the first real talking picture and the movie that had Al Jolson as the son who prefers jazz singing to singing in the synagogue. He had also played the lead in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu in 1929, thus demonstrating his capacity to deliver the stereotypical Oriental villain.

But fate has an odd way of working out: as Charlie says, “Truth, like football, receive many kicks before reaching goal.” The knockout Fu Manchu film did not come along until 1932, as The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff playing the Doctor (and Karloff, though born in England, is said to have had Indian blood) and Myrna Loy (from Helena, Montana) as his wicked, slinky daughter Fah Lo See–father and child seem to know each other very well. Meanwhile, Oland had brought Chan to the screen. He would be paid so well for the role that it seems to have accelerated his alcoholism as well as his tendency to mania, but he was phlegmatic about the part. To be ready, he simply let his moustache droop and raised his eyebrows. Beyond that he seems to have taken a drink or two to make Charlie’s speech more silky and sluggish. After that, he went with the God-given material.

The Charlie Chan franchise was larger than most people would guess: forty-seven pictures between 1931 and 1947. They were B movies, if you like, seldom costing more than $250,000 apiece. (Oland got $30,000 per picture.) But they were A movies in that they usually made $1 million in profit. Audiences loved them–not least in China, which was in the habit of banning American movies that portrayed the Chinese badly. (Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, in which Oland plays a corrupt businessman who exploits Anna May Wong, and The Good Earth were not allowed into the country that they depicted.) Yunte Huang suggests that at Fox only Shirley Temple was a more reliable money-maker. It seems a great shame that she and Charlie were never given a run together.

That could have happened. After Biggers’s death, his widow made a deal by which Fox bought the rights to the character–alas, Huang does not supply the details of the package, but clearly the movies made everyone rich. (One spin-off from Charlie’s impact was Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective played by Peter Lorre in a series launched in 1937, again by Twentieth Century Fox.) Oland could not stand the success. All his bad habits mounted and he was dead in 1938. Thereafter the role was assigned to other actors–Sidney Toler (1938-1946, twenty-two films, taking Chan to Reno, Panama, New York, Rio, and all over, as if they were road pictures) and then Roland Winters (1947-1949). Connoisseurs prefer Oland in the part, if only because his impassive features seem to understand the deadpan humor and the family-man kindness in Charlie Chan. If the film version of Hercule Poirot was one of Chan’s descendants, so too was Peter Falk’s Columbo–a detective all the more deadly to the criminal class because he seems half-asleep or simply eccentric.

Yunte Huang is not just fond of Charlie. He is appreciative of the way the character dispels some of the darker myths in the way we regard the Chinese, but his rich and very wide-ranging book is far from settled or complacent. Huang knows that the stereotyping goes on, no matter that the Chinese population in America is now substantial, and despite the way we have come to appreciate mixed-birth stories out of Hawaii.

But old habits die hard, and as Charlie warns, “He who rides on tiger cannot dismount.”Chinatown is a model of sophistication next to the Chan pictures–but even at its late date, it cheerfully goes along with the idea that Chinatown in Los Angeles is a world with rules of its own, an assignment that can drive an honest cop crazy, an empire in which the corruption of cops and Chinese go hand in hand. Is that really so, or is it one more sign of our reflexive Fu Manchuism? If you recall the film, one of its best jokes has the punch line “Screwing like a Chinaman.” It always gets a laugh, but do the Chinese have sex in ways unknown to the rest of us?

The history of Chinese roles is very odd. Why should Scandinavians have had a corner on the work? In 1933, in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, the Chinese warlord who loves Barbara Stanwyck’s missionary was played by Nils Asther, and played very well. In The Good Earth, the Chinese peasants were Luise Rainer (born in Germany) and Paul Muni (from Austria and the Yiddish theater). When Elia Kazan made East of Eden, he cut the Chinese servant Lee, who may be the person in the book most loved by readers: was it to concentrate on James Dean and his story, or was it because no one in Hollywood liked the prospect of a leading Chinese character in a big picture? A few years later, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (that sweet film, so tricky with Capote’s original, with “Moon River” running through it like molasses), Mickey Rooney played a Japanese character in ways that drew formal protest. And Yunte Huang also points out–gently but firmly–that The Manchurian Candidate, which can seem a very grown-up film, is not only based on the old idea of the Chinese as evil and hypnotic masterminds, but is actually derived from another Sax Rohmer novel, President Fu Manchu, in which the Doctor gets into the White House.

There are, of course, some exceptions. The early films of Wayne Wang–Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, and Eat a Bowl of Tea–were decent, subtle portraits of Chinese in San Francisco. There is a deft portrait of an insolently polite opportunist who is Chinese in William Wyler’s The Letter–a role taken by Victor Sen Yung, who was often Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son, though the same film has Gale Sondergaard, unforgettable as an exotic Chinese mistress who demands vengeance. And so much more, all the way to frequent depictions of modern-day China poised like a tiger ready to devour and vomit up all of America’s innocent debt. As Charlie says, “Slippery man sometimes slip in own oil.” You can almost hear Oland’s delicious lisping over “slippery.”

Yunte Huang tells these stories and many more in his capacious laundry bag of a book. Wait: what made me think of laundry? So let me add one detail that he does not mention. It comes from cricket–but the ignorant can understand it, I hope. A left-arm bowler’s natural delivery moves from left to right (off the ground) as a right-handed batsman faces the ball. But in the 1930s there was a left-arm bowler named Ellis Achong, born in Trinidad but of Chinese ancestry. He played in a few test matches for the West Indies, and he invented a delivery that turned the other way (from right to left). Well, in 1933 that surprise bowled out a famous English batsman who walked off the field in dudgeon saying, “Fancy being bowled by a Chinaman!” That name for devious trickery stuck, and this kind of delivery (it is technically a left-armer’s googly, but never mind about that) became known as “a Chinaman.” It took the Australian cricketers to improve on the name, and to catch the larger sense of the Chinese as bad news: they called the Chinaman “a wrong ’un.” But that only leads us to the vexed matter of the Australians! Or should we follow Charlie Chan’s advice–“Smart fly keep out of gravy”?

David Thomson is the author The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Updated and Expanded (Knopf). A fifth edition will be published by Knopf in October.

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