Dozens of movie depictions and several decades of steady absorption into the mighty, churning ocean of American mass culture have largely reduced Charlie Chan to a shallow reflection of his original self. Like a folk hero who seems to have existed forever, he stands ready to be summoned from the murky depths of the popular imagination with the broadest of broad strokes. Draw a roly-poly figure, give him a panama hat and a goatee and an ingratiating grin, attach a speech bubble that contains a sententious quip (rendered, of course, in pidgin English), and you’re basically done. Huang, a professor of English and a Chinese-American writer with a lively personal interest in the myth and lore that surrounds Chan, attempts in this wide-ranging study to reclaim his fictional countryman as a full-bodied human creation with a complex history. In the main, he succeeds.
The Charlie Chan character traces its roots to a pair of American men whose contrasting biographies exemplify the raw diversity of America life. Earl Derr Biggers was the scion of a prosperous family that had settled in a hamlet not far from Canton, Ohio. (Huang likens the author’s birthplace, the town of Warren, to the town in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.) A bright young fellow with an impeccable pedigree, Biggers landed a spot at Harvard University, where he gained the aptitude and the attitude of a man of letters. He worked as a newspaperman in Boston, and eventually he became a playwright in New York and then a regular contributor of fiction to the Saturday Evening Post and other slick magazines. A trip to Hawaii in 1920 led him to start a mystery novel based in that island paradise, and an article that he later read in a Honolulu newspaper led him to feature a Chinese policeman in the book that was taking shape on his typewriter.
The fateful article, according to Biggers, cited a man named Chang Apana as an arresting officer in a drug bust. Huang was unable to track down that item, but he has amassed a staggering wealth of detail about Apana, a real personage who led an almost fabulistic life. Born in Hawaii to Chinese immigrants in about 1871, Apana spent time during his youth in Canton, the Chinese province from which his people came, but then returned to the island nation (the United States had not yet annexed it), where he found work as a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. From this experience, he acquired the habit of wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a bullwhip, and those accoutrements would help shape his public identity once he became a policeman. Apana’s horsemanship skills brought him to the attention of a white landowning family, the Wilders, who hired him as a stableman and later secured him an appointment as the first case officer for the Humane Society of Hawaii. In 1898, his exploits in that role won him a job with the Honolulu Police Department. Biggers might have fathered Chan as a fictional Chinese-American detective, but it was Apana who fathered the notion that such a figure could plausibly exist.
Throughout the book, Huang drops in personal vignettes about his own encounters with the Charlie Chan legacy. He tells of finding a two-volume compendium of Chan novels at an estate sale in Buffalo, New York. He describes a trip to Warren, Ohio, where Biggers grew up and where Huang has an epiphany about the allure of Charlie Chan while dining at a Chinese restaurant. (Chan, he writes, “was a whiff of Oriental mystique blown into the insular flatland.”) And he concludes with a traveler’s tale of his visit to Honolulu and in particular to the city’s Chinese Cemetery, where Apana’s remains lie beneath a modest gravestone. These first-person sections help to expel the stale academic air that might have clung to a work that largely follows the logic of a cultural studies monograph. Indeed, a more forthrightly personal approach might have made this appealing work even more so.
Huang shows little interest in the narrative content of the six novels about Chan that Biggers produced between 1925 and 1932, and even less interest in how they work as tales of detection. In a sign of his limited affinity for the mystery genre, Huang blithely divulges part of the solution to The House Without a Key, the first title in the series. Apart from a few instances when he discusses Biggers’s treatment of Chinese characters other than Chan, he ignores the stories that Biggers wove around the fictional sleuth. As a consequence, he misses an opportunity to explore a quality that Chan shares with many other paradigmatic detective heroes: Chan, like them, stands at a notable remove from the social realm in which he solves crimes. Huang makes one intriguing foray into this kind of analysis when he compares Chan to Hercule Poirot. Chan’s creator and Poirot’s creator, Agatha Christie, “both became best-selling authors by creating a distinctively ‘foreign’ detective character in an era when wartime xenophobia was a very recent memory,” Huang writes.
With that observation, Huang signals the true source of his fascination with Charlie Chan: In the Chan figure, he finds a vehicle for exploring the dynamics of race and ethnicity as they work their way from Harvard to Honolulu, and from the Canton in Ohio to the Canton in China. In Huang’s view, the Chan character resembles a “resilient artistic flower [that] has blossomed in spite of as well as because of racism. This undeniable fact, insulting and sobering, has uniquely defined America.” His book thus unfurls in part as a saga of how white people have envisioned and—in the case of Hollywood actors such as Warner Oland, a native Swede who played Chan in more than a dozen films during the 1930s—embodied the Chinese Other.
Thanks to Huang’s diligent work of cultural excavation, Chan emerges as a powerful, many-sided trope (if not quite as a cohesive, “living” character)—as a Chinese box that keeps opening to reveal yet another truth about the dark but also redemptive story of racial representation in the United States, and beyond. In a telling episode of that irony-laced story, Huang describes a series of movies about Chan that Chinese producers made during the 1940s. He observes that, far from rejecting the white man’s version of a Chinese sleuth, the Chinese actor who played Chan in those films closely followed the Warner Oland model. “Charlie Chan might have come home, but the exact location of home—in the age of the global circulation of images, meanings, and values—remains as elusive as clues to an unsolvable murder case,” Huang writes.