When I was in college, I accepted that Charlie Chan, the nonsensical, proper English-mangling detective from the black-and-white back-in-the-day, was categorically revolting. I accepted this without ever reading one of Earl Derr Biggers' Chan novels or seeing one of the many Chan films—it was a received orthodoxy, thanks to titles like Charlie Chan is Dead or introductions to books on media representation, which lamented Chan's subject-verb agreement and generally subservient air (as well as the fact that Chan was often played by white actors who used make-up and tape to render ghastly, exaggerated epicanthic folds). He was, as Jill Lepore observes in this week's New Yorker, "one of the most hated characters in American popular culture."
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Taking classes with Yunte Huang a few years back forced me to rethink this stance, or at least wonder about the nature of this "hatred." I'm glad that his wryly sympathetic and occasionally memoiristic reappraisals of Chan, Biggers and the real-life detective are now available in book-form. Insofar as Biggers' intention matters, Chan was never meant to be a racist caricature, those knotted, fortune cookie-like sentences notwithstanding. While Chan became America's favorite lowly "Chinaman," there was a nuanced, slightly hopeful dimension to those early novels. Not quite as much with the movies, despite the funny All-Americanisms of "Number One Son" and "Jimmy." Warner Oland and Sidney Toler still look absolutely terrifying behind that Chan "yellowface," like true (rather than hot-button-election-year-figurative) aliens.
Perhaps Chan seems somewhat innocuous these days because he's no longer aggressively present. And Yunte's contrarian take on the Chan figure accords to the general sense of identity politics circa 2010, a strange and occasionally productive mix of irony and skeptical, back-to-the-archive reappraisal. If you're pressed for time, Lepore has condensed Yunte's version of Chan's story into a New Yorker column here. She seems bemused, even irked by Yunte's own intrusions into the Chan/Biggers arc. But those are among my favorite parts, for they communicate the strangeness of returning to that moment—the Immigration Act of 1924 passed the same year Biggers wrote the first Chan novel—with some degree of agnosticism. What do we project back upon that fraught time of American history? How did Americans imagine the "Chinaman," when so few were around?