Honorable Detective Turn Up in Highbrow Magazine

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History (Norton, 2010) by Yunte Huang.

A dubious piece of American pop culture history comes to light in the August 9, 2010 New Yorker magazine, as historian Jill Lepore examines the phenomenon of Charlie Chan, the fictional Chinese-American detective created by pulp writer Earl Derr Biggers in a 1923 Saturday Evening Post serial. After appearing in several novels, Biggers' creation took on a life of his own in more than 40 movies, the most famous of which were made in the 1930s and starred Werner Oland, a Swedish actor sporting a heavy "yellowface" accent and makeup.

With his kitschy fractured English and courtly, asexual manner, Chan has been reviled as a hateful stereotype by generations of Asian Americans; for a succinct review of the case against the "honorable detective," visit Angry Asian Man.

But the pretext for Lepore's essay is a new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, by the expatriate Chinese scholar Yunte Huang, which uncovers a hitherto little-known aspect of the Chan story: Earl Derr Biggers based his character on a real-life Chinese-American member of the Honolulu police department, Chang Apana, whose exploits sound at least as riveting as any fiction.

Huang's historical sleuthing has already won praise from such writers as Jessica Hagedorn (editor of Charlie Chan Is Dead, a seminal anthology of Asian American writing) and Jonathan Spence—which suggests that the last chapter of the Charlie Chan saga has yet to be written.

Related links

A Chronicle of the Chinese in America
In this April 2010 Asia Society Hong Kong talk, filmmaker Nancy Tong and cultural critic Sze Wei Ang posit Charlie Chan as "as a reflection of America's goodwill toward China, and the wartime alliance of the two countries against Japan."

Asia Through a Glass Darkly
John S. Major analyzes stereotypes of Asians in Western literature.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Jeff Tompkins
Jeff Tompkins is New York Content Manager at Asia Society.