California Literary Review

Charlie Chan: A Hero of Sorts


March 26th, 2007 at 3:37 pm

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Recently the Fox Movie Channel discontinued a festival of old Charlie Chan films, citing concerns about racial insensitivity. The network added that it has been made aware that the films “may contain situations or depictions (of Asians) that are sensitive to some viewers.”

However, a number of subscribers to the Fox Movie Channel, as well as others who are fans of the Chan detective mysteries deplore the “banning” as a form of censorship. The network had launched the series as their showcase, restoring and remastering the vintage films.

Asian-American activists have longed decried the Charlie Chan films for perpetuating racial stereotypes of Asians, especially Chinese-Americans, labeling the films “a painful reminder” of Hollywood’s racial attitude during the early decades of the 20th century. The Asian Law Alliance said the films were racists then and that they are still racist today.

On the other hand, there appears to be popular demand for the films as cult classics. Viewers strongly counter that Inspector Chan is always portrayed as a brilliant detective and a strong family man, in spite of the stereotypical image attached to the character.

The issue regarding the re-broadcasting of the Chan films will not go away. Somewhere there is a Charlie Chan festival being contemplated which will provoke a new round of protests. The Chan character is easy to parody and lends itself to caricature. Although fans of the old films have great affection for the Inspector, the stereotypic traits are easily observed.

Another element is the double-standard applied to Asian-Americans in relation to other ethnic groups. Derogatory terms like “Chinaman” and the exaggerated pidgin-English were used recently against Houston Rocket basketball star Yao Ming by other NBA players – white Steve Kerr and black Shaquille O’Neal. Both apologized for their remarks, saying they didn’t know it was racist. It’s not easy to separate thoughtless remarks from racism; such “gaffes,” made in jest, are not seen as anything terrible.

However, African-American syndicated columnist David Steele commented on the incident that as far as the broader community is concerned, “Asians exist in America solely to be made fun of stereotyped and caricatured.” There also is a sense that most Americans feel some cultural disconnect with Asians.

Sociologists have said that stereotyping is a kind of shorthand, the paring down of something we want to describe; all of us indulge it. When we don’t know much about something, we cling to the stereotype. As actress Diana Rigg said in her introductory remarks in a BBC Masterpiece Theatre mystery, we still have a “Chinatown of the mind” image, which conjures up something dark and foreign, not necessarily bad, but unfathomable.

Not so long ago, there was real discrimination against Asians, particularly on the West Coast. This was also reflected in the portrayal of Asians in early films. They were either Dr. Fu Man Chu’s, “Yellow Peril” villains, or at the other extreme, houseboys, cooks, and laundrymen.

Then, in 1931, a short, stocky middle-aged Chinese-American detective, created by Earl Derr Biggers, entered the movie palaces across the United States and a somewhat different view of Asians began to emerge. Inspector Chan investigated and arrested villains, mostly whites, for an overwhelmingly white American movie audience. The popular series, which ran through several Charlie Chans, including Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters, thrived for over two decades.

The image of Charlie Chan became part of the American popular culture; though now a bit tarnished, it remains so to this day. The Chan character was seen basically as friendly, self-effacing, and accommodating, an antithesis to the opium den image. The audience had fun with him, not at his expense.

An ethnic image is tricky, full of half-truths and snapshot attributes. In the Chan mysteries, there were moments where Charlie Chan had to confront and deal with the racial issue. In The Chinese Parrot, when an old Chinese caretaker at a ranch in the desert is murdered, the white ranch owner tells the sheriff: “Fortunately no one was hurt. No white man, I mean. Just my old chink, Louie Wong.” Inspector Chan turns sharply toward him and for a brief moment, his eyes blaze, illuminating the scene.

In Behind That Curtain, Chan is again confronted with his racial identity. In one scene, the San Francisco police captain Tom Flannery is dismayed to learn that he has to rely on Charlie Chan for a piece of evidence. When that evidence turns out false, he lashes out at Chan, berating himself for having listened to a “Chinaman” in the first place. He added: “You make me a monkey again and I’ll deport you as an undesirable alien.” However, in the final denunciation scene, Chan exposes the real culprit and says to Captain Flannery – “Perhaps listening to a ‘Chinaman’ is no disgrace.”

A further illustration of what it must have been like to be an Asian then occurs whenever Charlie Chan come to the mainland USA. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the law of the land and it was rigorously enforced. It was virtually impossible for an Asian to immigrate to the United States, much less to become a citizen. Chan has to establish his citizenship status all the time.

In one episode, one of Hawaii’s white aristocratic matriarchs, part of the territory’s powerful five white families who practically ruled the island in the early years commented to a compatriot: “He (Chan) always wanted to come to the mainland, so I‘ve had it all arranged – his leave of absence, his status as a citizen, everything.” Chan’s coming to the mainland depends entirely on her intercession. How does he feel about having another in higher authority vouch for him? This was never fully addressed in any of the films or books.

There are hints that author Earl Derr Biggers does feel it is an issue. In a book version Chan’s white police chief in Honolulu assures him that his passport and other immigration papers are in order to enter the mainland; he had wired ahead to spare Chan the embarrassment he might have encountered when his ship docked in San Francisco, It didn’t matter that he was a police officer; he was Chinese and that was enough. Chan acknowledged each situation stoically and went about his business. First thing first. Solve the case. This was in keeping with the Chan character at the time.

Paradoxically, during this same mid-to-late 30s period, the American audience became comfortable with Charlie Chan as he moved into the majority culture. What was it about him? Was it his ease of manner and quiet authority? Was he viewed as non-threatening? There is no doubt he appeared to soothe rather than inflame. The careful way with which Inspector Chan stepped into white society was strengthened in Charlie Chan Carries On in which he dances with the white heroine on a passenger liner.

“Pardon,” Chan announced to the couple on the promenade deck, “but this lady has next fox trotting with me.” He escorted her to a shadowy corner near the rail and told her that although he was delighted with her company, he’s there to ask a question. “Oh –and I thought I’d made a conquest,” she laughed. The scene produced no outcry, no backlash against Asians.

All those moments when Chan’s heritage was in play were handled in an understated matter-of-fact manner. Perhaps that was the only way Charlie Chan could have been presented then. The films, as well as the books, though stereotypic, were a big factor in softening the attitude of white Americans toward Asians. Inspector Chan was a hero and a goodwill ambassador of a particular period in time when Asian-Americans badly needed one. I think this is still true.

There’s also more to the Chan character that was ever revealed in any of the film versions. In the book The Black Camel, he was exhausted over the end of an emotional case that took a lot out of him. He asked an old Chinese servant at the pineapple plantation: “Tell me something, Wu. Why should one of our race concern himself with the hatred and the misdeeds of the haoles?” He continued: “I am weary. I want peace now. A very trying case, good Wu Chine, but as you know, my friend, a gem is not polished without rubbing nor a man perfected without trials.”

As a comparatively small ethnic group in America, Asian-Americans are still too fragile to discard any icon, no matter how old-fashioned or “politically incorrect” today. We’re simply not there yet; that is, not part of the mainstream. If we see Charlie Chan for what he is – a living relic from another period and a hero of sorts, perhaps in another generation or two, Inspector Chan might slay that dragon.

  • Sophie Young

    Fletcher Chan writes thoughtfully and convincingly on a sensitive subject. As a Chinese-American, I’ve avoided Charlie Chan movies for most of my life. Then two weeks ago, I began to run out of good mystery movies at my local library, and ended up with a few Chan films featuring Warner Oland. I was pleasantly surprised: the clumsy stereotypes I expected were softened by the obviously positive aspects of the protagonist. I agree with Fletcher Chan: while it’s still important for Asian-Americans to maintain dialogue about racism, we should embrace positive PR where we find it — however flawed it may be. Not every hero can be Yo-yo Ma.

  • Dave

    I cannot comment on the literary portrayals of Chan since I have never read any of Biggers’ novels, but I have seen several of the Charlie Chan films.
    I have vague memories of seeing some of the Chan movies on TV when I was a kid. I hadn’t given them much thought until the Fox Movie Channel re-broadcast them a couple of years ago. Being a huge fan of classic films of the 30’s and 40’s, I made a point to watch as many of them as possible. I was surprised at how good they were. I was expecting a series of B-pictures with low production values, but was impressed by the storylines,acting, and the positive portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans. I thought it was a shame that the Fox Movie Channel gave in to the demands of a small number of activists that are perpetually offended by one thing or another. I enjoyed the panel discussions the Fox Movie Channel broadcast in conjunction with the films and thought it was quite an appropriate response to the “controversy”. However,that apparently was not good enough for some and the movies were banished. However, Fox has recently started to issue the films on DVD. I have now had the opportunity to see several of them and think that the films were somewhat ahead of their time in the subversive way they overturn white stereotypes of Asians. Fox could have easily had Keye Luke portray “Number 1 son” with a broken accent. However, he speaks completely fluent English and is thoroughly “Americanized”. I work with many Asians (mostly Vietnamese-Americans) and this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the experiences of Asian (as well as other) immigrants. In “Charlie Chan at the Opera”, the William Demarest character is portrayed as slightly prejudiced against Chan, calling him “chop suey” in one scene. However, Chan outwits him during the entire movie and Demerast’s character is portrayed as somewhat of a buffoon. In “Charlie Chan at the Racetrack”, as part of a plan to expose the murderers, Keye Luke impersonates a Chinese laundryman, complete with stereotypical accent. Having the intelligent and articulate “Number 1 son” fool the caucasians with his Chinese laundry boy stereotype was a not so subtle dig at that very stereotype.
    Is it the fact that Charlie Chan was invariably portrayed by white actors that has people so upset? Actors routinely portray characters that are nothing like them in real life. Is it so much of a sin to have an actor portray someone from another racial/ethnic group? The real issue is the fact that Asian-Americans had so little opportunity in Hollywood, then as well as now. Instead of spending time protesting a series of films made over 60 years ago, Asian-American groups should more profitably address issues that effect today’s Asian-American community. There is still real racism and prejudice out there. Thankfully, it is no where near the levels of 60 years ago. I don’t think any non-Asian is going to have a negative view of Asians just from watching an old movie.

  • Mike Royer

    Basicaly a thoughtful and fair article. I have nothing but fond memories of the honorable Chinese detective Charlie Chan, having first been exposed to him as a preteen on late night TV in Oregon. Being non-Asian, I accepted the actors who played Mr. Chan at face value, never even noticing that they were non-Asians. They were mysteries and the honorable on screen Mr. Chan gave me as a youngster a great appreciation for what I perceived as the great wisdom and intelligence of the Chinese. Perhaps, being non-Asian, I might have given the matter more thought, but in my youth and as I matured I kept this respect for another race and have never felt that I was bigoted toward any Asians. Shoot, all around me I saw that Asians valued family and so many other values that I could see were slowly eroding in the non-Asian culture. So, I guess you could say I couldn’t understand why Asians could be so upset with movies that, IMHO, did more for my personal acceptance of another culture than anything else. Don’t mean to ramble, but you did give me the forum. Again, a fair article, IMHO.

  • anonymous

    Charlie Chan was a hero of mine as a young boy and still is. Look at the Sherlock Holmes films. Watson was portraied by Nigel Bruce mostly as a bumbling side Kick. Most of the early Chan films were done with care and showed Carlie Chan in a very positive way. He out smarted all the police and inspectors, always arresting the right criminal.

  • anonymous

    I was fascinated to read Fletcher Chan’s interesting article. I am not Asian, and I was very curious what different people thought about the movies, especially Asian-Americans. I guess my unwanted opinion is that the movies probably did a bit more good than harm in their day. If the actor playing Chan were Asian, it would be easier to forgive the many flaws. I wouldn’t want children today to see them today without some careful discussion first. On the other hand Fox “News” is so destructive in my opinion that showing Charlie Chan movies seems a minor crime in comparison.

    I am still curious as to what the writer and directors were thinking about race and stereotypes when making those movies, as well as what the Asian actors and Asian audience thought at the time. What a strange world this is.

  • http://? G. E. Hahne

    Hi, I was in elementary school in WWII, and I listened
    frequently to the Charlie Chan series on the radio.
    I very much envied him an his family, probably because my
    “honorable ancestors” (Germans) were taking a lot of heat
    in those days.

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