Chan’s Hollywood career was launched in 1926, with a film adaptation of “The House Without a Key,” starring the Japanese actor George Kuwa, after which Chan went on to appear in forty-six more movies; he was most memorably played, in the nineteen-thirties, by a Swede named Warner Oland. He also appeared in countless comic strips and, in the nineteen-seventies, in sixteen episodes of Hanna-Barbera’s “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan,” which aired on CBS television on Saturday mornings and featured a dog named Chu Chu, Jodie Foster’s voice as one of Chan’s ten children, and the cri de coeur “Wham bam, we’re in a jam!”
Charlie Chan is also one of the most hated characters in American popular culture. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, distinguished American writers, including Frank Chin and Gish Jen, argued for laying Chan to rest, a yellow Uncle Tom, best buried. In trenchant essays, Chin condemned the Warner Oland movies as “parables of racial order”; Jen called Chan “the original Asian whiz kid.” In 1993, the literary scholar Elaine Kim bid Chan good riddance—“Gone for good his yellowface asexual bulk, his fortune-cookie English”—in an anthology of contemporary Asian-American fiction titled “Charlie Chan Is Dead,” which is not to be confused with the beautiful and fantastically clever 1982 Wayne Wang film, “Chan Is Missing,” and in which traces of a man named Chan are all over the place, it’s just that no one can find him anymore.
“Role of dead man require very little acting,” as Charlie Chan liked to say. (Don’t ask me what that means. Aphorisms, like tiger in zoo, all roar, no claw.) In “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History” (Norton; $26.95), Yunte Huang, who grew up in China, went to graduate school in the United States, taught at Harvard for a while, and now teaches American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, confesses, abashedly, to being a Chan fan: “Sometimes late at night, I turn on the TV and a Chinaman falls out. He is hilarious.” Most interesting.
(Jill Lepore, The New Yorker)
[Picture by Greg Kucera]