THE HONORABLE AND THE “INSCRUTABLE”: Surely the name “Charlie Chan” rings a bell. But whom, exactly, does the name belong to? Most of us know that it’s not just some catchy semi-Chinese mash-up of a moniker with a nice alliterative ring—there is someone or something called Charlie Chan. But these days, how many of us can claim to have actually seen the series of films that briefly made the eponymous Honolulu detective one of America’s most beloved characters? Or read the original novels by Earl Derr Biggers? Or heard the radio plays? Or viewed the 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan? UCSB English professor Yunte Huang seems to have realized the modern-day shallowness of our knowledge about such an icon, and, with his new book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, has set out to deepen it.
And if the public has fallen into unfamiliarity with the fictional Charlie Chan, just imagine how little we know about the real one. Huang’s intensive, wide-ranging research has produced an unprecedentedly accessible source of details about the life of Chang Apana, the Chinese-Hawaiian policeman who was the model for the larger-than-life Chan. But where Biggers’s creation was obese, aphorism-spouting, mysterious, and topped with bowler hat, Apana was thin, acrobatic, somehow jovially stern, and wore a cowboy’s. Inspired after reading the story of one of the countless drug busts Apana performed in the early 20th century, Biggers dreamed up Charlie Chan and worked him, as a minor character, into the novel The House Without a Key. Readers were immediately enamored with him, and his legend grew and grew.
Huang, a scholar who’s written on a host of Asian and Asian-American cultural and literary matters, bears many questions in mind about Charlie Chan. An avowed Chan fan, he nonetheless wonders about the following: Why is the character now regarded in so many circles as the epitome of the racist “Asiatic” caricature? Why, when Americans were supposedly brimming with anti-Chinese sentiment in the 1920s and ’30s, did they nonetheless take so wholeheartedly to a Chinese character? What relationship exists between Charlie Chan and the then-prevalent public idea of the “Chinaman”? Huang will discuss these issues and perhaps others in what turns out to be a complex intellectual cluster of them surrounding Chan and his milieu at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) on Thursday, September 23, at 7 p.m. Visit chaucersbooks.com or call 682-6787 for more information.