Some critical perspectives on Charlie Chan
Balio on Charlie Chan, Grand Design 335-37:
The 1930s B could be an unrealized progressive force, as exemplified in the Charlie Chan series. While the films are justifiably criticized for not casting a Chinese lead, the role had been twice entrusted to Japanese actors, Kamiyama Sojin and George Kuwa, in several films made before Earl Derr Biggers's literary character achieved motion-picture popularity. Not until Warner Oland was given the role in CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON in 1931 did the part win acceptance in popular movie culture. The Swedish Oland had played both white and Oriental characters in the past and became increasingly absorbed in Chinese lore as the Chan role assumed a steadily larger share of his time. Indeed, just before playing Chan, Oland had been cast in a brief series of A pictures based on the menace of Sax Rohmer's paradigm of the "yellow peril," Fu Manchu. The transition from Rohmer's villain to Biggers's hero was no minor event: it indicated a fundamental reversal in Hollywood's treatment of Oriental characters, and the Mr. Moto and the Mr. Wong series later in the decade gave ample evidence of the extent of the change. Indeed, the film version of Mr. Moto so valorized John P. Marquand's decidedly ambivalent literary character, a Japanese secret agent, that the series had to be dropped with the dawning of World War II.
The Chan series, lasting eighteen years and forty-four films, offered its hero as a wise and paternal humanistic figure. Despite popular misconceptions, Chan never spoke "Pidgin English"; his language was invariably elegant, that of a cultured immigrant. His "number-one," "-two" and "-three" sons (always enacted by Orientals, most notably Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung), were depicted as assimilating into American culture and were used as foils to note the resulting generational and ethnic changes, through gentle comedy echoing the pattern of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. The Chan films, in a manner unique for the time, offered a warm portrayal of a family emerging from a very different culture. Chan was etched as a loving father and patient parent of a dozen children, and his concern for them, together with his intelligent detection and Oriental wisdom, embodied in the form of proverbs, offered a unique character and a major positive development of Hollywood’s treatment of minorities.
The Chan series actually began as A’s, straight adaptations of the Biggers novels. Not until five of the six books had been filmed did the studio decide to send Chan around the world in search of new story material, and the movies then acquired certain series accoutrements. The Chans became so successful as programmers that although made by the B unit, they were sold to exhibitors on a percentage basis rather than for the flat fee charged for typical B’s. Indeed, the films with Oland have the indulgence and pacing typical of A’s. Not until after the star’s death in 1938, when the detective’s role was taken over by Sidney Toler (and eventually Roland Winters), did the series acquire the B look, with much faster pacing and typically B mystery plots—which made for more exciting, if less unusual, films.
Rzepka, “Race, Region, Rule: Genre and the Case of Charlie Chan,” PMLA 122 (2007): 1463-81
The historical constraints against which Biggers worked to advance what he considered a positive version of Chinese Americanism were formidable. They included the intensification of long-standing exclusion laws prohibiting Chinese immigration and naturalization, culminating in the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924; the perpetuation of endemic anti-Chinese stereotypes through new mass media such as cinema, radio, and the phonograph; and increasing racist hysteria marked by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the new respectability of eugenicist or putatively scientific racism ….Against these odds, Biggers created what is arguably the first nonwhite popular detective hero in literary history. The question of course is whether in doing so he compromised the personal dignity and racial integrity of his Chinese American sleuth to the point where the literary equivalent of cosmetic surgery on a racist stereotype began to resemble the construction of a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster out of the stereotype’s dismembered bits and pieces. (1465)
In general, Charlie Chan’s defenders focus on authorial good intentions as conveyed by formal effects, while his Asian American detractors focus on the deleterious impact of his reception by the larger white as well as nonwhite population, especially on-screen. Neither group addresses genre, the historical bridge between intention and reception. Genre can help explain how representations of race intended for consumption within one “horizon of expectation” …. can take on unexpected, often contradictory meanings when that horizon disappears. Genre can also help us better understand the balance of gain and loss that results when an author like Biggers pours old wine into new generic wineskins, and vice versa. (1466)
Kim, “Images of Asians in Anglo-American Literature,” 18-19
"Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff," Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, once said, "but an amiable Chinese on the side of the law and order has never been used." Between 1925 and 1932, Biggers wrote six Charlie Chan novels, all of them serialized in the Saturday Evening Post before being published in book form, some of them translated into as many as ten foreign languages. Forty-eight Charlie Chan films were produced in four studios, featuring six different non-Chinese actors in the lead role. John Stone, producer of the first Charlie Chan film, is reported to have suggested that the "character was deliberately decided upon partially as a refutation of the unfortunate Fu Manchu characterization of the Chinese, and partly as a demonstration of his own idea that any minority group could be sympathetically portrayed on the screen with the right story and approach."
Why have Chinese Americans objected so strenuously to the production of a new Charlie Chan film in 1980? Charlie Chan emerges as a "wise, smiling, pudgy. ..symbol of the sagacity, kindliness, and charm of the Chinese people." His face is a placid mask; he stands like a statue, seemingly somnolent, with his beady eyes half-closed. He calls himself all manner of names--dull, stupid, old-womanish--an irony the public has been quick to appreciate, knowing that beneath his bovine exterior resides a shrewdness, attention to detail, and "Oriental" patience that, together with his perhaps racial "sixth sense," enable him to solve the most complicated murder mysteries. The bases for his popular appeal are simple enough. There is first the humor of incongruity: that an overweight Chinese should occupy such a totally unexpected position as that of police inspector. Second, there is the humor of his speech, which combines the inevitable "pidgin" with pseudo-Confucian aphorisms. Third, there are the mysterious and exotic Chinatown or international settings in which Chan operates. And, lastly, there is the public's familiarity with and approval of him as a non-threatening, non-competitive, asexual ally of the white man, usually contrasted with a parade of Asians in secondary roles as cowardly servants and vicious gangsters.
It has become fashionable since the 1940s to view Asians as a "model minority" (see Chapter 6). The "model minority" Asian, by never challenging white society, at once vindicates that society from the charge ofracism and points up the folly of those less obliging minorities who are ill-advised enough to protest against inequality or take themselves "too seriously." As a permanent inferior, the "good" Asian can be assimilated into American life. All that is required from him is that he accept his assigned status cheerfully and reject whatever aspects of his racial and cultural background prove offensive to the dominant society. And of course he must never speak for himself.
Frank Chin, from Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays (1998), 95-98
The differences between the evil Dr. Fu Manchu and the good detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department are superficial. (Except for one. Manchu asserts his will. He uses the first-person pronoun I. He doesn’t keep his place. Charlie Chan never uses the first-person pronouns I or we but speaks in a passive voice and prefaces all his remarks with apologies—“So sorry to disagree…,” “Excuse, please….may make one small observation?....”) But Fu Manchu and Chan are visions of the same mythic being….
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The Chinese American actors who played Chan’s kids, Keye Luke, Benson Fong, and Victor Sen Yung, thought they were doing good for Chinese America. Being “the silly kids that did stupid things” countered the Dr. Fu Manchu image of the Chinese, they believed, and presented a more realistic image of the assimilated Chinese American, speaking good English, wearing natty clothes and two-tone shoes. The language and clothes might have been elements of a more realistic characterization of the Chinese American, but they were also what made Chan’s sons comical. Chan’s sons were lovable, respectable fools, funny because they didn’t have sense enough to know they weren’t white and wouldn’t stop trying. Lovable and respectable because they implicitly knew their place….Honorable sons (laudably trying to “outwhite the whites” to win acceptance) in proper racist perspective. The Fu Manchu/Charlie Chan movies were parables of racial order. In the cockeyed logic of that order, the greatest insult to Chinese America in these films, the casting of a white man in the role of Charlie Chan, was and still is no insult at all but part of the charm of the films and visual proof of our acceptance and assimilation by whites. They just eat us up.
Karla Rae Fuller, “Masters of the Macabre: The Oriental Detective,” Spectator 17 (1996): 54-69.
Yet, close analysis of distinct elements and patterns within the performances and conventions of this subgenre, reveals how this seemingly benign Oriental archetype is as strictly contained and codified as its more malevolent counterparts. Far from being simply the converse of earlier and patently odious Oriental archetypes as popular opinion would suggest, these detective figures contain a potentially threatening air of mystery and intrigue along with their more meritorious qualities.
However, these potentially ominous qualities are often couched in terms of the character's accomplishments and achievements. Areas like mental agility, education, and scientific knowledge; physical prowess and/or proficiency in the martial arts; language expertise or mastery in disguise can either be positioned as threatening or admirable. Recall the threat the highly educated (three graduate degrees) character of Fu Manchu posed to both the other white characters and the "West" as an entity.
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Of course, what must not be overlooked is the practice of casting Caucasian actors to portray Oriental roles as a further way to mitigate the "threat" of a heroic Asian character. Not only does a Caucasian actor provide a means of identification with a non-Western character, but he also supplies access to an alternative ethnic experience. Through the physical embodiment of an Oriental countenance, the Caucasian actor creates a potent vehicle for a socially transgressive experience (to inhabit the identity of another ethnicity) while, simultaneously, limiting that experience through the recognition of that same actor as also conceivably (if not always definitively) Caucasian.