Saturday, September 3, 2011

Book Review of Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History, by Yunte Huang
Review by guest writer Jeff (Sister Mary Murderous's brother-in-law)

If you have ever gotten immersed in Wikipedia and followed tangentially-related topics until you've nearly forgotten what you originally looked up, you'll be right at home reading Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History (2010) by Yunte Huang.

Huang's book starts out as a biography of Chang Apana, the real-life inspiration for Earl D. Biggers's fictional detective, Charlie Chan. But then the digressions begin. There is a brief history of the Hawaiian islands and the culture of the Hawaiian cowboys, the paniolos. (Chang Apana was a paniolo before he became a bullwhip-carrying member of the Honolulu police force.) There is a sociological exploration of Chinese immigrants that occasionally veers into autobiography.

Then there is a mini-account of the writing career of Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote the six canonical Charlie Chan novels. Biggers, reading Honolulu newspapers in the New York City Public Library, was inspired to create his Charlie Chan character by accounts of Chang Apana's exploits in Honolulu. Biggers and Chang Apana met in person just once, in 1931 during the filming of one of Biggers's novels on location in Honolulu. Both died in 1933.

Next is an interesting section comparing and contrasting good-guy Charlie Chan with the villainous (and equally fictional) Fu Manchu of Sax Rohmer. That leads to a section on the career of Swedish actor Walter Oland who, amazingly, played both characters in Hollywood.

A discussion of the racism and yellow-face portrayals of Asian characters in Hollywood movies leads to a description of the Thalia Massie (purported) rape case in Honolulu in 1931. The accused native Hawaiian suspects in the rape case went free after their trial resulted in a hung jury. Soon afterwards one suspect was murdered and Massie's wealthy mother, Grace Fortescue, and two male Navy acquaintances were found guilty of manslaughter. Their defense was presented by none other than the cash-strapped Clarence Darrow and their sentences of 10 years at hard labor were commuted to one hour served in the custody of the territorial sheriff. The tie-in to Chang Apana is that, one morning outside his Honolulu home, he actually witnessed Grace Fortescue driving the get-away car with the dead body in it, with other Honolulu policemen in hot pursuit.

But wait, there's more! After Walter Oland's death in 1938, the Charlie Chan movie franchise continued with Sidney Toler taking over the part. The author documents Toler's run as Charlie Chan until his death in 1947 and his replacement by Roland Winters, who continued in the role until McCarthyism and the Korean War began to negatively affect the box office business of movies featuring a Chinese hero. The numerous movie sequels and their intriguing supporting players, such as Charlie's children and Stephen Fetchit, are discussed and the author even throws in a brief analysis of The Manchurian Candidate.

This is a fascinating hodgepodge of a book. The Dewey Decimal number assigned to it is 363.2509 (other social problems and services), but only a detective of Charlie Chan's caliber could possibly explain how that classification was chosen.


  1. Jeff, nice review, you've conveyed the flavor of the book. It isn't something I'd usually read but you've made it hard to resist. Have you read any Charlie Chan or Fu Manchu books? I'm tempted.

    Glad to see this new blog. Thanks, Rita

  2. Hi Rita. Thanks for coming by. Tell your friends!

    Jeff is my brother-in-law. I just talked to him this morning as he was on the way out the door to go away for the weekend. I know he read a bunch of Charlie Chan books in recent months. Last year, he re-read ALL of the Ngaio Marsh mysteries.

    What are you reading?