four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
By: 
Yunte Huang
user_rating: 
0

The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

A-Charlie ChanAs a graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Chinese-born Yunte Huang stumbled across the Charlie Chan novels at an estate sale and was instantly captivated. He is currently a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The Topic: An avid fan of the fictional Chinese sleuth, Yunte Huang explores the origins, impact, and enduring legacy of Charlie Chan, immortalized in six novels and forty-seven films. Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard-educated journalist, first introduced the distinguished detective in his second mystery novel, The House Without a Key (1925), and the cunning character was co-opted by Hollywood one year later. Biggers's alleged inspiration, real-life Chinese-Hawaiian police officer Chang Apana, relished the publicity caused by his association with Chan. Despite accusations that he perpetuates negative stereotypes--unjust, according to Huang--the indomitable detective has captured hearts and imaginations around the world. "In many ways," concludes Huang, "Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America."
Norton. 354 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780393069624

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Yunte Huang has investigated this controversial cultural icon, reclaiming all things Chan in an involving, groundbreaking and far-reaching inquiry, the spirit of which is neatly captured by this ‘Chanism': ‘Mind, like parachute, only function when open.' Huang's Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History is a scintillating, provocative work of discovery, a voyage into racial stereotyping and the humanizing force of storytelling." Donna Seaman

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Huang's] attention is firmly fixed on the Chinese immigrant experience and, of course, on a detective whose urbane presentation ran counter to the racism of his era. Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia--and of Huang's very original, good-humored and passionately researched book." Richard Schickel

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down. ... From the decline of the native Hawaiian population that brought about the importation of Chinese laborers, to their later exclusion from the United States to the rise of the movie industry that turned Charlie Chan into a national hero, and much more, Huang has put together whatever he needed to know to make sense of the unlikely facts." Elinor Langer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Writing easily without turgid academic cant, Huang, a former restaurateur, offers a tasty narrative menu. His research to place Chan in proper context is impressive, encompassing the histories of Hawaii, Chinese America, Hollywood, fictional detectives, American literature and this society's perplexing racial conundrum, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, an era of intense xenophobia." William Wong

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Two or three times he hints, to no good purpose in my view, at the solutions to Biggers's whodunits, but he otherwise tends to employ the books as sociological documents, seldom giving any indication of their particular merits. Are the books still worth reading? Which is the best? You won't find the answers here. ... Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan is a terrifically enjoyable and informative book, one that should appeal to both students of racial history and to fans of one of cinema's greatest detectives." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

Described as a "heady mixture of scholarship, essay and memoir" (Washington Post), Charlie Chan energetically deconstructs the social and cultural milieu of the fictional detective as it examines the people and events that contributed to his popularity. Huang interweaves a vast number of historical and cultural topics in this sprawling work, including the class system of prestatehood Hawaii, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the "Yellow Peril," American literature, and Hollywood. Critics praised Huang's extensive research, careful analysis, and his willingness to use his own experiences as a Chinese immigrant to examine racism, exploitation, and assimilation--a deeply personal but surprisingly cheerful journey into his past. As provocative as it is engaging, Charlie Chan will captivate fans of all genres.

Supplementary Reading

The House Without a Key A Charlie Chan Mystery: Earl Derr Biggers (1925): In the first mystery in the Charlie Chan series, young John Quincy Winterslip, a wealthy Boston bond trader, is sent to Hawaii to convince his wayward Aunt Minerva to return to New England. However, when he reaches Waikiki Beach, she greets him with the news that her brother has been murdered. To save his family's good name, John must team up with Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan and catch a killer.