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Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 30, 2010
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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.
*Starred Review* The Charlie Chan we know from the movies (played by Swedish actor Warner Oland) had two strands to his DNA: E. D. Biggers’ immensely popular Charlie Chan novels and the actual man on whom Biggers based his tales. The model for Biggers’ canny Honolulu detective was Chang Apana, who rose from Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) in the 1890s to Humane Society officer to Honolulu cop and detective in the early twentieth century. Chang’s beat concentrated on the notorious gambling dens, scenes and seeds of drugs and violence in the labyrinth of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Huang, who was born in China and is a professor of English at the University of California, brings a wealth of perspective on the treatment of Chinese, both historically and in fiction, to this work. Readers will learn a great deal about how the Chinese fared as plantation workers in Hawaii, about Hawaiian history, about Chang, about Biggers, and about the meaning of the Chan oeuvre, both books and movies. Huang also works in his own story of immigrating to the U.S., which is both stirring and illuminating. This is a beautifully written analysis of racism and an appreciation of Charlie Chan and Chang Apana, made credible by Huang’s background. As Huang says, As a man from China, a Chinese man come to America, I say: ‘Chan is dead! Long live Charlie Chan!’ --Connie Fletcher
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Top Customer Reviews
The downside of the book is it tends to ramble. The author gives background on everything. He tries to put everything in its context. The problem is that I enjoy the Charlie Chan books, but they are not great literature and Biggers is a good but not a great writer. The librarian in Biggers's hometown did not even know who Biggers was. So when Huang gives context for everything, he tends to lose the narrative thread. The net effect of these little side trips to explain everything is that I tended to read faster and faster. I skimmed the last few chapters of the book and I slowed down only when I saw something I liked.
In summary, if you want a book that is a pleasant rambling journey, this is the book. I read somewhere that C. S. Lewis hated going on walks with J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis wanted to talk and get to the pub somewhat on time. Tolkien stopped constantly to enjoy the foliage, bugs or whatever. If you are a reader like Tolkien is a walker then this is the book for you.
Yunte Huang explains how the character was inspired by Chang Apana of the Honolulu police department, one of the 100 most important people in Hawaiian history. He mines the pre-Chan literature of "Chinese-ish" characters. He analyzes the experiences of Asian immigrants to the US and its territory, Hawaii. Chan and Chang turn out to have a good deal in common, as well as some interesting differences.
Huang approaches this subject with less emotional baggage than many of Charlie Chan's critics do. He explains how and WHY the Chan movies appealed TO CHINA when they arrived in the movie-theatres there, and how Warner Oland was welcomed during the series, though some of his previous characters (in "Shanghai Express" and the Fu Manchu films) were hated and banned.
There were spots in the book that were rather dry, and some seemingly-irrelevant anecdotes recited, but they do tie into the cultural experiences of life in Hawaii for Chang Apana, the real-life detective -- and only by understanding his story can we appreciate Charlie Chan.
This book is not really a critique of the films or the novels, although they are dealt with frequently in these pages. It's more of a social history, and in many places, it's fascinating. The life of Chang Apana, the historic Honolulu detective who inspired the original Charlie Chan novels and films, runs as an important thread throughout the book. The life of author Earl Der Biggers, the history of Hawaii, and early Hollywood are also chronicled, but always within the larger cultural/historical context.
Fans of the Chan movies or novels will gain appreciation, or at least a good understanding, of the world which gave us these movies and novels. Modern eyes and ears often see offensive racial stereotypes embedded in the Chan works, they are there to be sure, and author Yunte Huang does not apologize for them at all (in fact, he reviews some of the cultural criticism directed at the Charlie Chan icon), but there is much more than meets the eye, and Charlie Chan: The Untold Story supplies the greater, deeper context that can lead to a fuller, more balanced understanding of 20th century American society.
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Yunte Huang was born in China, came to Alabama in 1991, and received his Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo.Read more