Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Rigoberto González on Yunte Huang’s “Charlie Chan”

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Rigoberto González discusses biography finalist Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (Norton).

Although it is categorized and recognized by the National Book Critics Circle as the biography of Charlie Chan––a fictional character––Yunte Huang’s project is in fact a multilayered investigation of the lives that participated in constructing this controversial figure that continues to inhabit American culture to the delight of some and to the dismay of others.

The first is the actual person who is believed to have inspired the literary sleuth, Chang Apana, “a bullwhip-toting Cantonese detective in Honolulu.” Born to migrant laborers in 1871, Apana’s family history is part of a lengthy relationship between China and the embattled British Sandwich Islands, a convenient harbor nonetheless for sailors and merchants. By the time the islands became the annexed Territory of Hawaii in 1898, Apana had honed his trademark cowboy skills at the famed Parker Ranch, where he was trained by Spanish vaqueros.

Huang traces Apana’s rise from his humble beginnings as an officer for the Humane Society to becoming an essential law enforcement bridge to the “labyrinthine underworld” of Honolulu’s Chinatown––each of Apana’s steps is painstakingly connected to the ever-changing racial, cultural, and political shifts of Hawaiian society. Apana’s “bravery and bravado” while on his dangerous cases became the stuff of legend, paving the way for his inevitable promotion to detective, which “sealed Apana’s fame.”

Apana’s reputation and spectacular cases eventually caught the attention of stateside writer Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard-educated Buckeye who “might have taken the name ‘Charlie Chan’ from a laundry-service sign” in his native Ohio town. Although Biggers claimed he became aware of Apana’s exploits via Hawaiian newspapers in the 1920s, Huang more truthfully positions Biggers as the sole creator of a complex character whose popularity and staying power stems from America’s love-hate historical and cultural relationship with China. Chan’s “pseudo-Confucian aphorism” and “comically and idiosyncratically mangled” grammar were intertwined with Western sensibilities of truth and justice, creating a distinct persona that was exotic enough to be intriguing and familiar enough to be championed.

The three lives eventually came together on one of Biggers’s visits to Honolulu. Charlie Chan had yet to make the transition to the silver screen, but the people of Hawaii had already made an immediate connection between the story detective and their local celebrity. Biggers only fueled speculation that Apana was indeed the model for Chan by further endearing himself to his Hawaiian readership when he welcomed the chance to meet the amiable veteran detective now forty years on the job.

Though the relationship between Chan and Apana was tangential at most, Huang compares the trajectories of the two detectives in order to understand the xenophobic and Orientalist tendencies of the twentieth century and beyond. As Chan entered the world of matinee idols that catered to “cultural fantasy,” Apana encountered the reality of racial prejudice in the land that had nurtured his professional career. Of the pair, it is the two-dimensional figure who will secure immortality because he offers a taste of mystery and danger from a safe distance.

Some might classify Huang’s project as cultural study, but the historical and social research that funnels into the examination and analysis of this singular icon is undoubtedly a function of biography. Charlie Chan, thanks to the skilled literary sleuthing of Yunte Huang, has reached a new stage of relevance, transitioning from a dismissed and troubling stereotype to an essential element of the discourse on Asian American political identity in the US.

To visit Yunte Huang's website, which contains links to reviews of Charlie Chan, click here