This weekend, I finished reading “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History” by Yunte Huang. My first reaction was something like “Damn. Is the rest of the book as long as the title?”, but it’s a good read. Some chapters are as much about the history of Hawaii and anti-Asian sentiment as they are about Charlie Chan. Even those “historical” chapters sometimes read like a cheap mystery novel because of how many adjectives he throws in and because he assigns all the players the emotions that he imagines them in.
His main argument is this: Charlie Chan is highly misunderstood and unjustly maligned in the Asian American community. People are constantly hating on him for making Asian Americans look bad because he talks in broken English and acts like a servant to white people. In reality, Huang argues, Chan is an entertaining genius, based on a kickass Hawaiian cop.
Until now, I firmly believed that a white guy pretending to be Asian American by taping his face and putting on a bad accent was offensive. That’s not what real Asian Americans look like. Maybe if the movies were full of Asian American faces, Charlie Chan wouldn’t be so bad, but choosing between him and Fu Manchu is pretty unappealing (and still, just dressed up white dudes). Also, I had never seen a Charlie Chan movie.
Having read the book and watched the movies, I still don’t particularly like Charlie Chan. I get the defense– that Charlie Chan always came out victorious, that the white establishment relied on him because he was smarter than them, blah blah. That he’s the hero. Still, I don’t look at him and think “Damn! There’s the kind of Asian American I want to be!” I look at him and think “Ewww, did people believe that there were Asian Americans like that in real life?”