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Journal of No. 118


August 6th, 2013

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, @ 03:47 pm


by Yunte Huang.

For some reason, I made a lot of Kindle highlights, so this will probably get long.

It's hard to imagine this book being written by someone else. Huang, born in China, studied English, and is now an English professor at UCSB. He has a unique perspective on English literature, being Chinese in modern America, and being 'Chinese' in American literature. One little event sent him on this journey: "In 1994, Yunte attended the Poetics Program in Buffalo, where, at an estate sale, he discovered the Charlie Chan novels. He was immediately hooked."

The book has several major pieces: "The first story, of course, is the man himself, beginning with Chang Apana, the bullwhip-toting Cantonese detective in Honolulu. [and possible partial inspiration for Charlie Chan] Then there is Earl Biggers’s story, unwinding from the cornfields of small-town Ohio to the old-boy parlors of Harvard Yard, followed by Chan’s reinvention on the silver screen, a legend annealed in Hollywood and America’s racial tensions. And, finally, there is Chan’s haunting presence during the era of postmodern politics and ethnic pride in contemporary America."

I think my weaselly parenthetical is necessary. Apart from being Honolulu detectives of Chinese ancestry, there's little to really tie Chang and Chan together. Their methods, dress, and language are totally different. Also, Biggers' after-the-fact story of seeing Chang's name in a newspaper has some problems, as Huang ferrets out. These different threads start off separately, but then intertwine a bit in time, as Biggers meets Chang, and Chang meets Chan (in the form of Warner Oland) on the set of one of the Chan films (The Black Camel -- one of the few, maybe the only, set and filmed in Hawaii).

Just a bizarre bit of history: "Kendrick, however, did not live long enough to reap the full benefits of their fragrant discovery, for he was accidentally killed by a cannon shot from a British warship saluting his return to Honolulu Harbor in December 1794."

An early (1898) view on Hawaiian statehood from James 'Champ' Clark, Democrat of Missouri: "What if Hawaii one day became a state? “How can we endure our shame,” he asked, “when a Chinese Senator from Hawaii, with his pigtail hanging down his back, with his pagan joss in his hand, shall rise from his curule chair and in pidgin English proceed to chop logic with George Frisbie Hoar or Henry Cabot Lodge?”

More Hawaiian history: "The most infamous among these fugitives was a paniolo named Koolau. In 1893, immediately following the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, the thirty-one-year-old Koolau was helping the haole government round up known lepers on the island of Kauai. When he discovered that he had contracted the disease, he agreed to go to Molokai under the condition that his healthy wife, Piilani, could live with him on the leper colony. But at the last minute, she was held back by government officials, and Koolau leaped overboard and swam back to shore. He then fled with his wife, their young son, and a small band of lepers into the almost-inaccessible Kalalau Valley. For three years, they hid in the valley and resisted capture. Armed with a single rifle, Koolau held off the sheriff’s posses and killed several deputies. "

"In Hawaii, between 1826 and 1913, there were forty-nine documented executions: twenty-six Hawaiians, seven Japanese, five Chinese, four Koreans, four Filipinos, two Puerto Ricans, and one Caucasian. The Caucasian was an illiterate Irish sailor, one John O’Connell. He had jumped ship in 1906 and then kidnapped, murdered, decapitated, dismembered, and disemboweled the son of a prominent haole family. " That's some piece of work.

"This was the case for Ohio’s Canton, which was founded in 1805. When surveyor Bezaleel Wells divided the town’s land, he named it after the Chinese city as a memorial to John O’Donnell, a China trader he had admired." Thus, Biggers was born near Canton, named after Canton, the homeland of both Chan and Chang's family (Chang himself was born in Hawaii).

Some humorous news-reporting of a young Biggers: "“The Good Old Ways”—It gives us great joy to note that a citizen of Mingo, Okla., whipped out his trusty six-shooter the other day and shot the mustache off another citizen. The good old ways are too seldom practiced for the inspiration of the “deadeye Dick” school of fictionists. We sincerely hope that the gentleman who lost the mustache appreciated the fact that he had a mighty close shave."

"Chan’s idiosyncratic, ungrammatical speech is apparent from the beginning. His first utterance, like a newborn’s first cry, is unmistakably pidgin English: “No knife are present in neighborhood of crime.” Charlie Chan’s unceremonious debut is a prelude to his tortured legacy in American culture, a legacy that at once endears and offends millions. Depending on one’s persuasion, Biggers’s first description of Chan yields very different readings. Chan is “fat,” which means he is either chubby and lovable or oafish and ugly. He walks “with the light dainty step of a woman,” which means he is unobtrusive and agile, or he is effeminate. His close-cropped black hair suggests his neatness or lack of status. “His amber eyes slanting” projects a sense of realism to some, but a degree of repulsion to others, since “slanting” sounds pejorative. His courteous bow indicates politeness to some but docility to others. Chan’s ungrammatical speech, reminiscent of fortune-cookie witticisms, sounds hilariously funny to many but racially parodic to others. All things Charlie, it seems, are radically polarizing."

Huang tries, fairly successfully, I think to partially rehabilitate Chan. Without forgetting that Chan is a stereotype derived from a particular time, it's useful to place (as Huang does) Chan alongside Fu Manchu. (Curiously, Oland played both in film.) Where Fu Manchu is Yellow Peril made flesh, Chan is the hero -- a product not of xenophobia, but a part of a little 20s-30s American fad for mah jongg, Chinese Theaters and other touches of the Orient.

Not the preferred nomenclature: "When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1854, “The disgust of California has not been able to drive or kick the Chinaman back to his home” — a sentence cited today by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first recorded American use of the word Chinaman — the New England sage seemed well informed about the events in the Wild West."

Not the preferred anything: "The earliest recorded urban anti-Chinese riot took place in 1871 in Los Angeles, then a sleepy town of 5,728 souls, when twenty-one Chinese were shot, hanged, or burned to death by white mobs."

"Uncertain about his future, [Fu Manchu creator Sax] Rohmer cajoled Elizabeth into helping him experiment with a Ouija board. Having established “contact” with the mysterious being, which answered “yes” or “no” to a few preliminary questions, Rohmer went to the heart of the matter with a straight question: “How can I best make a living?” To the astonishment of the couple, the pointer, according to Rohmer’s protégé and biographer, Cay Van Ash, “moved rapidly over the chart and, not once, but repeatedly, spelled out: C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N.” The incredulous couple “looked at each other and shook their heads. They had not the faintest idea what it meant.” "

"Nativism—defined as an intense opposition to internal minorities on the ground of their presumed “foreign” connections—has a long and tortured history in American culture. Sometimes barely distinguishable from racial prejudice, nativist sentiments found ample expression in the anti-Chinese, anti-Irish, and anti-Italian movements of the nineteenth century." Switching to my Lovecraft hobby-horse, nativism may be a better term than racism for what HPL exhibited. Certainly there's overlap, and HPL certainly strayed in the ugly racist direction more than a few times. But a lot of his hang-ups were about tradition and culture. Sometimes he'd say things like "The Chinese culture may well be superior to ours, but..." why can't they all be superior over there somewhere, and not here?
Also, I couldn't help notice this sentence: "In 1916, Madison Grant, a leading nativist, published The Passing of the Great Race, a book that would set the benchmark for the era’s racial discourse." I believe Joshi suggests that Grant may have had some influence on Lovecraft's views (though they were already established before Grant's book was published).

Supreme Court shenanigans: United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court decided that Bhagat Singh Thind, who was an Indian Sikh, settled in Oregon, could not be a naturalized citizen of the United States, because he was not a "white person" in the sense intended in the relevant 1790 statute governing naturalization. Although Thind argued that as an Indian he belonged to the Aryan and therefore the Caucasian race, the Court found that "the Aryan theory, as a racial basis, seems to be discredited by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology," and ... that the authors of the 1790 statute probably ascribed to "the Adamite theory of creation" and understood "white people" in its popular, and not scientific sense.

"A grandmaster of circumlocution like Henry James might even envy Chan some of his colorful sentences, such as: “Relinquish the fire-arms, or I am forced to make fatal insertion in vital organ belonging to you,”
...
In fact, many Chanisms are quite profound and funny, such as “Aged man should not consort with ruffians. Eggs should not dance with stones,” "

Curiously, the second half of that Chanism appeared on a bottle of Uncle Val's botanical gin I bought a few days after reading that passage in the book.

Hollywood history: "Adolph Zukor, the original founder of Paramount Pictures, was born in Hungary to a Jewish family and immigrated to America at the age of sixteen “with forty dollars sewn in the lining of his suit.” Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, came to the United States from Germany in 1884 and “worked for years in menial jobs.” Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was born Lazar Meir in Minsk and “started his life in the new world as a beachcomber and scrap dealer.” Like his future MGM partner, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) was also a Polish Jew who left Warsaw on foot, penniless, and started off in upstate New York’s garment business. And William Fox, the man who founded the company that would one day produce most of the Charlie Chan films, was born Wilhelm Fried in Hungary; at the age of seven, he had to support his impoverished family by working as a peddler. In short, the people who built the American cinema were also the very people whom the 1924 Immigration Act now excluded."

Chang Apana has hardly any connection to the case, but the Massie trial will make your head spin. Presumably sane people were saying things like "The situation in Hawaii is deplorable. It is becoming or has become an unsafe place for white women…. The whole island should be promptly put under martial law and the perpetrators of outrages upon women promptly tried by court martial and executed." It's hard to sum up:

White woman claims she was raped by Hawaiians.
Local police roust some Hawaiians and coach victim into wink-wink identifying them.
First trial ends in a mistrial.
White people go berserk, wondering why these Hawaiians haven't been burnt alive yet.
Woman's mom and accomplices kidnap and murder one of the Hawaiians.
Tried for murder, they are convicted of manslaughter.
Political pressure causes the governor to commute their sentences to one hour.


Chan "receives a mysterious missive from a Dudley Ward, asking Chan to travel to his summer house in Tahoe. Riding on train tracks that were laid down by his countrymen more than half a century earlier..." another nice synchronicity to our recent trip.

"Be that as it may, the third in the series, Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), is perhaps one of the most controversial. In some ways, this film feels more like a racial parable than a detective mystery. 4 With a young Rita Cansino (soon to be Hayworth) as an exotic, beautiful Egyptian maid, the film presents a multiethnic cast of characters—a Chinese, a black, a Jew, and an Arab—who are pitted against a cabal of arrogant and greedy white men." And how can you beat Charlie Chan and Stepin Fetchit in the same film?

"According to Chinese film historian Wei Zhang, most of Warner Oland’s sixteen Chan movies were aired in China, “to full houses and warm audience approval.” " Unfortunately, Los Angeles native Anna May Wong did not receive similar reviews in China. “In the movie, I saw Miss Wong dancing in a crowd of naked natives, violently twisting her bottom and her dance displayed no other movements.”

I mentioned Wikipedia leading me to Jodie Foster voicing Pugsley. The trail started because Foster also worked on this: "From 1972 to 1973, they created a sixteen-episode animation series, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, aired by CBS on Saturday mornings."
 
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Journal of No. 118