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

Yunte Huang, Author
Yunte Huang, Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-06962-4
Reviewed on: 06/28/2010
Release date: 08/01/2010
Paperback - 354 pages - 978-0-393-34039-6
Open Ebook - 354 pages - 978-0-393-07916-6
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The fictional Chinese-American detective and his real-life model anchor this enjoyable if unfocused meditation on the cultural construction of race. English prof Huang (Transpacific Imaginations) recounts the life of Chang Apana, a Chinese immigrant police detective in Honolulu who inspired mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers to create the Confucian sleuth Chan, who appeared in six novels and more than 40 movies (usually played by white actors). Apana is a colorful figure, complete with cowboy hat and bullwhip, but both he and his connection to the Chan character, whom he little resembled, are marginal to the story Huang wants to tell about racial attitudes and tensions in early 20th-century America. (Apana is a passive observer, for example, in the account of an explosive Hawaiian interracial rape case.) More convincing is Huang's nuanced analysis of Chan and his mincing gait, ingratiating smile, pidgin English, and fortune cookie aphorisms. Disputing writers who consider him a demeaning stereotype, Huang discerns behind Chan's exoticism a positive and formidable figure who embodies the "creative genius" of American "cultural miscegenation." Beyond the extraneous biography and historicizing, Huang presents an absorbing study of art taking on a life of its own. Photos. (Aug.)
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