Sunday, September 19, 2010
Before There Was Jackie Chan, There Was Charlie Chan
Long before superstar Jackie Chan hit the movie scene, there was another Chan - both fictional and real - Charlie Chan.
The August 9th edition of "The New Yorker" has a really great article "Chan The Man; On The Trail Of Chang Apana".
"New Yorker" book critic Jill Lepore details Yunte Huang's "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History" (Norton; $26.95). Charlie Chan originally started out as a minor player in a series of novels by Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920's, and Hollywood adaptations of the novels began in 1926 with "The House Without a Key".
You have to be a pretty old Dojo Rat like me to remember these movies, which were usually shown late at night as they were considered outdated yet classic, even in the 1960's.
Chan was the classic wise detective, in the model of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, and even more exotic. Lepore details how the Chan novels and movies hit their popularity at precisely the same time as paranoia against "The Others" culminated in Congress passing the Immigration Act of 1924, excluding citizenship for "foreign-born Asiatics".
Ah. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Several actors played Charlie Chan, but the most famous was Warner Oland. Oland, who was born in Sweden, had a Russian mother and Slavic features. This fact both perplexed and angered people of Chinese heritage, the key role played by a white dude surrounded by bumbling Chinese lesser players.
Author Biggers got the idea for Chan while reading a Hawaiian newspaper. In it, an opium ring had been busted by Honolulu detective "Chang Apana". Chang became the inspiration for the fictional Chan, but it is Chang who really was the heroic crime fighter.
Chang arrived in Oahu in 1881 at age ten, with the wave of Chinese brought to work the sugarcane fields. Chang soon became a fine horseman, and later worked in the stables of a wealthy family. He entered law enforcement at first as an animal control / Humane Society officer. He traveled easily in Chinatown, and soon became a valuable asset to the police. He is described as "five-feet tall and wiry and had a nasty scar on his brow. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a bullwhip". After he was promoted to Detective, his crime-busting was legendary. He was a master of disguise, leaping from rooftops armed with his bullwhip. One of Chang's jobs was capturing lepers and sending them to the colony on distant Molokai. In one case he was slashed above the eye with a cane sickle.
In 1931 Chang met Warner Oland during the filming of "The Black Camel" in Hawaii. According to Lepore in "The New Yorker", the two enjoyed meeting each other, and Chang watched nearly all the filming of the movie. Apparently, Chang laughed his ass off, and with good reason. Lepore describes: "In one scene, someone tells Charlie Chan that he ought to have a lie detector. "Lie detector?" Chan asks. "Ah, I see! You mean Wife. I got one".
The New Yorker; "Chan The Man"
Website: Charlie Chan's Hawaii
New Yorker video On Charlie Chan