Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Charlie Chan Pt. 2

Remember how I hated Charlie Chan so much in my previous post about him? How he's essentially a yellow Uncle Tom? Yeah, well, China loved him. China loved a fictional character created by a white man and played by a white man. After years and years of Fu Manchu movies and Fu Manchu-esque characters, why not embrace the one semi-positive character that came around? Charlie Chan was honorable, venerable, humble, and intelligent. What's not to love? 
Even if he is a glutton... desexualized... awkward... roly poly... overly subservient... speaking in pidgin English... effeminate... essentially the father of the model minority stereotype (not mention all 14 of his children).
Charlie Chan assimilates well. He rejects his "native/ethnic" garb for a Western suit and hat. Mr. Chan still remains the same wise old Chinese sage and spews "Chan-isms" that are adorable in their broken English yet incredibly all-knowing (i.e. "Man who fights law always loses; same as grasshopper is always wrong in argument with chicken." Confucius say what?). He is filled with all the wisdom of "the Orient," even if his proverbs do not make any sense at all, and no Asian proverb I've ever heard is as weird and annoying as one of Chan's aphorism. Charlie is a teetotaler, only occasionally having a sarsaparilla - if he doesn't drink, he's not exactly liable to get raging drunk and go out on a (fill in the blank) spree, is he? Charlie Chan sucks up to white people by calling them "venerable," "honorable," "distinguished..." Model minority, anyone? 

See why China loved Charlie Chan? I hate him for exactly the same reasons. While Charlie Chan is not a downright racist and negative stereotype, it is the alternative to Fu Manchu. It presents a stereotype about Asian men that they are bumbling, gluttonous, kooky eunuchs that have nothing on their mind but their work. There was nothing threatening about Charlie Chan - he wouldn't rape your women, steal your money, or try to take over the world. Several decades later, you see the beginnings of the Asian geek - the asexual, bespectacled math nerd with no girlfriend and fewer friends. While Charlie Chan is not the downright negative and offensive character that Fu Manchu is, the stereotype of the "honorable" detective is just as demeaning and painful to watch. Let me join in with the rallying cry of Jessica Hagedorn - "Charlie Chan is dead!" Good riddance! Let's all say it together - "Charlie Chan is dead, despite Yunte Huang's new book!" Ta-ta for now and forever, Charlie, you Fu Manchu foil! You're not much better than he is! 
Charlie Chan was created at a time when America was not allowing Asians to become citizens. Because there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment in the air, you'd think that a stereotype like the scary-sexualized and dictatorish Fu Manchu would be having field days all over the place, but no. In came Charlie Chan, showing Asians (namely Chinese) in a more positive, albeit demeaning light. In later years, after Chan had become very popular, his anti-Japanese sentiments became praised and seen as an added bonus of the character. This was when the Japanese were feared and the Chinese became the "good" Asians - the ones with whom whites could socialize.

The similarities between Charlie Chan and Hercule Poirot are uncanny. Both are rotund, "adorable" detectives. Both foreigners. Both have some funky facial hair going on. "'He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman,' Biggers wrote of Chan. 'His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.' Take out the 'slanting amber eyes' bit and you've got Poirot." (citation"He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police." (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ch. 2) Here's a confession - I love Hercule Poirot. I love him for his fastidiousness and the parlor room scenes where he accuses one person, proves them innocent, and proceeds to accuse and arrest the really guilty person. But what would somebody who is Belgian think of Poirot, created by English writer Agatha Christie? Do people who are Belgian have the same reactions to Poirot that Chinese/Asian-Americans have to Charlie Chan? 

Charlie Chan is the gateway into the model minority and the emasculated Asian male, whether it is the Charlie Chan of the books, the movies, or the television shows. Annoying Crap Hall of Fame? Yes. 

Brilliant radio interview with Tom Ashbrook, Yunte Huang, author of "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History" and writer Frank Chin.
Frank Chin and Yunte Huang THROWDOWN - Frank Chin gets a little... over the top...


  1. Jasmine, this post is awesome. You pull together so many ideas and are making great connections with Asian American history. You quote Hagedorn here- I'll try to find that book for you....

  2. Warner Oland was 1/4 Chinese and was not as you speak of him, he and Key Luke worked together with great joy in the Detective series, Chan done the correct way with the Swedish and Asian mix Oland worked and was not yellowface , and brought us no insult! He was awarded and accepted by our people as one of us.

    You bring shame upon him and his great characterization and all Asians, including me and I disagree with your generalization.

    Linda Lee

  3. I looked for proof that Oland was 1/4 Chinese as you say, but I could not find it anywhere. I'm sure he and Keye Luke worked great together - I am actually not bashing Warner Oland as a person.
    I am bashing the representation of a Chinese person in that time period when there were NO other positive and neutral portrayals of people of Asian descent. The caricature of Charlie Chan shows a subservient and non-threatening (therefore disposable and irrelevant) type of person. It's less damaging as a stereotype NOW because we can see the racism behind it. However, back then, there were no other positive representations to counter this stereotype.

    If the "correct way" of portraying Asians is subservient, demure, gluttonous, and having no backbone, then Charlie Chan was a great portrayal of Asians, particularly Asian males. However, like any stereotype, it is not true and over-generalizing. Sure, there may be some Asian guys who are just like Charlie Chan. But there are more who are not. NOTHING about Warner Oland's (or Sidney Toler, for that matter) portrayal was "correct."
    I feel like your disagreement may be a generational thing... Ah, debate!

  4. Seems to me your abhorrence of Chan is culturally programmed. The use of phrases like, model minority, indicates someone well versed in the rote of doctrine. It's ironic that Chan should become a victim of such, since he was conceived partially as an attempt to challenge a prior set of culturally dictated assumptions.