Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History
by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton, August 2010)
Few remember her now—indeed, so obscure has she become that I can safely say that unless people have read my 2008 biography of her, fewer still have any grasp of the cross-cultural celebrity that was once Princess Der Ling (1885-1944).
Daughter of a Manchu diplomat of Chinese origin and a half-Chinese, half-Bostonian mother, and wife herself of an American gadabout for whom she became a novelty to peddle to his fellow countrymen, Der Ling was educated in Paris, studying dance with Isadora Duncan and acting tips with Sarah Bernhardt until called back to what seemed to her prehistoric Beijing to serve as lady in waiting to the Empress Dowager Cixi. Between 1903-1905, Der Ling used her skills of observation at a court that had changed little since the days of the Ming emperors to record its strange and poignant last days and the human qualities of its feared CEO, Cixi, as if through the eyes of a foreigner. A self-described flaneur—what we would now call a people watcher—Der Ling was never happier than when donning a mask, real or imagined, and plunging into the murk of some place or situation as foreign to her upbringing and education as the moon, relishing obdurate differences as much as mutual affinities. A Chinese woman brought up in Western style, for whom China was foreign, Der Ling felt at home in America, yet loved throwing dust in foreigners’ eyes by striving to appear the opposite of wherever she happened to be (leading to her memorable upstaging of a performance of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera by wearing to it a splendid imperial cloak given to her by the Empress Dowager). Throughout her several best-selling books and her many articles and interviews, in which she appointed herself as a sort of cross-pollinating ambassador of east to west, Der Ling was actually taking her readers on a journey through that far more curious and fascinating country, herself.
What struck me, as I read Yunte Huang’s wonderful new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, is that Huang has done very much the same thing. In researching the story of the genesis of Chinese detective Charlie Chan, Huang had to take many journeys, all of which play a role in making the book the whooshing great read it is—in fact, the whole book is about the journeys we take to discover who we truly are (as also who we truly are not). It can also be seen, through Huang’s experiences as through Charlie Chan’s (and through Der Ling’s), as the story of the journey East takes to West, and what it discovers not so much about a foreign culture as about itself. Genial detective Chan was first introduced to the world by Ohio-born, Harvard-graduated Earl Derr Biggers in a crime novel set in Hawaii. He claimed to have found inspiration in the career of Chang Apana, a Chinese-born, Hawaii-bred policeman and detective on the force of the Hawaiian Police Department who was legendary for his exploits routing the criminals and rooting out the crimes of Honolulu’s Chinatown. A bit more knowledgeable about Chinese culture than his opposite number, Sax Rohmer, father of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, Biggers was nonetheless as heavy-handed in his use of what we now regard as racial stereotypes. Till very recently, optics were as much a part of what it meant to be Chinese—or Oriental, in the parlance of Biggers’ day—as origin. As Der Ling once asked a Caucasian tourist who marveled at her language fluency, “Does one require a special face with which to speak English?” China has been depicted by Westerners in ways sublime and awful—from Gustav Mahler’s Li Bai-inspired masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde and Pearl Buck’s soulful portrayals of Chinese farming families to the ugly caricatures of the demonized Empress Dowager Cixi and that Frankenstein of white fear of the “Yellow Peril”, Fu Manchu. And this, through the many fascinating byways of Huang’s journey to the Land of Chan, is the central theme: how Americans, in a voyeuristic obsession with the “look” of Asians and the products of their culture—whether titillating smoky darknesses of opium dens or the sweet chinoiserie grace notes of export porcelain—have walked hand in hand with racism and xenophobia for over two hundred years of Chinese-American contact. It is not a pretty story, though Huang’s prose, like Der Ling’s, is mellifluous, funny, smart and wise, not unlike that of Wu Chengen, putative author of Journey to the West (Monkey). That is the Ming-era novel about the adventures of a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, traveling to India in search of scriptures. The monk is accompanied by, among other characters, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, a creature born of a magic stone who is capable of feats of shape-shifting and cunning derring-do in battles with evil forces, to whom Huang aptly compares Charlie Chan.
In a technique used also by Der Ling, in the days before political correctness provided both safeguards and straitjackets, in telling this story Huang casually utilizes terms that may make readers cringe—“Chinaman” being the most frequent of appearance. But like Der Ling, Huang is making an important point. Knowing her readers were nearly all Caucasian, and that their knowledge of China came mostly from eating apple pie served on their grandmothers’ blue willow plates, Der Ling held up a mirror to their consciences and kept it there, inescapable. Huang does the same, with such good humor you may think he’s joking. He is not, because American racism is not a joking matter. The record on race relations in the United States, from Native Americans to African Americans to Asian Americans, is terrible to contemplate. As a child, I watched Gone With The Wind with pleasure, because though I knew that my grandmother’s ancestors were from the south, I assumed life was as happy for their black households as for those of the O’Haras and the Wilkeses. (Thanks for the brainwash, Hollywood.) Years later, after I first saw a list of my ancestors’ slaves, with prices beside the names of men, women and children, and found that my forebears had bought and sold people held to be not much above livestock, I could never watch the movie (and very seldom at that) without cringing. In this same vein, as a scholar of the often painful history of West-East relations, who grew up in the California gold country, where so many Chinese helped build a state that later, with the nation itself, rejected and discriminated against them, I flinch at the repeated use of “Chinaman” and its associated derogations as much as I do the infamous “N” word. That, however, does not mean we should ban from sight these unsightly examples of our collective white shame.
Huang takes this approach, and it takes courage to do so, as was demonstrated by a recent interview of Huang and California-born playwright and author Frank Chin on NPR’s “On Point”. The debate degenerated into a disturbing tableau of Chin shouting into the phone that Charlie Chan is a counterfeit Chinese hero concocted by racist whites, when Chinese-Americans should be encouraged to revere Romance of the Three Kingdoms warrior Guan Yu (now become, in America, a harmless fixture in many a Chinese restaurant) as a more appropriate role model. Chin then accused Huang of knowing nothing about the history, experiences or needs of the Chinese-American community. (Had Chin done his homework, he would know that Huang, not even born or brought up in the U.S., has in fact done a superb job of showing he knows that history and those experiences and needs.) During the harangue, Huang countered politely that his search for the origins of Charlie Chan was motivated by the desire to build just such a bridge between East and West, the East and West that live within each Asian-American as they do, whether acknowledged or not, in so-called American Americans. After a while, the interview began to resemble one of those Pearl Buck stories in which irate white foreigners in China bellow at unprotesting native Chinese—in this case, the scenario was complicated by the fact that it was a Chinese-American from the American West berating a native Chinese immigrant living in the American East, who had got his start in the United States running a Chinese restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Perhaps this interview shows that the gap Huang believes bridgeable is in fact still too wide even for the Monkey King to span. But as Confucius (and, on occasion, Charlie Chan) said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Huang’s overview of the American racial and racist landscape over the past century, from lawmaking to the entertainment industry, revealed with all the painstaking politesse and charm of Detective Chan himself, is a brave first step in the right direction. And after all, to coin a Chanism with which Princess Der Ling might have agreed, in counterfeit often is truth.