I grew up watching old Charlie Chan movies on TV. White guys (Warner Oland and Sidney Toler ) playing a humble Chinese detective solving mysteries while spouting fortune cookie like aphorisms. His foils were his movie sons- Chinese actors such as Keye Luke and Benson Fong playing the throughly Americanized off spring against the Chinese patriarch father . There is an opening scene in "Charlie Chan in Honolulu" where Charlie played by Sidney Toler is sitting at the end of a family of 11 children and his wife , eating dinner . Although Charlie is played by a white man , the scene perfectly captures the noisy dynamics of a Chinese family meal !
The Charlie Chan movies did give a lot of talented Chinese American actors their first start in the film industry and though Charlie himself was always played by a Caucasian the other Chinese roles were always played by Chinese actors.
Here is Charlie with his large film family in the movie "Charlie Chan in Honolulu."
Later Charlie Chan became politically incorrect , as the idea of a caricature of a Chinese man played by white actors became offensive to Asian American activists and caused Fox and Warner Brothers to pull the films from late night TV reruns and Charlie dropped below the radar .
A fascinating new look at Charlie Chan recently was published by Yunte Huang. This is a great and entertaining read . Yunte Huang was born and raised in China , studied English at Beijing University and immigrated to the United States where he became a PHD in English and now teaches in the English Department as a professor at UC Santa Barbara. So here we have quite a new unique voice in Chinese American literature , a native born Chinese academic making his life career studying American literature and culture and teaching English literature to college students in America ! His look at an American cultural icon , a "yellowface" portrayal of Chinese created by Americans is absolutely fascinating . He weaves the story of the real Charlie Chan , Chang Apana, , with the Charlie Chan books written by Earl Biggers , the Hollywood movies , the enthusiastic and positive Chinese reception of Charlie Chan in China in the 1930s' , and the anti Charlie Chan feelings of Asian Americans all into a wonderfully rich book .
More information on Yunte Huang is here .
Yunte Huang speaks about his book in a recent NPR interview here.
More information about Yunte Huang's book and excerpt to read here.