Most Honorable Detective Restored to Place of Honor

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

A new year well under way and I’ve been MIA since before Christmas. Well, all this snow has sapped my energy. But I’m behind and now’s the time to start catching up. We’ll start with the most recent book I’ve completed and move backwards.

And what better way to begin a new decade than to use a post title sure to tick someone off? Who might that be? Anyone carrying the banner of identity politics. What malarkey. Warmed over 1960s rhetoric rooted in identifying victims of the dominant culture and demanding the cessation of hostile acts and all due deference to the self-appointed guardians of the identity.

Some other day we’ll be presented with a prime opportunity to eviscerate that twaddle. Today we talk about Charlie Chan. Or, rather, we talk about Yunte Huang’s book about Charlie Chan. What a gem! It takes a lot for me to hit the Shift and 1 keys at the same time so let me explain just what’s so great about this book.

Huang is a professor of American literature at UC Santa Barbara who earned his PhD at SUNY Buffalo. That doesn’t seem to carry the weight of one of those East Coast ivies but Leslie Fielder was on the faculty there and that’s good enough for me. Importantly, Huang is an immigrant from Mainland China. That allows him the room to rob the identity police of their favorite weapon. A book such as this by me would be branded racist. I’m not sure you can make the charge stick with Huang unless you descend to ad hominem attacks.

Stumbling upon a Charlie Chan novel at a garage sale Huang becomes fascinated by the character. Ultimately his interest leads him to uncover and present the biography of Chang Apana, a real life detective in turn of the 20th century Honolulu who hails from the same part of China as Huang.

That alone is a great tale. What makes this  a virtuoso piece of American studies is that we also get a biography of Earl Derr Biggers, the novelist who created the great detective. And we get the history of the cinematic Charlie including his reception in China.  Huang even covers his continuing presence in American life including Chan’s stint as a target for the Asian American coppers. So you get a total picture, not the easily dismissed cartoon the ID cops would proffer as the truth.

In the same way that only Nixon could go to China perhaps only a Chinese immigrant can help us understand what a contribution this character has made to American culture. We risk losing much good when all we choose to see is the bad and that’s the mistake the identity police make over and over again.

I am not ignoring laws directed solely at the Chinese or mistreatment of people simply because they came from Asia. The history of any nation has its ugly moments and we do as good a job as any nation at confronting our worst moments. Those moments go into making the US the great country that it is the same way our juvenile screw ups make us the hopefully better adults we become.

Bonus feature: A list of Chanisms including two personal favorites: “Action speak louder than French.” and “Every Maybe have wife named Maybe Not.”

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