One of the most iconic Asian figures in US cinema was created by and for white viewers, and even played by a white man in his most famous appearances. Detective Charlie Chan, supposedly based on a real man, was at his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, when attitudes about the ‘yellow peril‘ were starting to wane and audiences were apparently ready to see a Chinese hero on the screen, after having read a popular series of books with him as the protagonist.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original novels and subsequent films were very poorly researched. The author simply decided to pick up a pen one day and write an Asian detective, and Hollywood ran with it. The idea of carefully researching roles of this nature was utterly alien; there wouldn’t have been any reason to in an era when people didn’t really want to depict the actual experiences of members of marginalised groups, but rather to use them as set dressing and interesting ornamental features in the drama. In this setting, research is wasted time. That lack of research was one reason why he became so popular, because he presented Chinese-American culture through a white lens, for the comfort of white viewers who would have felt very uncomfortable looking at Chinese-produced media.
Charlie Chan didn’t explode onto the pop culture scene overnight, though. First, a white man had to write some mystery novels, and in the 1920s, some adaptations were made with Chinese actors. The phenomenon could have died there, another character fading into obscurity, but someone thought it was worth pushing a little harder to make the franchise happen. It wasn’t until Warner Oland took over the role in the 1930s that Charlie Chan became a cult classic, and that says a lot about his role in cinema.
Some people argue that Charlie Chan is a model of positive depictions of Asians in cinema; he was a hero instead of a cartoon villain, he fought on the side of truth and justice, and he proved immensely popular with white cinemagoers. They claim that he advanced the cause of Asians in the US by humanising Chinese-Americans and creating common ground between members of different racial and cultural communities. Others feel much differently, and their reading of the character rings more true to me. It’s telling that some of his most outspoken critics are Chinese-American, while the people who feel Chan was a great addition to the pop culture lexicon are often white.
Was Charlie Chan really so positive? He’s depicted as subservient, meek, and quiet, and throughout the course of his work, he very clearly serves white masters and is attentive to their every need. He’s not a very autonomous or powerful character. He’s so stripped of his own agency that he’s given a halting accent to remind viewers that he’s a member of the Other, with poor communication skills and difficulty expressing himself. Every now and then he drops lines straight out of a bag of fortune cookies to convince us of his Mystical Oriental Wisdom, playing on common stereotypes about how Asian men are all magically imbued with deep philosophical wisdom.
Much of his depiction was very femme and nonthreatening. He was effectively castrated for white audiences, creating a vision of docile servility. While this may have put white viewers at ease by speaking to their darkest fears, for twisted beliefs about sexuality are often bound up in racism, it certainly didn’t serve to promote equal treatment of Asian-American men. Nor did it put them on equal footing in US society, and establish that they, too, were human beings. Charlie Chan is benevolent and gentle; these are not necessarily bad or wrong traits, but in this context they become so because they serve to cater to racism, rather than to establish a character’s personality.
To say nothing of the yellowface. Many people genuinely believed that Oland looked acceptably Chinese, and of course he wore makeup and styling to look the part. Again, this served to make Charlie Chan as nonthreatening as possible, by making him effectively white. He was ‘just like’ white viewers because he was white, not because of their shared humanity and commonality. It’s unclear how yellowface (and redface, blackface, cripface, etc.) are supposed to benefit the communities depicted, since viewers are really just seeing a highly sanitised and neat version of a culture that isn’t their own. Where is the progress here, exactly?
Chan has become a figure of controversy as critics become more outspoken, and what intrigues me is that people continue to defend him. Not that long ago, Fox even tried to have a Charlie Chan festival, before closing down the project in reaction to the outpouring of discontent from people who weren’t thrilled at the idea of resurrecting a racist pop culture archetype. It’s bad enough that Charlie Chan exists and many people are at least passingly familiar with him, I’d say; is it really necessary to keep dredging him back up again?
Is it possible to redeem Charlie Chan, to flip him on his head? Maybe, and I’d kind of love to see an Asian-American-run drama using the core idea, of a Chinese-American detective, and taking it in a totally new direction that gives the heave-ho to the old Charlie Chan and introduces us to a new one who really does act as a cultural and social ambassador who changes the way white people think about members of the Chinese community. Whether such a project could get off the ground and capture viewers is up for debate, and that, too, says a lot about the state of race and Hollywood today.