Rupert Cornwell: Charlie Chan and the case of the rehabilitation of a people

Out of America: It took a fictional detective to change negative perceptions of Chinese immigrants to the US

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These days, they're setting the standard: Jerry Yang, say, the co-founder of Yahoo; or Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winner and now President Obama's Energy Secretary; or Michelle Kwan, the champion figure skater, to name but three.

I refer, of course, to Chinese-Americans. Not that long ago, however, there was only one Chinese American who mattered – and he was a fictional detective.

The thought is inspired by Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, which has just been published here. The author is Yunte Huang, a Chinese-born professor of English at the University of California. His fascinating book is a multilayered journey of discovery: of Chan's basis in real life, of the cultural phenomenon he represented, of the history of the Chinese in America, and of Professor Huang's own journey to become an American.

Today there are some 3.5 million people of Chinese ancestry in the US, well integrated and constituting more than 1 per cent of the population. Indeed, Chinese is the country's third most spoken language, after English and Spanish. But it was not always smooth sailing.

Chan was the invention of Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard-educated playwright and novelist, who had the idea in 1924 when reading newspaper articles about the exploits of a turn-of-the century detective in Hawaii, named Chang Apana, the only Chinese on the 200-strong Honolulu force. Chang seems to have been virtually illiterate but brilliant at his job, astute and physically fearless.

Chinese began to migrate to the US in earnest with the California gold rush. They then provided the gruelling labour that built the western half of the transcontinental railway in the 1860s, and did the menial, dirty jobs that poor immigrants have done throughout the ages. Like many poor immigrants throughout the ages, they became deeply unpopular; in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which in effect barred all immigration from China. It wasn't repealed until 1943 (when China and the US found themselves allies against Japan, a far greater menace from Asia than China ever was).

The image of the Orient back then was uniformly negative, of crime, gambling and opium parlours. The "Chinatowns" in various American cities were seen as dens of iniquity. If the East had an emblem, it was the fictional criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, described as "the yellow peril incarnate in one man".

And then came Charlie Chan. Amazingly, just when Biggers was dreaming him up, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, barring the few Chinese that did make it here from citizenship. The following year, the first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, appeared. It was a revelation. For the first time, an Asian-American was presented in a positive light – polite, non-threatening and clever, and he solved crimes without physical violence.

The criminals he caught were almost always white, and Chan invariably came across as smarter than the whites. Yet white America loved him. Biggers's six Chan novels, between 1925 and 1932, were bestsellers. Over the next two decades, more than 40 films followed, sometimes four or five in a single year. As a fictional detective, Chan rivalled Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot in popularity.

Indeed, the Chinaman and the Belgian were uncannily similar. "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.

The last Chan film was released as late as 1981. Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen was a resounding flop, but revealingly had Peter Ustinov in the title role – in what, apart from a funny Chinese accent in place of a funny Belgian one, was virtually a reprise of his famous screen portrayals of Poirot.

The Chan films, of course, were laden with stereotypes. The three actors who played him – the Swede Warner Oland and the Americans Sidney Toler and Roland Winters – were all whites (though Oland claimed that some Mongolian ancestry gave him a vaguely eastern cast).

Chan spoke slightly fractured English, dotted with hokey aphorisms that were part-Confucius, part-fortune cookie (a confection, by the way, invented in Chinese-American restaurants and unknown in China). "Truth like football," he would say. "Receive many kicks before reaching goal." My favourite is the line when Chan arrives at the murder scene, in the 1931 film The Black Camel. "Death is black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate. Tonight, black camel knelt here."

The formula worked in China as well. When Charlie Chan in Egypt was released in 1935, Oland visited China and was mobbed on his arrival in Shanghai. The mayor invited him to a reception in his honour, perhaps from sheer delight that a Chinese character was finally a good guy.

Later, almost inevitably, the Chan films were seen as racially insulting. Critics described him as a yellow Uncle Tom, in a role that basically made fun of the Chinese. And the issue is still sensitive. A few years ago the clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch got into terrible trouble for marketing a T-shirt showing two caricature Chinamen in coolie hats and bearing the inscription "Wong Brothers Laundry Service. Two Wongs Can Make It White".

These days, the Chinese-American community needs little protection in the form of defamation laws or a modern-day Charlie Chan. A few weeks ago, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of the alma mater of Biggers, Chan's creator, and other great seats of learning. In streets bustling with what may be the highest-octane concentration of student brain power in the US, every other face seemed to be Asian-American (or Asian: in this age of open borders for the brightest, it scarcely matters). Tomorrow's Charlie Chan won't be a humble Chang Apana, breaking obscure cases in Honolulu. He'll have a PhD from Harvard and probably be running the FBI.

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