The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
On a balmy July night in 1904, a wiry figure sauntered alone through the dim alleys of Honolulu’s Chinatown. He strolled up a set of rickety steps and into a smoky gambling den ringing with jeers of card sharks and crapshooters. By the time anyone recognized the infamous bullwhip dangling from his hand, it was too late. Single-handedly, the feared, five-foot-tall Hawaiian cop, Chang Apana, had lined up forty gamblers and marched them down to the police station.
So begins Charlie Chan, Yunte Huang’s absorbing history of the legendary Cantonese detective, born in Hawaii around 1871, who inspired a series of fiction and movie doubles that long defined America’s distorted perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans. In chronicling the real-life story and the fraught narrative of one of Hollywood’s most iconic detectives, Huang has fashioned a historical drama where none was known to exist, creating a work that will, in the words of Jonathan Spence, “permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story.”
Himself a literary sleuth, Huang has traced Charlie Chan’s evolution from island legend to pop culture icon to vilified, postmodern symbol, ingeniously juxtaposing Apana’s rough-and-tumble career against the larger backdrop of a territorial Hawaii torn apart by virulent racism. Apana’s bravado prompted not only Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate turned author, to write six Charlie Chan mysteries but also Hollywood to manufacture over forty movies starring a grammatically challenged detective with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into singsong Chinatown blues.
Examining hundreds of biographical, literary, and cinematic sources, in English and in his native Chinese, Huang has pursued the trail of Charlie Chan since the mid-1990s, searching for clues in places as improbable as Harvard Yard, an Ohio cornfield, a weathered Hawaiian cemetery, and the Shanghai Bund. His efforts to refashion the Charlie Chan legend became a personal mission, as if the answers he sought would reshape his own identity—no longer a top Chinese student but an immigrant American eager to absorb the bewildering history of his adopted homeland.
“With rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence,” Huang has ascribed a starring role to “the honorable detective,” one far more enduring than any of his wisecracking movie parts. Huang presents American history in a way that it has never been told before.
- August 2010
- 6.5 × 9.6 in
/ 354 pages
- Territory Rights: Worldwide
Endorsements & Reviews
“Starred Review. This is a beautifully written analysis of racism and an appreciation of Charlie Chan and Chang Apana, made credible by Huang's background.” — Booklist
this original, deeply personal account, Huang illuminates every conceivable aspect of
Chan and his place in American culture.... vibrant narrative.... Multilayered, provocative and highly accessible.” — Kirkus Reviews
“[A] fascinating examination of Charlie Chan that is many books in one.... Huang's personal reflections are welcome interludes in this most compelling work.” — Library Journal
“A virtuoso of curiosity.... Huang digs up fascinating research on everything from the demographics of capital punishment in Honolulu to the origins of The Manchurian Candidate.... a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance.” — Pico Iyer, Time
“Excellent and very sympathetic...You don't need to be a fan of Charlie's to enjoy Huang's narrative, maybe because he's told so many stories here, all of them intriguing...All this—the lives of Biggers and Apana, Charlie’s career in novels, movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books—is told in the context of an America in the throes of nativism. Asian-Americans then were held in the same suspicion and contempt directed today at Arabs and Latinos, a fact that gives this story a lamentable but inescapable currency.” — Sarah Ball, Newsweek
“Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang’s very original, good-humored and passionately researched book.” — Richard Schickel, The New York Times Book Review
“Huang presents an absorbing study of art taking on a life of its own.” — Publishers Weekly
“Writing easily without turgid academic cant, Huang, a former restaurateur, offers a tasty narrative menu.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down.” — Elinor Lange, The Oregonian
“The most interesting story may be Huang’s own. He comes to see Chan as 'both the racist heritage and the creative genius' of his adopted nation’s culture.” — The Kansas City Star
“[G]ripping .... Huang writes with rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence.” — Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
“Provocative and totally unique, Charlie Chan expands the yellowface debate with mischievous humor and a compelling sense of irony. In bringing the actual Honolulu detective, Chang Apana and his distorted Hollywood reflections to vivid life, Yunte Huang opens up important historical perspectives that have gone previously unexamined.” — Jessica Hagedorn, editor of Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Asian American Literature
“Witty and erudite, Charlie Chan intrigues and surprises as it unravels the three guises of this American original—a real-life, Hawaiian-born Chinese detective, a literary creation, and a movie character. Racist stereotypes, we come to see in this exemplary work, can convey monstrous fictions as well as complex, multifaceted truths.” — Gary Y. Okihiro, author of Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones
“Charlie Chan, much like the classic geisha dolls on bookcase shelves, has survived for generations as little more than a paper-thin stereotype. Now in this impressive and highly-original work, Yunte Huang has brought this fictional character out of the dusty shadows into three-dimensional life, offering us not only a picture of a little-known swath of American history, but the surprising story of this Chinese detective's American creator, and the real-life figure who inspired him.” — Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
“Who would think that the back-story of the fictional character Charlie Chan could be so instructive, and so timely? Huang's deft and witty recounting of how Hollywood transformed a real life detective from Hawaii into one of the most recognizable—and problematic—racial icons in movie history tells us much that we need to know about America's engagement with race and identity in the 20th century. Race was clearly more than black and white, a thing to keep in mind as we move through our increasingly multi-cultural century.” — Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello
“[A] fascinating cultural survey full of engaging tangents.... one of Huang's greatest accomplishments is his vivid narration of the history of Chinese immigration to the United States.... In the style of say, Louis Menand, Huang is that rare literary scholar with the light touch of a popular historian.... Huang's book is perfectly timed for the era of YouTube and Netflix and so hopefully will reintroduce what was created, with all its wisdom and imperfection.” — The Daily Beast