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Sleuthing Out "Charlie Chan"

Reexaming the silver screen detective Charlie Chan. A new book looks at the caricature and the real-life man he was based on.

At left, Charlie Chan played by Warner Oland (Fox Home Entertainment)

Hollywood’s Chinese caricature detective Charlie Chan was a big hit in the 1930s – with his “ah-so” aphorisms – and reviled a generation later as Exhibit A of anti-Asian racism on the big screen. A kind Stepin Fetchit in yellowface.

Now, a mainland China-born, Chinese scholar immigrant to the USA is looking back at Charlie Chan and saying hold on, this guy’s kind of cool. And giving us the whole history of the Charlie Chan story.

Some big Chinese Americans are not buying it. We’ll hear that, too. We’re looking again at the “honorable detective,” Charlie Chan.

-Tom Ashbrook


Yunte Huang, professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His new book is “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.” You can read an excerpt.

Frank Chin, Chinese-American author and playwright. He is considered one of the pioneers in Asian American theatre. His play “The Chickencoop Chinaman” was the first by an Asian-American to be produced on a major New York stage. He’s author of “Gunga Din Highway” and “Donald Duk.”


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  • Howard Karten

    Your promo remarks this morning said that many people (? many chinese?) regarded Charlie Chan and the Charlie Chan movies as racist, or stereotyped.

    I watched these movies as a kid, and I thought they were extremely complimentary to Charlie Chan. Chan was portrayed as a fellow who was smart, who had the same problems as others (e.g. dealing with kids), compassionate, non-violent, and a whole bunch of other positive characteristics. So I hope the guests will explain where this business of racism or otherwise negative traits comes from.

  • BHA

    If the ‘real’ detective Chan was illiterate in English, did he speak in broken English as portrayed in movies?

    Just trying to figure out if the caricature is based at all in reality.

  • Howard Karten

    EDIT of above:

    1. I particularly liked Chan as portrayed by Sidney Toler.
    2. Add to the admirable characteristics: Chan (Toler) did things stylishly, dressed stylishly, etc.

  • Kathy

    I remember Charlie Chan very very fondly from the old movies running on snowy UHF stations. Did I see a brilliant detective? When I was a child, absolutely. However, as an adult, listening to clips from the films, it’s a very different story. I’m completely horrified by the ethnic stereotype and I doubt if I could possibly watch more than a few scenes.

  • jim

    everyone was stereotyped on television in the 30′s & 40′s, including Irish, Italians, Germans, English, etc.

  • Pat Hedglin

    I’m a listener in Lincoln NE and remember Charlie Chan as well as any child who watched. Given that it is easier to find a needle in a haystack in NE then to encounter anyone of Asian decent, I can honestly say that the Chan character I remember was wise and had the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes. It was the “number 1 son” who I remember as somewhat challenged. I’d love to see the Chan movies & TV shows replayed.

  • RBP

    The fictional Chinese character Charlie Chan was, however verbally challenged, wise and humane – so he was portrayed by a white actor. The fictional Afro-American character Stepin Fetchit was lazy and cowardly – so he was played by a black actor. Both are insults to their respective peoples.

  • Sally Strange

    I’m not familiar with Frank’s work but I can tell you one thing: he’s a big jerk.

    “DOES HE KNOW GWON GUNG???!!?” (apologies for bad spelling)


    Stop shouting and help the rest of us learn, dude. Control your temper. Sheesh.

  • http://aol.com Cody Howard

    I would just like to comment on the sentiment I have heard from more than one of the callers today. A question that Tom continually asks is do you feel that there is racism and/or stereotypes associated with this character. Callers continue to say “no because I see Chinese as smart.” This is a stereotype that is very strong in this country. When Americans think of Asian people, whether they be from China, Japan, India, Etc., they expect them to be very smart. I am simply saying positive stereotypes are still stereotypes and racist.

  • cotd

    wow Frank….settle down

    “Optimist only sees doughnut. Pessimist sees hole.”

  • Kazuko Ono

    I am a Japanese American, born in NY 1951. Charlie Can always made us cringe. It embassed us and quite frankly we grew up feeling very ashsamed of the Charlie Chan movies.
    In the 50’s and 60’s in NY everyone assumed we were Chinese and made fun of us teasing us with Charlie Chan phrases and pulling up their eye lids, quoting Charlie Chan with the awful accent.

    In my experience, Charlie Chan was certainly a racist example of Asian Culture.

  • Sally Lichtenstein

    Frank has an interesting point, but at this point he’s kind of hijacking the interview. And still shouting. Can we be done with him yet?

  • http://wbur.org Maryanne

    Has Frank Chin gone off his rocker?

  • John

    I hope Frank Chin’s plays are better than his debating skills.

  • cotd

    holy crap is frank going to hurt somebody?

  • Joanie-in-MiddleMass

    Frank Chin seems to lack humor. It is hard to listen to his anger.

  • BHA

    If Mr. Chin is so incensed that Charlie Chan is the ‘face’ of the Chinese rather than Guan Gong to Americans, why does he not produce movies based on Guan Gong.

    I am sorry to hear Mr. Chin being so abusive to Mr. Huang. This is not a debate of views, it is a berating of an author who is focusing on a single film character based on a true person.

  • Lon C Ponschock

    I read the magazine piece a couple days ago and decided to revisit one of the Chan films on dvd.

    Later today when I can hear this show I’ll be interested to hear Frank Chin’s take on this. I remember when Chickencoop Chinaman came out from reading of it in the paper.

    Moreover, his play “The Year of the Dragon” was produced by Theater in America for PBS. I encourage everyone to see this. The dvd is available in libraries and in this form I’ve been able to see it again.

  • http://www.asianamericanmedia.org Stephen Gong

    Thanks for the interesting and somewhat frustrating conversation. I’m in the “Charlie Chan died for our sins” camp. As we’ve all struggled to understand and reconcile the challenges of race and representation in pursuit of equality in civil rights it is perhaps understandable that unpacking the meaning of the Charlie Chan character is complex.

    One point not yet made is how Charlie’s children represent the new over-achieving Asian American model minorities.

  • Mel Miller

    The producers of Charlie Chan used Mantan Morland as a painful black stereo type. As a non-practicing Jew, I found Mrs. Goldberg offensive and I find most of Woody Allen’s characters equally offensive.

  • Evan Harold

    Can someone tell this man to calm down? Everyone on the show is keeping his cool and Mr. Chin sounds like he’s about to have a stroke.

  • james

    can somebody please tell Frank to calm down

  • John

    I hope we have a show with a Belgian throwing a fit over the inaccurate and effeminate Hercule Poirot.

  • s j gill

    get frank off i want to listen to the discussion of charlie chan not frank’s rant

  • Mark Mays

    Interesting how many older White callers come on to praise the character’s “positive” stereotypes. I think what some people fail to see is that Chan was essentially in service of Whites.

    (wow Frank just said what I wrote)

  • BHA

    Charlie Chan = Columbo?

  • http://news@wned.org Mark Leitner

    Tom et al:

    Listening to hour two re Charlie Chan.

    Frank comes on and Tom lets this guy go
    on and on about nothing. Big mistake, Tom.
    In short,you let this clown monopolize
    the conversation.

    Can’t we just take the Charlie Chan
    movies for what they are: entertainment.
    Nothing more and nothing less.

    Mark Leitner (LIGHT-NER)

  • Miming

    I … get where Frank Chin is coming from? But the tack he is taking to address his objection to Charlie Chan, namely his hang-up on Guan-yu of all historical/legendary figures, is, to me (someone coming from a very mixed, very Chinese heritage), kind of embarrassing.

    You can’t discount someone who wrote a book on, oh, John Keats, just because you want more people to pay attention to Julius Caesar. (This is a horrible analogy, but seriously, I would/could not have come up with something like “You must introduce Guan-gong to the West!” as an antidote to the image of the aphorism-spouting, yellowface Chan)

    Props to Tom for evening out the tone a little.

  • william

    Well Frank, I only hope that you’re on some serious drugs today, in which case you have the option of quitting.

  • Brett Earle

    We are basically listening to the political correctness movement, running out of control.

    If we deconstructed every single character–who is either an icon or a vapid stereotype, in the history of cinema, the theatre, and literature–there would be few stories and few entertainment presentations:

    No “Godfather” films; no Jewish humor; no “Sanford and Son”; no Scorcese film about Irish Boston that won the director an academy award.

    Respect for ethnicity and creed is one thing; but to exercise such censorship, because of excessively overeactive feelings and attitudes is quite another.

    Shall we call for the elimination of “Friends” reruns because of the suggestive sexuality and because the lifestyle was anti-Christian?

    And if we don’t, does that mean some sort of ethnic cleansing or genocide is around the corner?

    This is dysfunctional and crazy!

    There is room for criticism, against bias in media and entertainment–that’s for sure–but if gets so out of control that are analyzing everything–BUT EVERYTHING–then we might as well have technology pre-program us, to decide what we have to say.


    Let’s not squelch the bond!

  • http://www.simforus.com Lily Huang

    I just wanted to emphasize that it is not fair to tell people of color “to lighten up” or to say that they are being over sensitive in the face of racism, who’s to say that said person is “over-reacting” but the dominant white American culture. I think it’s fair to ask someone to respect another’s person turn to speak or to ask him to speak more quietly but it is not fair to say that he is over-reacting.

    In addition, something that Mr. Huang touched upon is that is a major difference in the narratives and histories among various generations of Asian and Asian Americans in the the US and Asians raised in Asia. I think it’s important that Mr. Huang has studied this and really put it into a conversation to energize disucssions of media and depictions of people of color, specifically Asian (American) males in the media. (Also, I’d like to point out that the majority of these AA men are depicted as asexual, out of shape, ‘nerdy’, slick, meek, shy, perhaps thanks in part to the legacy of Charlie Chan?)

    As an Asian American woman of color, I think that Charlie chan is a dated and stereotypical figure of the meek, subservient, asexual man who was created by dominant mainstream culture and played by a white man. Raised in Boston and growing up with many Chinese Americans, I can let you know that no one I grew up ever looked to Charlie Chan as a role model, as a positive figure, as a source of strength for a real Asian American history.

    Your callers who have called seem like they are of an older generation and see the ‘good’ aspects of Charlie Chan. However, any stereotype is a stereotype, just like the Model Minority stereotype. Now the Asian Pacific Island community is comprised of many ethnic backgrounds, but when we clump together Cambodians, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. and their distinct backgrounds and individual stories, who are we doing a favor? Creating glass ceilings. Pitting one immigrant group against the other. –If the Asian Americans can succeed, why can’t other minorities? ALSO, what if Charlie Chan qualities were played out by a black African American or Latino or Native American man or woman with these sly, slick, meek, subservient qualities? Let’s think about how this would look like and why and how this would look racist just like the Charlie Chan stories.

  • http://simforus.com Lily Huang

    Also, oops, to be fair, while there were always statues of Guan Yu in the background, Asian American youth don’t look towards him for identity nor strength either. We’re seriously missing some good contemporary role models of being APA here for the APA community.

  • Lewis Gordon

    I am surprised that the discussion of the dichotomy of the warrior and the trickster didn’t lead also to a discussion of Bruce Lee (the warrior) versus Pat Morita’s character on “Happy Days” (the comedic trickster). Morita, as we know, eventually mixed the characters in the original “Karate Kid” (Mr. Miyagi). But the irony of the situation is that Bruce Lee had created the original “Kung Fu” series proposal, but he was rejected to play the part because the producers wanted David Carradine to play the Chinese Shaolin monk supposedly because of his image in the part being more palatable to American audiences than Bruce Lee in the part. (Bruce Lee, we should also remember, had played Kato, Green Hornet’s side kick and valet, and he was also upset at an episode of “Batman and Robin,” in which he was instructed to make his fight with Robin leading to a “draw” since the audiences could not accept a Chinese hero beating a white hero in a conflict.) Carradine’s portrayal of a Chinese man had echoes of the Charlie Chan speech patterns, etc., and had reinforced that stereotype, albeit in a warrior. In other words, the notion of an “authentic” Chinese was a stereotype that led to the rejection of an actual Chinese American–and arguably the most talented and greatest screen martial artist of all time. The racism led Bruce Lee to go to Hong Kong, where he made the movies for which he is now very famous. But the repercussions of the racism are evident, including the insulting presumption that a Chinese actor would be bad at portraying a Chinese character. We’re familiar with this story of blacks, Native Americans, and more in cinema. For instance, one of the motivations behind “The Godfather” was to have Italians actually portray Italian characters. Instances of this problem are many. For more on some of these themes in the context of Asian Americans, I recommend Brian Locke’s “Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen from WWII to the Present: The Orientalist Buddy Film” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

  • http://www.redroom.com/author/grant-hayter-menzies Grant Hayter-Menzies

    Frank Chin may have intended giving a Guan Gong impersonation, but what he ended up doing was sounding very like an angry foreigner out of a Pearl Buck story, barking and bellowing at a native Chinese. It was not the debate Mr Huang and his fine book deserve, but then anger seems to be trumping civility in America these days, regardless of where one is from.

  • Chuck

    What a great show. Last week some local radio personality (in RI) said he was tired of people hyphenating eg Mexixcan-American, African-American, etc. I hope he listened to todays ‘On-Point’ as he would realize and understand that there is a reason for hyphenation. People are proud of who they and and where they come from (as they should be) and they need not be treated as dissidents for professing their love for their culture. I embrace all and do respect other cultures and individuals as I too appreciate that my unique cultural celebrations are respected my most. Let’s live and let live (thx NH).

  • trella

    I think an important aspect of the debate is the difference between traditional culture and popular culture. Traditional culture is unchanging and preserved in the purest form, a capsule of idealism passed from one generation to the next. Popular culture is constantly evolving and growing with every generation.

    By looking specifically at the classic Charlie Chan show we can examine a point in time where the American social climate was both stormy and sunny. Racism contrasted with romantic fascination of the far east.

    If you look at the social and pop cultural development in the last 80 years you see radical changes. asian population in America is constantly growing, some who identify with traditional Chinese culture and a growing number who find American culture more relevant to their lives here.


  • Tina C.

    I am 52 year old Chinese American woman who was born in Manhattan. My mother speaks perfect English with a slight Australian accent. And my sisters and I speak perfect English with no accent, but in a formal more British style. My mother didn’t tolerate speaking slang in her house.

    Growing up, I didn’t care for the Charlie Chan character. I also didn’t care for the Pink Panther movies character Cato Fong. And I am still disappointed that Jackie Chan speaks with such a Chinese accent and doesn’t hire a speech coach to help him get rid of it. Also, when Nixon first went to China, I was annoyed that the translator didn’t speak English the way my family does. I thought they should hould have hired someone like my mother (who speaks English without a Chinese accent) to be a translator at for such an historic and televised world event.

    But nowadays, the old Charlie Chan movies don’t offend me, but I don’t want that style to come back. His portrayal was just typical of what Americans thought of Asians back then. Asians still make up only 6% of the US population, so in so many parts of the country, a lot of people don’t have Asians as friends or close acquaintances. And from having a few co-workers who were born in Asia, their permanent accent is just part of who they are. So it’s natural to still come across ignorant and stereotyped views of Asian people and their culture.

    I hate how Eddie Murphy portrayed his Chinese character in his movie Norbit (2007), but that sort of crap is best ignored. But I do appreciate Asian actors such as Sandra Oh and John Cho who speak English perfectly and without an accent. And I adore the Australian chef Kylie Kwong.

    Otherwise, I feel that I am not defined by how other see Asians in general. What they think of Asians doesn’t cause me to lose sleep at night. I am very happy with the way I turned out, and that’s all that counts. The C-word, the Chinese version of the N-word, has never bothered me or my family. And I think that by ignoring it, and not using the term for each other, that word has lost its power and pretty much faded away. Black Americans could take a very important lesson from this.

  • Tina C.

    Another thought about why Charlie Chan’s portrayal by a non Asian didn’t bother my family and friends. For most Chinese people, being an actor is not a valid career path. When the Chinese come into this country, it’s to make a better life for future generations. And they expect their kids to study hard in school and become professionals in fields like medicine and science. Being a theatre major when the family is still working hard towards the American dream would be strongly discouraged. So… it never occurred to us that somewhere, there was a Chinese actor that was upset for being turned down from the role of Charlie Chan.

  • trella

    I think an important aspect of the debate is the difference between traditional culture and popular culture. Traditional culture is unchanging and preserved in the purest form, a capsule of idealism passed from one generation to the next. Popular culture is constantly evolving and growing with every generation.

    By looking specifically at the classic Charlie Chan show we can examine a point in time where the American social climate was both stormy and sunny. Racism contrasted with romantic fascination of the far east.

    If you look at the social and pop cultural development in the last 80 years you see radical changes. asian population in America is constantly growing, some who identify with traditional Chinese culture and a growing number who find American culture more relevant to their lives here.

    A show like Charlie Chan would not be well received today. If you look at the Asian epics produced by Hollywood since then you might see a shift toward the traditional heroes, Bruce lee and Jackie Chan depicted as powerful warriors, not peddling fortune cookie confutseism.

  • william

    Huang’s book sounds interesting, but in a larger context, the Charlie Chan franchise was another detective series, and the movies good old churned out grade B films, made for entertainment and profit. The stereotype is undeniable, and the detective genre is invariably formulaic. Fans want to see and experience the same flaws and attributes every time. And they want to learn the solution.
    I think this whole discussion is every bit as much about currency and hipness as cultural sensitivity. No one in their right mind thought Asian kids looked up to or wanted to be like Charlie Chan. He was never hip, to anyone. BTW, Holmes was asexual, Marple asexual, Poirot, and even poor old Angela Lansbury. Their problem? Not ethnicity – age. If you’re old, sorry, we sure as hell don’t want to have to think about your sex life. And while we’re beating up on oldsters (not all of them white, folks), I’d say they are the only ones with likely access to the wonders of Chan. So, if, for any reason, you were entertained by or found cause to laugh at any Charlie Chan exposure, say 20 Hail Marys. And while you’re at it, go ahead and bow down before the great and powerful Guan Yu. Or Gong. Just remember never to be ignorant. Or insensitive. Always think of everything. Have a nice day.

  • William

    Those old Charlie Chan movies are really good to watch sometimes. Maybe because they are in black and white or just made before movies became so “pc” but they are classics.

  • Irene Moore

    Great discussion. It was stroke of genius to put together these two men and points of view. The dramatist gave the discussion just the right balance. Frank Chin did not monkey around, he said it like a warrior which was exactly his point. And Yunte Huang did not back away from the challenge but accepted it, rolled back and pushed. Wonderful, if only more discussions and debates were on such a high level.
    Thanks again Mr. Ashbrook.

  • Mike Q

    Wrong, this was not a good discussion. A simple rebuttal is all that was needed, not a rant. Charlie Chan has been and still is used as ignorant slander toward the Asian people. This book is simple, not dangerous. People like Frank who can not control emotion and seem not to have any common sence are dangerous. Good for you Mr. Huang.

  • Sergio

    I was hoping the host would stuff a sock in Frank’s mouth. Good Lord, he’s angry. He’s got a chin on his shoulder. I do admit that I was laughing all the way through.

  • Brian

    Please get this overly-passionate man off the air. He is very irritating and is driving me to tune this out though I love your show.

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    When I first heard Frank Chin speak, I am afraid I assumed he was some crank caller. It took a while for me to realize that he was the second guest. I can’t help but wonder if he is always this ruled by his passions.

    Yes, positive stereotypes are still stereotypes, but to my mind they are not offensive unless used in a derogatory fashion. Stereotypes are a kind of shorthand, capable of conveying ideas without recourse to real thought, and even the greatest intellectual giants among us can’t resort to real thought all the time. As long as we continue to harp on (genetically speaking) non-existent racial differences, as we here in the States habitually do, then there will be reference to stereotypes.

  • Chad

    I’m listening to the rebroadcast now. Chin seems to be stuck in the old 1970s model of hyphenated-American academic chauvinism — only he knows the “truth” about how cultural practices should be interpreted. How dare an FOB Chinese write a book about an American film character from the 1930s! How dare he have the temerity to not bow down before Chin’s “legacy”!

  • Brian

    I almost forgot to comment on Charlie Chan. The “stereotyping” that is done is what we humans do to categorize races, cultures, religions,etc. so that we can file it away easily in the brain. As far as a stereotype goes, Charlie Chan represents great human qualities: reverence, humility, pointedness, humor, and logic. Being in a technical discipline which is very multi-cultural, I have several Chinese friends and come into contact with many, many Chinese living and working next to me. They are very much the way Charlie Chan was portrayed and we could use more of this. Thanks for the show

  • micah shook

    It seems to me that Frank Chin had some horrible incidents in his childhood. He sadly has missed the point. Charlie Chan was simply a character like any other. One character cannot create a stereotype. Are all Englishmen Sherlock Holmes. Are all Americans Napoleon Dynamite. Hollywood is and has always been about money. People paid to see those movies because they liked the character.Even the Chinese liked him. Frank is a writer and I am sure someone out there objects to one if not many of his characters. Perhaps he should consider his reaction if his work was the target. Perhaps Charlie’s writers were racist. Perhaps they knew someone like Charlie and were inspired. We will never know. At least I don’t pretend to.

  • jim holman

    Wow!Frank Chin is on CRACK!I hope he feels some remorse and issues an apology.I cant believe he was’nt cut OFF!Unbelievable!

  • Heinz 57

    As an Irish-German-Spanish-Carib, with a “lick of the tar brush” (as my grandmother described it), I find it amusing that the same people who offer their best Captain Renault response to the portrayal of ethnics in this country, are the same ones who readily attack Catholics as followers of pedophiles, Conservatives as Palin-Beckites, and blacks as dangerous ghettoites.

    Get a freakin’ perspective of real life.

    Seeing Charlie Chan in the movies on TV as a kid, I saw a FICTIONAL MEDIA DETECTIVE who was as perceptive as Sherlock Holmes and as well-dressed as Hercule Poirot.

    How was a character weak or small…he outdid the the officials (the police) and the defeated evil (the criminal).

    Why aren’t Italians pissed off about Peter Falk (a Jew) portraying a dufus Lt. Columbo??? While he didn’t have the bizarre sayings, he played the fool, who wasn’t foolish!

    Sto[p the insanity and leave Mr. Chan alone.

  • Listener in Brooklyn

    This was a fascinating hour and I learned a great deal from both of the guests.

    I am only appalled by the number of comments here mocking Mr. Chin. Is it so difficult to hear the pain of a history of exploitation?

    And Mr. Huang, thank you for your provocative, nuanced, and very well articulated ideas.

  • Lon C Ponschock

    I have now heard the broadcast this Saturday morning.

    Note to Tom and the producers:

    Here is a program idea.

    In the 1970′s I remember two writers who portrayed the anger of stereotypes and referenced their historical heritage in the same manner. One was Frank Chin. The other is Ishmael Reed. Ishmael Reed is the black poet and novelist who began writing in the same period as Frank Chin. Chin talked about the heroes of China, Reed talks about the magic and power of the gods of Africa.

    Making an hour of these two writers viewing their time in America in the 70′s and through to today would give perspective on their style. It is something that has been lost.

    One of the few Frank Chin dramas available for the mass audience is “Year of the Dragon.” George Takei (noted for his role as Sulu in Star Trek) played the lead in “Year of the Dragon”. His presence could complete the discussion.

  • Ami

    Can you provide list of all music used during Friday August 27, 2010 show (both hours)? There was something I heard that I really enjoyed, besides the show! I’m a fan! Thanks for this program!

  • S. E. Houchins

    An African American critical race theorist reminds us that positionality is all–social location is all. So I suppose I should say first that I am an African American in her sixties who remembers occasionally watching Charlie Chan films on TV when my parents were not around to censor me; for they–good race people that they were–understood the racism in those cultural productions just as they did in Amos and Andy on radio and TV.

    As I listened to the discussion between Huang and Chin, I hear a clash between men of different generations and very different social locations. When Chin et al. published the first anthology of Asian American literature, they defined Asian Americans as those who came to their identities through and against their representation in American comic books and films. Such people were at least second or third generation in the US.(Chin’s family had helped build the railroads in the US) That is not how today’s scholars define those writers and their audiences now. Young immigrants who have lived in the US and who write in the American vernacular now fit the definition of Asian American.

    It seems to me that those of us who were children of color in the pre-Civil Rights era and who experienced these cultural productions (films, comics, popular literature) in an time of unabashed racism have a whole different take on Charlie Chan.

    Some of us who are Black remember that Chan’s character has its own racial foil, the Willie Best figure. The races in these films mirror the racial hierarchy of America during the period of their popularity.

    Huang’s book sounds like an act of retrieval by a younger man who does not share a lived experience with Chin; his is an attempt to save the text –so to speak–and to find something worth being proud of in a body of literature that did not have that as its purpose. That is OK, I guess,I sometimes find revisionist work to be useful and interesting. But neither Charlie Chan nor Amos and Andy would be where I would expend my scholarly or artistic effort.

  • Nancy Wong

    Ishmael Reed and Frank Chin certainly know each other. Ishmael was the editorial director of Yardbird Publishing Co., Inc. that published The Yardbird Reader, Berkeley, California, 5 vols, from 1971-77. Yardbird Reader III was the Asian American issue edited by Frank Chin and Shawn Wong.

  • Roy Merritt

    The professor’s statement that Charlie Chan is definitely an American product is so very true. I doubt there was any intent to propagate racism. The motive was to turn out an entertaining product that would generate the maximum amount of dollars and nothing is no more American than that. The playwright is to sensitive on the issue, which means he may have some self-esteem problem. I especially like Keye Luke (who I believe played No. One son most times)when he would race up and start yelling “Pop, Pop!” Their relationship was very endearing. These movies never fashioned any particular attitude toward Chinese people in me. They were movies, which never really reflect real life.

  • Lon C Ponschock

    @Nancy Wong,

    Thanks for this. My background is as a civilian and I do not know the interrelationships. I know little about Frank Chin aside from the works mentioned. And I have seen/heard little from Ishmael Reed during the same time.

    One other thing needs mentioning here though only a tangent to the topic of Charlie Chan.

    That is the satirical performance group Culture Clash.

    With Culture Clash we have given representation to the largest three minorities that have taken a contrary view of popular culture from which the larger society can learn.

    As an example, though I don’t live on the West Coast and will never see it, the current performance piece by Culture Clash is called “Zorro In Hell”. I laugh just hearing the title having been a kid when Zorro was on television.

  • Jeff

    I can’t believe how many callers seemed to think that it is OK to stereotype Asians if the stereotype is that they are smart or clever (see the Model Minority discussons). I grew up thinking that the reason I did well at school because I was part Japanese. This kind of stuff can influence young children who don’t know any better. What if you are failing in school and you are Asian, like many people I have known in the past? That may compound the feelings of failure even more, because you think you are supposed to be such an academic success. This can lead to (and has) increased rates of suicide and depression/anxiety.
    It is hard work in academia that brings upon the success of Asian students. Period.

    The other topic to bring up is the fact that many Asian immigrants coming from Asia since the 60s are middle class professionals which value strong academics and careers which earn a lot of money and require a lot of academic training. If all the Asian immigrants were farmers or unskilled labor (as in the 19th C), we would have different stereotypes which emphasized different traits.

    The Charlie Chan movies are nevertheless an interesting topic to examine. I don’t think we can judge artifacts like this from our current perspective–the movies need to be understood within their own context.

    I think both Huang and Chin had a hard time clarifying their positions on this topic. Instead in turned into a bizarre series of statements that had no connection to each other. I wish they had better arguments!

    Being both white and Japanese, I have always felt outside of these race discussions because I have a dual-perspective. Maybe this topic will be void in a 1000 years when everyone is mixed with something else! :p

  • http://PrincetonNJ Jian

    Racial stereotype is racialism if not racism. It’s undeniably an inherent element of all culture. It’ll never go away as long as human races differ (post-racial? Dream on). The Chinese used to call foreigners barbarians. I feel it for Mr Chin’s historical pain but whatever you do (being angry is the last thing) you can never change it – even religious preaching cannot change the world (Dream on). I feel sorry for Mr Huang thinking he shares his smartness with Charlie Chan, ignorantly ignoring the other side of the picture. That’s fine, it’s all about who you think you’re yourself – obviously he’s got the message of individualism much better. Worrying about how others think about you only makes you unhappy.

  • Nancy Wong

    While Huang and Chin hold different positions on how the image of Charlie Chan is portrayed in the media, the two men have something in common: the University of California at Santa Barbara. Chin, a UCSB graduate, has donated his papers to CEMA (The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives), a division of the Department of Special Collections at UCSB. The Frank Chin Papers are available for study and research.


  • Listener in Brooklyn

    Lon C — I like your idea very much!

  • http://yahoo! Kandi

    I am a true CHAN FAN!
    Yes.. there are certain Chan films that definitely portray Chan as stumbling grammatical idiot! How sad! He is wonderful! I love his “Chanisms” and I already know that he is based on the life of a REAL detective in Hawaii. Both Sidney Toler and Warner Oland bring a sort of love to the Chan character. Both are definitely “father” figures who portray Chan in their own way, but also make Chan lovable and adorable. Chan is wonderful and some of the films do have some racist overtones, but, overall, the Chan movies are fantastic! I love them all, and have adopted some of his Chanisms! Leave Charlie alone!

    Chan Fan!

  • Tom

    I’d take issue with a few things said here, mostly the idea that the Charlie Chan character was somehow passive or subservient to whites. Passive-aggressive is more like it. I mean listen really closely to some of those ‘sayings’ and read the subtext. Not a few times is there a “ain’t white people stupid” message mixed in there.

    I’d also like to address Frank Chin’s obvious racist attitudes toward Japanese in his total lack of reference to the Japanese detective, Mr. Moto, as played by Peter Lorre in I believe 6 or 7 films that were contemporous with the Warner Oland Chan movies. Apparently, only the Chinese were subjected to racist slander (along with the occasional black) during the 1930′s

  • http://www.neaato.com neaato

    “wow Frank Chin….settle down “Optimist only sees doughnut. Pessimist sees hole.”

    >>>maybe because, all that is left after everyone ate the doughnut is the hole!!!

    “Can’t we just take the Charlie Chan
    movies for what they are: entertainment.
    Nothing more and nothing less.”
    >>>WTF, black face is entertainment too? it was right?

    “You can’t discount someone who wrote a book on, oh, John Keats, just because you want more people to pay attention to Julius Caesar. (This is a horrible analogy, but seriously, I would/could not have come up with something like “You must introduce Guan-gong to the West!” as an antidote to the image of the aphorism-spouting, yellowface Chan)”

    >>now everyone is writing about guan-gong. frank chin knows what he’s doing

    “I was hoping the host would stuff a sock in Frank’s mouth. Good Lord, he’s angry.”

    >>>you think blacks wouldn’t be mad at blackface? really?

    “Please get this overly-passionate man off the air.”
    >>>overly passionate as a negative. wow, seriously?

    you guys just don’t ‘get it’ lol
    go put on blackface and make a ‘smart detective show’ and see if anyone gets mad

  • http://www.bigwowo.com bigWOWO

    Tom Ashbrook,

    Thank you for moderating a great conversation. I highly appreciated it. I loved how you allowed each man to speak his piece and to share his knowledge of the characters. I also appreciated your familiarity with Chinese culture. It’s always great to hear an informed debate with an informed moderator.

    Tom the commenter,

    You wrote:

    “I’d also like to address Frank Chin’s obvious racist attitudes toward Japanese in his total lack of reference to the Japanese detective, Mr. Moto, as played by Peter Lorre in I believe 6 or 7 films that were contemporous with the Warner Oland Chan movies. Apparently, only the Chinese were subjected to racist slander (along with the occasional black) during the 1930’s”

    So he’s racist for not mentioning this? If he failed to mention Jews or black people who faced racism, does that make him racist against these groups?

    Frank Chin CREATED the Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans. He literally led the movement to commemorate their struggle to recognize the injustice that America put them through. Before you slander the man with accusations of racism, I suggest you check out this video about his contributions to Asian America (including Japanese Americans):


  • Nancy

    @Tom, who posted on August 31st, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    Frank racist toward the Japanese? That’s ludicrous. Frank has thoroughly studied those bad WWII films from Hollywood that featured Tojo-type caricatures. He would practically go apoplectic when describing the scene where a white character says, “they (the Japanese) take the obvious and REVERSE it!” Read “Gunga Din Highway.”
    Here’s a quote from Coffee House Press, which published the novel:

    “Nothing – not even Lassie – is held sacred when Frank Chin starts off by tilting at Hollywood’s windmills and then moves on to topple many of today’s other sacred cowsf”


  • a listener in San Francisco

    @Lon C Ponschock,who posted on August 29th, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    These “interrelationships” that you call them, run long and deep in the history of Asian American literature. In the early ’70s, when Frank Chin created CAARP(Combined Asian American Resources Project) with Shawn Hsu Wong, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers,” was published by Howard University Press in 1974.

    CARP quickly moved on to bring back out of print books (John Okada’s “No-No Boy” and Louis Chu’s “Eat a Bowl of Tea”) before tacking multi-cultural literature in the “The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature ” in 1991.

    But CARP wasn’t able to reach John Okada’s widow, Dorothy, in time to prevent her from destroying Okada’s second novel. Dorothy had tried to donate the manuscript, but when her offer was rejected, the widow, out of frustration and grief, burned the work. The young men at CAARP were devastated to learn of the loss. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Okada

  • Nancy

    Too bad that time allotted for this program wasn’t enough to hear Chin’s full take on Charlie Chan and with what little time there was, Chin somehow decided to focus on Gwan Gung. I know he had much, much more to say. A dream broadcast would be Chin holding forth with Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang. But since that won’t happen anytime soon, we’ll just have to content ourselves to re-reading ChinTalks blogs about the 20 year long battle (“pen wars”) with Kingston over the tales of Fa Mulan, Yue Fei, and “The Woman Warrior.”

  • N

    If Earl Derr Biggers made Charlie Chan more like the real Chang Apana (the Chinese detective in Hawaii that the Chan character was probably based on in 1924), Charlie Chan would have been a cowboy on horseback brandishing a bullwhip, part of the equipment for an employee of the Humane Society. After joining the police department, Chang Apana’s derring -do included his being thrown out of a second story window, grappling with sickle-wielding attackers, and dangerous hand-to-hand combat with lepers who refused to go peacefully to the leper colony. On a gambling raid in which Chang worked undercover, he arrested 70 people by himself, an all-time record for the department. Chang may have spoken pidgin English, but his fists made his meaning quite clear. He would never have bothered spouting aphorisms like “Admitting failure is like drinking bitter tea.” (“Charlie Chan in Egypt,” dir. by Louis King, 1935). No gulping bitter tea for this detective.

  • Wong Chin

    @Kandi, who posted on August 31st, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    “Both Sidney Toler and Warner Oland bring a sort of love to the Chan character.Both are definitely “father” figures who portray Chan in their own way, but also make Chan lovable and adorable. Chan is wonderful and some of the films do have some racist overtones, but…”

    Kandi: You might be interested in this 1972 essay on “racist love” by Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan:


  • Nancy

    Why did this conversation about Charlie Chan also include Kwan Kung, who is, according to Frank Chin, the god of war, the god of literature, and protector of writers, scholars and actors who play him? Perhaps Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald, in the introduction to “The Chickencoop Chinaman; The Year of the Dragon–Two Plays by Frank Chin,” Univ. of Washington Press, 1981, can explain:

    “…to counter the effeminate, Christianized Charlie Chan image of the post-1925 era, (Chin) has restored the immensely masculine Kwan Kung, whose strength of mind and body, individuality and loyalty, capacity for revenge, and essential aloneness are reminiscent of the rugged Western hero of American myth.”

    Earl Derr Biggers may have written Charlie Chan as an anti-dote to Fu Manchu, but for Frank Chin, Kwan Kung was the anti-dote to Charlie Chan.

  • H.C.

    Did Charlie Chan once inadvertently stumble into the Frank Chin camp when he used the word “Chinaman” (albeit different from how Frank would use it) to describe himself?

    “To the greatest detective in the world!” someone says in “Charlie Chan in London,” (dir. by Eugene Forde, 1934)
    “Oh, not very good detective,” Chan replies modestly, “Just lucky old Chinaman.”

  • George

    Professor Huang is another Chinese Uncle Tom. Another Asian who is unaware of harmful stereotypes. Unfortunately, people like him are helping to spread stereotypes without really knowing. Sad sad sad.

  • Sally

    Professor Huang was born in China and has only lived in the States for about 20 years. His experience and how he sees the image of Charlie Chan is different from American born Chinese, but his experience is valid to him. Huang actually finds the Charlie Chan image funny, and like most Chinese here and abroad, he loves puns and plays on words, which he finds in the “Chanisms.”

  • H.C.

    For those of you who have the impression that Frank Chin is just an angry and unbalanced person, I assure you that he is a capable individual with a very healthy and wicked sense of humor. You only have to read his works (and understand them) to know this. The essence of Chin can’t be gotten from a small portion of one radio program. Chin has had to confront the negative stereotype of Charlie Chan for over 40 years and it’s easy to see why he sometimes loses his temper and gets cranky from having to shoulder this burden.

  • motive

    “Professor Huang is another Chinese Uncle Tom. Another Asian who is unaware of harmful stereotypes.”

    No he’s aware, just shrewd enough to capitalize on it. The book itself isn’t as disturbing as the people who defend it so vigorously.

    What is telling is the implicit assumption that most white people would prefer to see a yellow-faced charlie chan archetype spewing aphorisms over the REAL charles apana.

    you’ll never see fictionalized real life figures of white people cast in such a distorted light, such as Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, Elliotness, none of them were fat or exude such a lack of masculinity as the fictionalized portrayal of Charles apana.

    That’s exactly why William Hung was such a success and even triumped over more talented asian/asian-american music artists that have attempted in the past to breakout onto the music scene.

  • Cody

    Why would this be a producer’s pick to be highlighted on the main page? I would think the producers would be embarrassed by this episode. The choice of guest to present a counterpoint to the author was a horrible one who added nothing to the discussion and held the whole show down.

  • Nancy

    @ Cody, who posted on September 18th, 2010 at 12:03 PM:

    The people who should be embarrassed by this episode are the ones who are still unaware of Asian American writers and the literature they produce even though there is a body of work that has existed for over 100 years in the states. Frank Chin is considered the “godfather” of AA literature and studies. The format of the show was too short to contain his many thoughts regarding this subject that he’s been writing about for over 40 years.

  • Cody

    @ Nancy who posted on September 22nd, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    I’m sure Frank is a wonderful writer and I will try to pick up one of his books. Do you have a recommendation?

    I imagine it’s that writing ability and the ability to articulate the Chinese immigrant experience that made the producers of On Point believe he would make a suitable guest for this show.

    Unfortunately, Frank came on and added nothing to the discussion. Writing is probably a much better format for him to express his thoughts as he is apparently not patient enough and has too big of a temper to respond immediately and thoughtfully.

  • Nancy

    @Cody, who posted on September 27th, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    I’m so glad you asked that question. In the On Point interview, Frank mentions his book “Gunga Din,” but I recommend “The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co, ” (Coffee House Press, 1988). It’s a collection of short stories and Yunte Huang has mentioned “The Sons of Chan,” which is the last essay. Don’t know if you can find a copy of “Y’bird,” edited and published by Ishmael Reed and A. Young, 1977 in your library. I have a copy from the SF Public Library, but there’s a letter that Frank writes about Lawrence Ferlinghetti that’s quite revealing about his feelings as a writer.

  • Nancy

    The On Point producers didn’t choose Frank to be on the program for his insight into the “Chinese immigrant experience.” Frank was born and raised in Northern California–so he hasn’t any personal experience as an immigrant, to speak of. Frank was probably chosen as a guest because he’s written extensively on Charlie Chan, a subject that has had a hugh presence in many of his works, including “Gunga Din Highway,” (1994). One of the narrators of this novel is Ulysses Kwan, whose father, Longman, wants to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan in the movies.

    To me, Frank Chin is more like a Chinese American Sam Shepard–someone who writes obsessively about the myths and stories of the American West.

  • Cody

    Thank you Nancy. Can’t seem to find Y’bird in the Cambridge library network, but The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco RR Co is available.

    If Frank has written extensively on Chan, I would think he could have better articulated his feelings about him. As I started off saying, perhaps live discussions just aren’t the right format for him.

  • Nancy

    Shoot, Cody: we can’t keep on meeting like this. But if there isn’t a copy of “Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird” (1977) to be found in the library network in Cambridge, the great city of higher learning, then I’ll have to pull some lines out of Frank Chin’s “Letter to Y’bird,” (p.42) from my own personal copy. Here’s Frank:

    “Letter to Y’Bird
    February 3, 1977-Frisco

    I like Ferlinghetti…of all the white literateurs pufflng up gospel of the Beat or the Hip, the Lost, or some other generation of white writing, he isn’t like a white racist who knows nothing of the Asian and Chinese America I write from and takes that as proof there’s nothing to know. I tell him how offensive he is to presume yellow writers would tell their yellow literary time by a white clock. And Ferlinghetti listens. I yelled at him through the U.S. Mail, and instead of giving me a lesson on how to write by white standard’s style, form, content, and racial prejudice, instead of getting huffy and displaying his credentials to universality, quality only, and aesthetic purity, he wrote back, “You’re right…”

    Ferlinghetti, unlike most whites, and all other whites in Frisco, isn’t offended at the simple facts of life he’s never known before. I like to talk, and Ferlinghetti doesn’t get red in the face and have a heart attack when I talk to him…(he) is proof that not all whites are at war with Asian America. When I tell him he used me to stock his white Beatnik ambitions and made me a bit player in his history and I don’t write for any form of white acceptance, he’ll understand that. Anybody else Frisco white and I’d have told them they were white racists and not bother teaching them the ABC’s of a people who tell time in gold mines, tracklaying contests, and Cantonese mean. I mean, Lawrence is the only white poet in the state ever to write about me as a writer and not some urban, primitive drunk belching ghetto rhetoric. Little things like that, happening in my own hometown, mean a lot to me.


    Cody, beg, borrow, or steal the book and read the rest of Frank Chin’s letter to the Y’Bird editors for yourself.

  • sober

    Do NOT drink the revised “Charlie Chan” Kool-Aid!

  • Jim Chootipanya

    Frank Chin is the MAN!

  • William Hamilton

    Starting with Frank Chen, there is enough ignorance to go around. I dig anger properly placed, but anyone who has cracked Huang’s book knows that this is the wrong place for Frank and others to vent their hate. Well researched and beautifully paced, this book explores the deeper elements of the Chinese immigration into American society, dealing with the historic realities and Hollywood myths that have characterized much of our beliefs. Before we pull our knives, it’s good to know who the enemy is.

  • Hwang Qian, San Francisco

    William Hamilton,
    First of all, it’s Frank Chin, not Frank Chen. Frank Chin has done a lot of research as well–go get some of his books. As always, the only enemy is Ignorance, not the people who don’t realize that they are ignorant.

  • Others

    Enough “ignorance” to go around?

    Know who the “enemy” is?

    Frank “Chen”?

    Frank Chin and “others” should get equal time and/or their own hour to vent their “hate” of recycled and repackaged racism.

  • Sally Anderson, Oakland

    Excellent new comment format.

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