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Recent Film History Studies | Main | Glossaries Updated

Charlie Chan in China

Cc_london_2     Next month, June 2008, the US cable channel Turner Classic Movies every Tuesday and Thursday evening will have the theme "Race & Hollywood:  Asian Images in Film,"  which as one would expect  examines the portrayal of Asians by Hollywood.  Although the entire month's schedule merits viewing, I want especially to direct your attention to Thursday, June 5, in which the featured artist that evening will be the incomparable Anna May Wong.  After an excellent documentary on her life and career, TCM will show five of her films, concluding with Shanghai Express, already discussed here.

    Last year the London newspaper The Telegraph reported on a survey taken among 3,000 British teenagers which highlighted how fiction and reality are so often confused in the public mind.  About a fifth of the young respondents thought that Sir Winston Churchill, the dominant British personage of World War II, was a fictional creation, while fully 58 percent believed Sherlock Holmes was real.

    This brought to mind a time in the early 90s when I was a visiting professor at a Beijing university, and a Chinese colleague was relating some of his own experiences in the US about a decade before.  He recalled viewing an American TV program (he couldn't recall its title, but I'm certain it was "Family Feud")  in which competing teams tried to match results of surveys taken among other Americans.  On one program those taking the survey were asked to name a Chinese person, past or present.  The top three responses were Confucius, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, all very easily understood.  Ranking No. 4 was a more modern figure, martial arts icon Bruce Lee, but in 5th place was someone who (like Holmes) never existed, fictional detective Charlie Chan.

    So many of our perceptions of China and the Chinese have come from literature and film that a blurring of the distinctions between truth and fiction is understandable.  A thorough examination of how Western literature has shaped our views of the Chinese people, from Pearl Buck through James Clavell and then to Amy Tan, is for literary scholars to discuss.  In The Chinese Mirror, the focus is on movie images of Chinese, and in this article the topic will be "No.5" in the hierarchy of familiar Chinese:  Charlie Chan.

Cc_london2    In the summer of 2003, the Fox Movie Channel scheduled a marathon of Charlie Chan movies, all digitally remastered in preparation for release of the films on DVD beginning the following year.   Only a few films in the projected series were shown on TV, however, as Asian-American groups launched a protest movement that resulted in the series being curtailed.  In a compromise, the handful of films that were shown were accompanied by a panel of Asian-Americans pointing out the excesses and inequities in them.  Liberal that I am, I watched all the panel discussions, but I have to admit my dominant impression was that (with the notable exception of George Takei, Lt. Sulu on "Star Trek"), at least some of the panelists were disgruntled young Asian-American performers ready to blame racism for the fact their careers were going nowhere.  Two good overviews of the Chan/Fox controversy are here and here.

[left, Warner Oland and leading lady Drue Leyton going over the script for 'Charlie Chan in London']

    However one may feel about Charlie Chan as possibly being a racist stereotype, there is some irony here, in that the character was created originally as one American writer's horrified reaction to anti-Chinese prejudice he witnessed in California.  Moreover, the Chan movies were very popular in China in the 1930s, their star Warner Oland was treated like royalty on a visit there, and studios in both Shanghai and Hong Kong later made their own Chan productions.

     Charlie Chan was a creation of the successful American author and playwright Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933), who moved to California from the eastern U.S. to further pursue screenwriting, and was appalled by the maltreatment and prejudice Asian-Americans suffered there.  He wanted to use his talent in some way to combat that.  His inspiration came in 1919, when on a Hawaiian vacation he read a newspaper story about a baffling criminal case solved in ingenious fashion by respected Honolulu police detective Chang Apana (张阿斑), and like Conan Doyle's Dr. Joseph Bell, Chang became Biggers's real-life model for his fictional character.

    The Chan character was a natural for a detective movie series, and movie rights to the first Chan novel, 1925's "The House Without a Key," were sold immediately.  That first novel, and the 1926 movie based on it, had Chan as a positive figure, but a relatively minor one not coming onto the scene until well into the story.  The actors who played Chan in the first three movies were Asian, but the detective in each was a relatively minor character.  The last of the three films was produced by the Fox studio, and was successful enough to merit a series focused on the detective as the lead role.

    But when it came time to cast that lead, studio heads did not believe an Asian actor would be accepted as a leading man in what they correctly thought would become a long-running series.  So they turned to a Caucasian, veteran character actor Warner Oland, Swedish-born but so distinctly Asian in appearance he didn't require makeup when playing Asian characters, as he often did, usually villains.  Oland played Charlie Chan in 16 movies between 1931 and 1937.  For a comprehensive review of the Chan character through fiction, motion pictures, television, etc., the Wikipedia article is a good starting point, with some excellent links provided for those interested in further research.  Fan site and forum The Charlie Chan Family Home is especially recommended.

    But our focus here is on the image and reception of Charlie Chan in China, and as mentioned earlier, the movies were very popular among 1930s Chinese moviegoers.  One of the reasons for this acceptance was this was the first time Chinese audiences saw a positive Chinese character in an American film, a sharp departure from the "sinister Oriental" stereotypes in earlier movies like "Thief of Baghdad"  and "Welcome Danger," which incited riots that shut down the Shanghai theater showing it.  The popularity of the movies among the Chinese community extended beyond China itself:  the greatest concentration of overseas Chinese in the 1930s was in southeast Asia, and a survey taken during that era showed that among all American motion pictures, the Chan films were by far the most popular.

Wo_shanghai [left, Warner Oland and his wife Edith at the dock in Shanghai; others in the picture are unidentified.  Click on image for enlargement]

     Warner Oland had an interest in China even before he assumed the Chan character, and had long wanted to visit.  So after the Chan series made him famous there, Oland at last fulfilled this dream on March 22, 1936, when his travel party docked in Shanghai aboard the steamship "Asian Empress."   His arrival electrified the city's news and movie communities, with every major Shanghai newspaper and film studio sending reporters to interview him.  The typical headline on the story was, "Great Chinese Detective Arrives in Shanghai," the reports all referring to him as "Mr. Chan."  Oland held a press conference at 5 pm the day of his arrival, during which he tirelessly maintained his Charlie Chan persona while answering reporters' questions, even at one point referring to the goal of his China trip, not without humor, as being to "my ancestors."  He expressed this again a few days later at a welcome banquet held for him by various Shanghai society and community leaders.  He wore the familiar clothing the Chan character usually wore in the movies, stood up when the audience applauded him enthusiastically, and emotionally declared, "visiting the land of my ancestors makes me so happy."  At that moment, Warner Oland and Charlie Chan had merged into one, becoming in the eyes of those present, one and the same Chinese person. Cc_shanghai

[right, Chinese ad for "Charlie Chan in Shanghai"]

    Most of Oland's 16 Chan films were exhibited in China, to full houses and warm audience approval.    Among the films' Chinese fans was the great Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), who held them in regard.  In her essay "Lu Xun's Recreation," Xu Guangping (1898-1968), Lu's longtime literary companion and lover, recalled that "Going to a showing of any detective movie, like those of Charlie Chan, was practically a must for him, because this Chinese role was presented in such a positive way, and he found the stories used as plot material enjoyable."  Many of the Chinese films at that time tended to ape American movies:  actresses such as Chen Juanjuan and Hu Rongrong imitated the vivacity and cuteness of Shirley Temple; comic actors Han Lan'gen and Liu Jiqun (and after Liu's death, Yin Xiucen), one thin and one fat, were patterned on Laurel and Hardy; and in the 1940 production "Adventures of the Chinese Tarzan" (中国秦山历险记 Zhongguo Qin Shan Lixian Ji), co-leads Peng Fei and Li Zhuozhuo were clear imitations of Johnny Weissmuller and Margaret O'Sullivan.

[below left, Xu Xinyuan as Charlie Chan and Gu Meijun as Chen Manna in an ad for the 1941 Shanghai production, "Charlie Chan Smashes an Evil Plot"]Cc_dapo    
    Naturally, given their popularity in China, the Charlie Chan series inspired its own Chinese imitations, the best known written and directed by Xu Xinfu 徐莘夫and featuring Xu Xinyuan 徐莘园 (no relation) as Charlie Chan.  Rather than a police detective, this homegrown version of Chan operated a private detective agency, and instead of the comic relief from his eager and well-meaning but often blundering "No.1" or "No.2" sons, the detective's investigative colleague was his daughter Manna (played by Gu Meijun 顾梅君 in the Shanghai productions and Bai Yan白燕 in postwar Hong Kong). From the surviving written plot synopses Manna seems to have been closer to Charlie's partner than assistant, doing the agency's leg work, and with something of a knack for assuming false identities in the course of gathering evidence or information.  It is truly unfortunate these Chinese versions are not available to us today, for in addition to offering some interesting variations from the Western model, they sound like fun.   


[right, Xu Xinyuan returns as Charlie with Bai Yan as daughter Manna in the 1948 Hong Kong production, "Charlie Chan Matches Wits With the Prince of Darkness"]

So while there are people on this side of the Pacific who find the Chan character and the movies offensive, whatever the reasons, this has not been a view shared by Chinese in China.  In addition to the historical review above, a more recent assessment comes from a modern Chinese film historian:

"In the history of Sino-American contacts, the 'Charlie Chan phenomenon' is a unique combining of Chinese and Western culture, something worth more attention and further research by people from both countries."
--Zhang Wei 张伟.  Qianchen Ying Shi 前尘影事 (Past Movie Matters), Shanghai Dictionary Press, 2004, p.232.
Charlie Chan's China Filmography:

The Disappearing Corpse
The Pearl Tunic
The Radio Station Murders
Charlie Chan Smashes an Evil Plot
Charlie Chan Matches Wits With the Prince of Darkness


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