The House on Punchbowl Hill



The Weekly Standard, December 31, 2001/January 7, 2002


The Bourgeois Detective

Charlie Chan, conservative.

By S.T. Karnick

Critics have never cared much for Charlie Chan, but the portly Chinese-American detective has been a favorite for three-quarters of a century. Detective-Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu police became a globally recognized figure through the five novels Earl Derr Biggers published between 1925 and 1932. Numerous films featuring Chan quickly followed. He was featured in a radio series from 1932 to 1948 and a television series starring J. Carol Naish - to say nothing of a comic strip, a short-lived mystery magazine in the 1970s, and even an animated television series for children,"The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan."

When Biggers conceived "The House Without a Key," the first of his Chan stories, he wanted a new kind of investigator. Born in Ohio and educated at Harvard, Biggers had achieved success as the author of conventional romantic melodramas featuring a dollop of mystery, his most popular being the novel "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1913), which George M. Cohan adapted into a popular Broadway play.

Biggers noticed that mystery writers had created Sherlock Holmesian "master detectives" of nearly every stripe - except one. "Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff," he remarked, referring to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels and countless imitations, all using Asians as stock villains. "But an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order had never been used." So Biggers simply reversed the stock characteristics, replacing villain with hero, evil with good, arrogance with humility, greed with generosity, power-lust with serenity, ostentation with modesty, and brutality with courtesy, and so on.

Biggers seems not to have realized how popular such a simple reversal of characterization would prove. In "The House Without a Key," he does not even introduce Chan until more than a quarter of the book has passed, and even then the hero does not appear at all formidable: "He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting. As he passed...he bowed with a courtesy encountered all too rarely in a work-a-day world, then moved on."

Described by another character as the best detective on the [Honolulu police] force (which may not be intended as a particularly strong endorsement), Chan is first seen in action in a humble posture typical of his character in all the years since: "The huge Chinese man knelt, a grotesque figure, by a table. He rose laboriously as they entered. 'Find a knife, Charlie?' the Captain asked. Chan shook his head. 'No knife are present in neighborhood of crime.'"

Biggers plays Chan against the Great Detective stereotype by introducing his hero with a failure, his inability to find the murder weapon. But Chan proceeds to solve a complex mystery of murder among wealthy transplanted Bostonians, and all the important facets of his character are present from the start. In his first conversation, Chan offers one of his trademark aphorisms: "The fates are busy, and man may do much to assist." He is unassuming but intelligent, perceptive, and direct: "Humbly asking pardon to mention it. I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind." He is always polite: "Mere words can not express my unlimitable delight in meeting a representative of the ancient civilization of Boston."

In the novels, Chan tends not to dominate scenes in which he appears, and he is almost preternaturally calm and equable. No great physical specimen, Chan is a middle-aged family man. He speaks in a "high, sing-song voice," and, as befits a man whose first language is Chinese, his grasp of English is somewhat tenuous, though often rather poetic: "Story are now completely extracted like aching tooth."

Despite his travails with English syntax, Chan is anything but ignorant - he knows the islands and their inhabitants thoroughly, and his ability to discern clues is as good as that of any great detective. Like Sherlock Holmes, he can even tell the difference between Turkish and Virginian tobacco. Red clay on a car's accelerator pedal, a fresh bullet hole hidden behind a recently moved picture, a murdered parrot, a stolen antique pistol: "All the more honor for us," says Chan in "The Chinese Parrot," "if we unravel [the mystery] from such puny clues." Chan values intuition, saying, "Chinese most psychic people in the world," in "The House Without a Key." "Sensitives, like film in camera. A look, a laugh, a gesture perhaps. Something go click." But he uses investigation and reason to solve the cases: "Enumerate with me the clues we must consider," he says later in that same book. "One by one we explore."

Biggers' Charlie Chan novels are neither psychologically complex works nor models of literary style, but they are pleasant romances with a smattering of social criticism and a good deal of common sense. And Chan is an original and interesting character. But he is best known from his numerous film appearances. Pathe first brought him to the screen in 1925 in a serial of "The House Without a Key," but it was only in the 1931 Fox film "Charlie Chan Carries On" that the real Chan emerged. The detective did not appear until the end of the film, yet audiences responded very positively to Swedish-born Warner Oland's portrayal, especially the character's pithy aphorisms such as "Only a very brave mouse will make its nest in a cat's ear." (Oland, interestingly enough, had just finished portraying the evil Dr. Fu Manchu in three films for Paramount.)

Fox quickly purchased the rights to "The Black Camel," the fourth Chan novel, moving the detective to the center of the story and teaming Oland's Chan with a sinister psychic played by Bela Lugosi in a story concerning the murder of a movie star. (The plot was clearly based on Hollywood's notorious William Desmond Taylor murder case.) But it was not until several films later, in 1934, that the series really took off, when Fox assigned John Stone as associate producer and the studio ran out of Biggers novels to adapt. Stone came up with the idea of setting the stories in interesting locations around the world, beginning with "Charlie Chan in London" (1934), and he introduced comedy relief in the form of Keye Luke as Number One Son, Lee Chan, in "Charlie Chan in Paris" (1935). Stone also strengthened the main character by reducing Chan's use of aphorisms (and giving him better ones to say), decreased the love-story element, and established the convention of Chan gathering the suspects near the end of the film for a reconstruction of the crime and identification of the killer.

The budgets were quite serviceable for a B picture series, allowing the use of supporting performers such as Ray Milland and Boris Karloff. The investment paid off superbly: the films cost between $250,000 and $275,000 and netted profits of more than a million dollars apiece. For "Charlie Chan at the Opera" (1937), the studio went to the extraordinary expense of commissioning Oscar Levant to write an original operatic interlude. They recreated the sewers of Paris for a nicely spooky scene in "Charlie Chan in Paris" (1935), ancient tombs for "Charlie Chan in Egypt" (also 1935), a Western ghost town for "Charlie Chan in Reno" (1939), and numerous other exotic locations.

But it was Oland's performance, and the character he embodied, that provided the key to the series' appeal. After Oland's death, in 1938, Fox assigned Sidney Toler to the role. Toler was not nearly as good an actor as Oland, and his Chan is not as placid and charming as his predecessor's. But Toler's character was more formidable: taller and more vocally expressive and physically agile than his predecessor, he is sharp of eye and tongue, sometimes even taunting and goading a suspect though still unfailingly polite. Toler also brought out more of Chan's sense of humor, to good effect. To ensure that the series did not decline in popularity, producer Stone made sure to create especially suspenseful and unusual story lines. "Charlie Chan at Treasure Island" (1939) is in fact one of the best of the series, with Cesar Romero giving an excellent performance as the Great Rhandini, a debunker of phony psychics.

Within three years, however, the series was in serious decline, in part because of a loss of inspiration after a grueling pace of three films per year, but also because of the wartime contraction of international markets. The series soon moved to the very-low-budget Monogram Studios, and when Toler died, in 1947, he was replaced by Roland Winters. The Monogram films are widely reviled by critics for their absurd plots and abundance of low humor, but they did very well for such low-budget fare, and the series lasted until the studio was bought out by Allied Artists. In fact, the comedy, largely provided by Benson Fong (as Number Three Son, Tommy Chan) and especially the talented African-American comedians Mantan Moreland (as Birmingham Brown) and Willie Best (as Chattanooga), is the most effective thing in these last films of the series (though, alas, that is not saying much).

In his best films, Charlie is an almost ideal human being, in terms of personal character: wise, calm, observant, humble, polite, patient, affectionate, and generous, but also, when necessary, crafty, devious, and merciless. He frequently uses subterfuge to trick the killer into revealing his or her guilt, as in "Charlie Chan at the Circus," where he sets up a fake operation on an injured circus performer to lure the murderer into trying to finish the job. Comedy helps the films avoid sappiness. Near the beginning of "Charlie Chan in Egypt," we see the great detective awkwardly riding a donkey and unceremoniously falling off. In "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum" (1940), Jimmy Chan, mistaking his father for a wax figure, kicks Charlie in the backside.

Chan's great knowledge and wisdom are, of course, at the center of the narratives. It is Charlie, after all, who solves all the mysteries, through the most ingenious insights the writers can devise. In "Charlie Chan at the Race Track" (1936), he figures out that two horses have been switched when he observes how the stable boy's pet monkey reacts to them. In that same film, he deduces that a man claiming to have received an anonymous threatening note actually wrote it himself, because he does not use his glasses to read it and thus must already be aware of its contents.

As befits a successful police detective, Chan is highly observant. When he walks into a bank in "Charlie Chan in Paris," his eyes rove as if by long-ingrained habit, examining everything, and he even checks his watch against the bank's clock. "You've certainly got an eye for detail," says a man helping him later in that film, to which Chan sagely replies, "Grain of sand in eye can hide mountain." He is adept with the use of technology, saying, "Good tools shorten labor," in "Charlie Chan at the Circus," but he is not overly dependent on it. His detection techniques blend both ancient and modern ways of thinking, a major theme of one of the earliest and best of the films, "Charlie Chan in Egypt."

Also of great value in Chan's work is his remarkable patience. He always takes his time in following the evidence and deducing its meaning, whereas the other police, and Charlie's well-meaning sons, inevitably rush around trying to do everything too quickly, jumping to absurd conclusions. Charlie observes patiently until he has enough facts to draw valid inferences: "Theory like mist on eyeglasses - obscures facts," he says in "Charlie Chan in Egypt." In "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum," he says, "Suspicion is only toy of fools."

This composure clearly flows from the character's great humility. When a dignitary raises a toast to him in "Charlie Chan in London," saying, "To the greatest detective in the world!" Chan demurs: "Not very good detective, just lucky old Chinaman." In that same film, a British policeman repeatedly calls him Chang, but Chan seems to take no notice of it. In "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum," he is forced into a public debate with a celebrated criminology professor, and when his opponent continually brags - "I have a photographic memory!" - and insists on taking the seat reserved for Chan - Charlie does not respond in kind. "Kindness in heart better than gold in bank," the detective says in "Charlie Chan in Paris."

Such selflessness affords Chan an extraordinary but undemonstrative courage. In "Charlie Chan at the Circus," Lee says, "It's kind of creepy here in [the murder victim's] room," to which his father replies, "Then recommend you brush teeth, say prayers, and go to bed." After an attempt on his life shortly thereafter, Chan tells Lee that they can go back to sleep: "Enemy who misses mark, like serpent, must coil to strike again." When Chan receives warnings that his life is in danger, as in "Charlie Chan in Shanghai" and "Charlie Chan in Paris," he persists in seeking the truth, and he frequently enters dangerous situations - cursed Egyptian tombs, forbidding ghost towns, the Paris sewers, etc. - without trepidation.

Chan's humility also makes him a model for the virtues of bourgeois conventionality and self-control. Short and plump, soft-spoken, always well-groomed and well-dressed but never ostentatious, Chan typically wears simple dark suits or plain white suits befitting his tropical home. He invariably says "please" and "thank you" when making even the most minor requests, often rather comically, as when he asks, "If you will honor other room with your presence?" in "Charlie Chan in London." He neither smokes nor drinks, and he always shares his money with the poor: "Is always good fortune to give alms upon entering city," he says in "Charlie Chan in Paris."

Also highly conventional is Chan's attitude toward sexual morality. He is a loving family man, with eleven children in the first book and thirteen later - at a time when the American birthrate was dropping rapidly. He keeps photos of his children on his dresser when traveling. Moreover, those of his children who are not blundering about in trying to help him solve cases are quite well-behaved. In "Charlie Chan at the Circus," they all come running when Lee blows a whistle, even though theyd obviously much rather watch the show.

The importance of Chan's personal life is explored nicely in "Charlie Chan at the Olympics" (1937), when a gang of spies kidnaps Charlie's son Lee to force the detective to turn over a newly invented radio-controlled plane. Charlie is devastated, which Oland shows especially well through his dejected posture and body movements. (By this time, the actor's mind was seriously deteriorating because of alcoholism, but his tranquil mien made the character seem even more serene and charming.) The anxious parent does not overcome the great detective, and Charlie cleverly manages to retrieve his son without giving up the plane. "You're a fine officer," says an associate. "You went through with your duty even though it meant risking your son's life." Charlie calmly responds: "Better to lose life than to lose face."

Also revealing of Chan's strong family relationships is his sons' insistence on helping him, however comic their ineptness at it. In "Charlie Chan at the Opera," Jimmy [sic - Lee] successfully picks several suspects' pockets to obtain evidence, does a good deal of important surveillance work for his father, and performs other legwork duties. Jimmy is shown as a University of Southern California student in "Charlie Chan in Reno," working in the chemistry lab, and he later identifies the cause of two acid burns in the murder room.

In each Charlie Chan film, order and peace are disrupted by ambition. Chan, representative of all that is humble, decent, good-natured, and conventional, investigates the crimes and discovers the perpetrators, who are almost always motivated by a desire not for justice but simply for more good fortune than society and circumstance allow them to obtain morally and legitimately. Gamblers, spies, Nazis, saboteurs, thieves, forgers, embezzlers, grave robbers, occultists, smugglers, drug runners, jealous lovers, greedy relatives: these are the villains in the Chan stories, and they are not victims of society or of anything else but their own disdain for others. In Charlie Chan's world, people turn to crime not because of deprivation but because they see themselves as more deserving than others. Chan sees to it that these individuals are expelled and order is restored.

Hence, ironically for a man of Chinese descent, Chan not only works to strengthen the Western, Christian, bourgeois moral order but, perhaps equally important, he exemplifies it. The use of non-Chinese actors to play Chan has caused controversy in recent years, but the films' upholding of Western values may be the real reason multiculturalists so despise them. Actually, the films very seldom take any explicit notice of Chan's ethnicity, and in the few instances when someone other than Charlie himself does so, it is presented as very bad form. In "Charlie Chan at the Opera," for example, Inspector Nelson (William Demarest) refers to Chan as "Chop Suey" and says, "No Chinese cop is gonna show me up!" In "Charlie Chan on Broadway," the same policeman (now played by Harold Huber) suggests that a band play "Chinatown, My Chinatown" to greet Chan, but a nearby reporter says, "You'll have to excuse the Inspector's broken English - he's a Brooklyn immigrant."

Charlie Chan's new, real-life enemies among his multiculturalist critics represent forces similar to those he has always fought - people who despise the bourgeois social and moral order because they consider themselves better than the sheep who accept it. Given Chan's past history, however, the odds are strong that the great detective will triumph over them, too, and serve future generations as an appealing hero and moral exemplar, a figure both entertaining and edifying.

NOTES: This is a longer, probably unedited, version of the article that appeared in the December 31, 2001/January 7, 2002, issue of The Weekly Standard. The above version was presented at the Hudson Institute Website (


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