Monday October 11 this year is Discoverers Day in Hawaii, an alternative to Columbus Day that makes far more sense than honoring the 1492 collision of cultures in the Carribean for residents of these islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When Hawaii established the holiday more than 20 years ago, the state government declared it as an official salute to “the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Meanwile, the rest of us around the world who are fascinated both with Hawaii—and with our increasing religious and cultural diversity in America—should pick up a copy of the brand new Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.
Even mentioning Charlie Chan in a publication like ReadTheSpirit risks offending anyone who cares about ending ethnic stereotyping. The famous fictional detective, always played by Euro-American actors in the hugely popular B-movie series, spoke in broken English and embodied some of the worst in Asian-American stereotypes.
However, author Yunte Huang offers a whole new analysis of this cultural myth, including a detailed biography of the “real” Charlie Chan, a real-life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. Yunte Huang currently teaches English in the University of California system. He’s a unique scholar, since he grew up and completed much of his college work in China before moving to the U.S. He taught at Harvard for four years, before winding up in California. He’s a brilliant researcher and thinker.
For the new “Charlie Chan” book, Yunte Huang spent years unearthing fresh materials from archives now scattered across the United States. He opens his book by pointing out that even raising the image and the name of the Hollywood detective is flat-out offensive to most Asian-Americans. But, he notes, Charlie Chan in many ways is as popular as ever. His films recently were released in new DVD editions, for example, and they’re selling quite well—bringing this antique stereotype to vivid new life in American living rooms.
Here’s how Yunte Huang describes his purpose in publishing this new book:
“A glance at Charlie Chan’s fictional biography reveals just how far his nimble steps have taken him into the American psyche. Most Americans don’t realize that he is based on a real person: Chang Apana, a legendary Honolulu police officer, whose biography will make up a large part of this book. Like Apana, Chan came of age in colonial Hawaii, riven by endemic racial tension. As a young man, he worked as a houseboy for a rich white family in Honolulu. He stood witness to the plights and sufferings of his fellow Chinese as indentured laborers on sugarcane plantations, as gold miners bullied by their white competitors, as railroad builders taking on the most dangerous jobs, and as laundrymen toiling away with steam and starch … Some of these ethnic experiences and stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in American culture that even as late as the 1990s, a Republican senator would use the infamous phrase, “Not a Chinaman’s chance,” when addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs to China at a congressional hearing. … In many ways, Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his resume a history of the Chinese in America.”
So, to our friends and readers in Hawaii:
Happy Discoverers Day!
And to all of our readers who care about understanding and overcoming our history of ethnic stereotyping: Grab a copy of this wonderfully engaging new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
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