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Charlie Chan: Redeeming a Negative Racial Stereotype

Updated on August 21, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (Active AF Civil Air Patrol).

The Illustrious Ah Pung

The talented and effective real life Charlie Chan was an island-born Chinese named Chang Pung, or Zheng Ping in Mandarin. Born in 1871, He first worked successfully as a longhorn cowboy on Oahu on new cattle ranches started by Americans in the 1880s and 1890s.

Afterward, he became an animal control officer for the government-run Humane Society. In this capacity, he was also responsible for handling the children in the streets, especially ensuring that they went to school. That made him a truant officer.

Thus, "Charlie" was a cowboy, a dog catcher, and a truant officer before he became a detective.

Mr. Chang saved many animals and children from death and starvation, became noticed by local officials, and was recruited to become the future detective with the most arrests in the Honolulu Police Department - using a bullwhip instead of a gun.

Chang Pung was known by the nickname Chang Ah Pung, which became Chang Apana with the addition of the Oahu traditional vowel at the end of the first name.

Some early cowboys in Oahu, called paniolas.
Some early cowboys in Oahu, called paniolas. | Source

"Charlie" was a cowboy, a dog catcher, and a truant officer before he became a detective.

Backlash to an Asian Stereotype

From the advent of the movie's Charlie Chan in 1926, many Chinese in America expressed strong criticism and disdain for what they called a minstrel in yellowface, because the detective was portrayed originally by four Caucasian actors in the films through 1948 and in later reboots.

Hollywood staunchly was not hiring Asians to portray Asians, a minority-denigrating problem affecting every non-white actor group, strangling the film industry even through 2017.

Enough protests finally rose in the air to strangle the stranglers, and minorities were at last hired more frequently to play their minority counterparts on screes - not only Asians, but Africans, African Americans, women, senior citizens, the disabled ( e.g. The Rider, 2018; directed by China-born Chloe Zhao), LGBTQA people, and others.

Asian Advocates Fight Asian Opponents

In the 21st century, Asians are divided into two groups of opinions about the stereotypical insult that many see Charlie-Chan-white-man to be.

English Professor and author Yunte Huang is a strong advocate, insisting that the personality and effectiveness of Detective Chan was the first positive portrayal of a Chinese in America. He points out that at the original time of the films' showings, the audiences of China overwhelmingly approved of the character.

Some other authors are still adamantly against the character, including Lisa Ko and Frank Chin.

America doesn’t want us as a visible native minority. They want us to keep our place as Americanized foreigners ruled by immigrant loyalty.

— Frank Chin
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Frank ChinLisa Ko speaking at AAWWTV: "White People & Asian Dropouts", 2017
Frank Chin
Frank Chin | Source
Lisa Ko speaking at AAWWTV: "White People & Asian Dropouts", 2017
Lisa Ko speaking at AAWWTV: "White People & Asian Dropouts", 2017 | Source

How do you feel about minority stereotypes?

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Author Earl Derr Biggers created a kind, upstanding Chinese law enforcement hero to fight against the propagandist Asian stereotypes of WWII that included the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless; Mr. Wong, Detective; and Madama Butterfly.

White Portrayals All Bad?

Of all of the white actors portraying the famous Honolulu detective, I feel that Warner Oland gave the best performances. He not so much imitated a Chinese stereotype as he provided a general impression of a kind, mild mannered gentleman with a sense of humor and a talent for finding the truth.

On film, his presence reminds me of Michael Shannon's portrayal of Elvis Presley in Elvis and Nixon (2016) -- He did not look or sound a lot like Elvis, but he presented his spirit and personality. I was seeing Elvis on the screen.

In 1933, Warner Oland visited Shanghai, where he was celebrated by Asian film audiences for bringing to life the very first positive Chinese character America ever put on film. Thus, I think Warner Oland helped further the possibility of increased Chinese acting in America.

Demand for Minority Actors

In the 21st century, increasing criticism has erupted among film organizations, fans, and actors toward minority characters played by white actors. As a result, more minority actors, directors, writers, producers, and staff are gaining work.

I think we have reached beyond the white Charlie Chan today. Earlier audiences took little notice of the anomaly during the Great Depression and WWII, because Chinese actors received few roles in America. This has changed.

(Yunte) Huang, however, loves Chan and sees in him something more empowering: a Chinese incarnation of the American trickster or con artist figure: 'He reminds me of Monkey King. In Chinese folk myth, Monkey King is an invisible trickster who hides his weapon in his ear. ... Charlie Chan is that Monkey King, concealing his aphoristic barbs inside his tummy.'

— Maureen Corrigan, NPR; August 18, 2010

The Legend of Chang Apana

Legacy Vision Films

A new film in the 2010s featured the real life story of Chang Apana. His exploits with the Honolulu police were legendary. The film has won an Emmy Award for Graphic Art and Set Design.

The Legend of Chang Apana by Sagata Thera
The Legend of Chang Apana by Sagata Thera | Source

Chang Apana was Hawaii's first action hero. Just over five feet tall and carrying no gun, he used a bullwhip effectively - once to round up 40 perpetrators in a day in Chinatown.

Early Depictions of Chinese Characters

Warner Orland was Swedish, but casting officials and directors felt that he looked vaguely Chinese. I think he was paying tribute to China, rather than mocking it and its peoples; and, I think he did a much better job in his role than Peter Sellers did as Fu Manchu, which seemed almost insulting.

Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless in the 1980 film Flash Gordon was strange, but interesting. Boris Karloff as the detective Mr. Wong was also interesting, but not quite right.

The first detective in all of literature and history was Chinese: Judge Dee of China.

Two of my favorite actors: Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi in "The Black Camel" (1931).
Two of my favorite actors: Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi in "The Black Camel" (1931). | Source

Alas, mouse cannot cast shadow like elephant.

— Chan in The Black Camel

Always happens - when conscience tries to speak, telephone out of order.

— Chan in The Black Camel

Asian Characters of Warner Oland

Click thumbnail to view full-size
From Episode 10 of the silent film serial called "The Lightning Raider" in 1919. Warner Oland as Wu Fang (at the table), Pearl White and Henry G. SellA slit called  "Murder Will Out" with Warner Oland (Fu Manchu), Clive Brook (Sherlock Holmes), William Powell (Philo Vance), and Eugene Pallette (Sergeant Heath). As Charley Yong in "East Is West" (1922).
From Episode 10 of the silent film serial called "The Lightning Raider" in 1919. Warner Oland as Wu Fang (at the table), Pearl White and Henry G. Sell
From Episode 10 of the silent film serial called "The Lightning Raider" in 1919. Warner Oland as Wu Fang (at the table), Pearl White and Henry G. Sell | Source
A slit called  "Murder Will Out" with Warner Oland (Fu Manchu), Clive Brook (Sherlock Holmes), William Powell (Philo Vance), and Eugene Pallette (Sergeant Heath).
A slit called "Murder Will Out" with Warner Oland (Fu Manchu), Clive Brook (Sherlock Holmes), William Powell (Philo Vance), and Eugene Pallette (Sergeant Heath). | Source
As Charley Yong in "East Is West" (1922).
As Charley Yong in "East Is West" (1922). | Source
Source

The Lightning Raider is a 1919 American action film serial directed by George B. Seitz. It was the on-screen debut of Boris Karloff. The serial survives in an incomplete state with some reels preserved at the Library of Congress.

Sidney Toler

 Dangerous Money (1946). I believe that this actor still looks "white" even in makeup.
Dangerous Money (1946). I believe that this actor still looks "white" even in makeup. | Source

Roland Winters

Roland Winters in his first appearance as the great detective in 1947. Unfortunately, Chinese and African Americans were both presented as stereotypes.
Roland Winters in his first appearance as the great detective in 1947. Unfortunately, Chinese and African Americans were both presented as stereotypes. | Source

Roland Winters (Winterintz) was descended from a family in Austria-Hungary. Many by the surname Winternitz were found in Nazi concentration camp records, especially Dachau; but no solid connection can be found between them and the actor.

Winters was much younger at age 43 than Sidney Toler, who died and presented the need for a replacement movie Chan. With dyed black hair and some added gray, and the actor attempted to move and speak more slowly than was natural to him. He did not impress me as Chinese. He worked with Keye Luke, my favorite Chinese actor.

Asian Portrayals of Chan

A couple of Japanese actors and a Korean portrayed Chan in the 1920s, but audiences did not respond well to the particular actors.

J. Carrol Naish portrayed Chan in a few films and Ross Martin played the detective in a TV series in the 1970s, but neither gentleman looked much like a Chinese person, even in theatrical makeup. Neither did Peter Ustinov.

Keye Luke voiced the Chan character in a Saturday morning cartoon series much later.

In the 21st century, it is time for Chinese actors to portray Chinese characters. A new Charlie Chan film is set to star Lucy Liu in the 2020s. She will play Number One Granddaughter. However, I still agree with author Huang that the Charlie Chan films, and in my opinion especially those with Warner Oland, helped form a more positive image for Asians in American culture.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Edward L. ParkJapanese Actor Sojin Kamiyama Keye Luke
Edward L. Park
Edward L. Park | Source
Japanese Actor Sojin Kamiyama
Japanese Actor Sojin Kamiyama | Source
Keye Luke
Keye Luke | Source

Who should portray Charlie Chan in the 21st century?

See results

Sources

  • Ancestry.com databases for the name "Winternitz."
  • Charlie Chan's Hawaii. www.charliechanshawaii.com/ Retrieved July 28, 2018.
  • Chin, F. Bulletproof Buddhists (Intersections - Asian and Pacific AmericanTranscultural Studies); 1998. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Combined Asian American Resource Project. Roland Winters interview on his career in the motion picture industry. archive.org/details/cubanc_000319 Retrieved July 28, 2018.
  • Corrigan, M. Giving 'Charlie Chan' A Second Chance at Fresh Air on NPR. Broadcast August 18, 2010.
  • Dunn, G. In Search of Charlie Chan. Goodtimes; 2011. http://goodtimes.sc/uncategorized/in-search-of-charlie-chan/ Retrieved July 29, 2018.
  • Ko, L. Old News: Chang Apana. Hyphen; Asian American Unabridged. hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2009/4/16/old-news-chang-apana Retrieved July 29, 2018.
  • Roland Winters: The End of an Era. The Charlie Chan Family Home. http://charliechanfamily.tripod.com/id11.html Retrieved July 29, 2018.
  • van Gulik, R. The Judge Dee Mystery Series; (1957 - 1968).
  • Weinman, S. The Legacy of Charlie Chan in Barnes and Noble Review. www.barnesandnoble.com/review/the-legacy-of-charlie-chan Retrieved July 29, 2018.

© 2018 Patty Inglish MS

Comments

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    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Patty

      Instead of answering the question you pose I'll ask another.

      Agatha Christie was English, Yet her most famous work involved a Belgian private Detective (Hercule Poirot) so who should play the part?

      Isn't the role of an actor to convince us that they are the character they're playing?

      I enjoy it when the character is so convincing they persuade me that they are of that nationality.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      4 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks, Patty. I'm seen some of the old Chang movies, and I loved them all. Great article on a fascinating man.

      Great read.

      Sincerely,

      Tim

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for this presentation on the history and career of Charlie Chan. His humane contributions may override all the issues they affected in the acting industry and racial profiling. That said, I think it would be great to have a Chinese actor or actress play him.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      @William F Torpey -- I also think that Toler and Oland were respectful in their portrayals.

      @Brad -- Thanks for the additional comments! Remaking old films and TV shows is getting pretty boring to me. Some of the originals were much better. You bright to memory the scenes of Birmingham Brown with the sheriff and Charlie with the crossword puzzle given instead of a waffle - I am laughing!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Wow Everybody! -- Many votes for Sidney Toler as best Charlie Chan and only one for Mr. Oland. Much fun!

      Actually, my favorite Chan detective is Michael Paul Chan on TV's Major Crimes, The Closer, The Good Fight, and Robbery Homicide Division. I just learned that he founded the Asian American Theater Company. I don't know how he would be as Charlie Chan or if he would be willing to play that role. He might have been a better Kwai Chang Cain than David Carridine, though.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 

      4 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Ho Patty - My knowledge of Charlie Chan is limited. From my childhood, Sidney Toler, stands out. It sounds like the man the character is based on was strong and had a good heart.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

      4 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks. I learned a lot.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      4 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I'm going out on a limb and dating myself, however, my mother took me to most of the Charlie Chan movies. I remember huddling in my seat, absolutely enthralled. Sidney Toler invaded many a dream.

      Race never entered my mind.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      4 months ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

      Patty

      The diner one was funny, one of many.

      Keye Luke could do cartoon voices.

      You mentioned about the Charlie Chan radio show and being pulled because of the white actor. Today, it would be a problem, look at how many white characters have been replaced by blacks.

      My opinion on that is why does TV entertainment have to be an experiment in sociology. They need to stop remaking old films and TV shows and start fresh.

      BTW, I really am a fan of Mantan Moreland who not only did a great comedic relief on Charlie Chan but in many other films.

      One of my favorite scenes was at the end of the Charlie Chan movie, the still have to go down in the basement to retrieve one of the corpses. Hearing that Birmingham Brown leaves. In the next scene there is the sheriff in his car and then Brown comes along side of the sheriff and asks him, which way is the town. The sheriff tells him, and then puzzled says, I didn't know I was stopped. And Brown says, you aren't, I just slowed down. And then Brown starts to get ahead of the sheriff's car.

      Funny.

      I believe that character was in the Warner Oland movie and it was Monaco. He was the chief of police. That movie was funny with the son trying to speak French and getting them both thrown into jail. And then at breakfast at the hotel trying to order a waffle for Charlie to no avail. Then Charlie draws a picture of a waffle for the waiter, but is surprised when the waiter instead brings him a crossword puzzle book.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I read twice as it is super interesting. Our house is split down the middle of Asian and "American Caucasian". My wife insists she is yellow yet far more white than our son and I.

      I heard of someone complaining of a heterio female playing the part of a gay lady. It made me giggle and think back to Black Face actors.

      As a retired investigator and litigation attorney I find Chan fantastic and loveable. I met him in the upstairs of a China Man restaurant in SF. Melvin Belli and Witkin were hosts. I am thinking 1980. This would be Ross Martin of Wild Wild West fame as Artemus Gordon. Belli my boss and Bernie Witkin were huge fans.

      Too many years to be specific as it could have been down the hill in Carlsbad.

      Thanks for bringing back great memories.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      4 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I loved the Charlie Chan movies from the 1940s and through the years, Patty English. Sidney Toler was the best -- by far! Warner Oland did a very competent job. While I understand the argument that a Chinese actor should portray the detective I personally felt the actors were portraying the character very respectfully. I agree entirely with bradmsasterOCcal's comment -- 100 percent.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Hi Mary! Thanks for your comment. Everyone should have a chance at equal pay for their roles as well and I hope we are approaching that in America.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I wish I have seen these series but I haven't. I think any actor who can do it regardless of their race or gender can play the part. I think that everyone should have an equal chance.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      4 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      @Brad -- Thanks for the wealth of comments and insights you shared.

      I agree that funny is funny. I remember one of those contract players as a NYC detective in one movie and a French detective in another. I only saw one Wong film and can't remember it. Sidney Toler would be my second choice and I dislike all the others who came afterward. I'm not sure how I feel about Keye Luke as a cartoon voice.

      I remember listening to Amos n Andy on the Radio in the 1960s and wondering as a child why the program was pulled. Only as an adult did I learn the radio folks were white. I liked the TV show a lot - especially the episode where they bought a diner and moved it to the other side of the road, only to have traffic increase on the first side and bypass them.

      Thanks again for supporting Sidney Toler and providing information about the topic!

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      4 months ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

      Patty Inglish

      I got hooked on Charlie Chan in the 1990s when I saw it on some obscure TV stations. I differ with you on the best Charlie Chan. I did finally buy the entire Charlie Chan on 12 DVDS. After watching them all, my choice for the best Charlie Chan is hands down Sidney Toler. It is also the most diverse use of the Chinese and Blacks in the series.

      In fact, Birmingham Brown played by Mantan Moreland had billing over many of the white characters.

      In watching the Sidney Toler movies playing the Charlie Chan character, I never thought about the race, or ethnicity. I just enjoyed them intensely. I watch them over and over again.

      "greater success with his series of Charlie Chan detective novels. The popularity of Charlie Chan extended even to China, where audiences in Shanghai appreciated the Hollywood films. Chinese companies made films starring this fictional character.[5] Derr Biggers publicly acknowledged the real-life detective Chang Apana as the inspiration for the character of Charlie Chan in his letter to the Honolulu Advertiser of June 28, 1932"

      The worst Charlie Chan was Roland Winters portrayal as he really went ridiculous with the Chinese English. And those movies were a rip off of the Wong movies, and they were terrible.

      Warner Oland did an OK job but it was the 1930s, and the movie industry hadn't yet reached the filming power they would have in the 1940s.

      The very first Charlie Chan in the series was most likely based on the real life character, and it was not very Charlie Chan. After that I don't think that Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan had much input into the scripts, and they became better. And the scripts pinnacle during the Sidney Toler era of Charlie Chan.

      We became more familiar with Charlie Chan and his family and his roots in Hawaii. With Mantan Moreland and Chan's family providing the humor element the movies were simple but interesting as a comedy mystery in the who done it fashion.

      Nash as Charlie Chan was more of Roland Winters and therefore pretty bad as a Charlie Chan.

      During the reign of Sidney Toler's Charlie Chan we see a lot of actors frequently in multiple movies. This was because of the contracts held by the studio. Even then, these actors were doing different characters in different Charlie Chan movies and doing a good job.

      At the same time, I found Amos n Andy on you tube. And I understand that the show also had the same criticism because when it was on radio it was done by white characters. However, when it was shown on TV the characters were all black, and yet the criticism continued that it forced the reruns off the air.

      Again, I knew these characters were black but didn't put any credence on them. The show was funny, and the characters were characters. It didn't matter that they were black,

      Funny is funny and it transcends race, ethnicity, color or any other human attribute.

      My take on the real Chinese Charlie Chan is that he died early. Actually in the first movie, and was reinvented in the second movie, and never to be seen again. That was a good thing, and that was the success of the Charlie Chan played by Sidney Toler.

      My biased opinion!

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