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Charlie Chan: Redeeming a Negative Racial Stereotype

Updated on March 30, 2020
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF 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 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?

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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

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