by Sharon Tucker
Nosing through the mystery collection at my local public library branch, I recently picked up The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers, the second of his six novels featuring the redoubtable Chinese detective, Charlie Chan. After a few moments’ reading the first pages, the atmosphere and dialogue of the novel made me feel as if I’d transported in time back to San Francisco, California of the 1920s.
At first I seemed to be in a black-and-white-movie from the era because I’ve seen so many of the almost 50 English language Chan films. I moved on through a large jewelry store, past sleek sales people, into a plush, demurely deco office. As the characters began to speak to each other, in my mind’s eye, I was no longer in a film, but in the office itself, assessing the proprietor and his son, as well as the saddened lady come to an old friend to sell her heirloom pearls out of necessity. The stage was set for mystery and drama to unfold and I was hooked.
However, this character Biggers created in the early years of the 20th century has become for many Asians a symbol of the perpetuation of the most pejorative myths of the Orient. They see Charlie Chan as a caricature, a panderer and a sell-out.
Not so, asserts Yunte Huang, author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (Norton, 2010). While on a rest cure in Hawaii, Biggers was intrigued in particular by the legend of a Chinese-Hawaiian policeman, Chang Apana, a detective in the Hawaiian Police Force. Biggers had already written four popular, stand-alone novels and intended his fifth to center on two San Francisco newspapermen abroad in the Hawaiian Islands. Writing Chan as a minor character was meant to supply local color. However, Chan insisted on assuming the primary role!
It and the subsequent five novels have become known as Charlie Chan Mysteries. What was it about Chan that made him so widely accepted by readers, then movie-goers? Huang believes that Chan’s appeal was in how Biggers wrote the character–perspicacious, patient, deeply courteous, observant and broad-minded. He was also physically unimposing, self-effacing and quite a family man. Chan’s character was a rebuttal to the still rampant racial prejudice against Asians in the United States in the 1920s, as evidenced by the arch villain, Fu Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer in 1911.
At the time the novels were written, fear of the Yellow Peril had been fodder for the sensational press since the late nineteenth century. Chinese mass immigration to the United States gave politicians fits, worrying conservatives with regard to them glutting the American work force with a cheap source of labor.
In all six of the Chan novels, the Honolulu detective simply disarms the reader. We enjoy the Confucian aphorisms that pepper his speech: they are hardly a fixture in the world of detective fiction. Confucian principles advocate the perfectibility of humanity, adherence to ethical behavior and the cultivation of virtue, therefore Chan assists others who need but do not welcome his help as part of his ethical imperative. One can but admire his equanimity in the face of racial prejudice, a theme that runs through the novels, but Chan is not daunted by it or confrontational in the face of it. His eyes flash, but he maintains his helpful demeanor and instead of banging heads, he patiently and adroitly proves his detractors wrong. His habits of courtesy and self-deprecation preclude confrontation, yet he solves each case with alacrity and little fanfare. He unravels crimes that baffle conventional police because he has fewer preconceived notions of who is guilty and patiently follows the evidence, the latter of which is hardly original with Chan.
The first novel in the series, The House Without a Key, seems to be the coming-of-age story of a young Boston Brahmin. Much is made of his exposure and subsequent resistance to both the sophistication of San Francisco and to the lotus land allure of the Hawaiian Islands. Young John Quincy Winterslip has been sent by his formidable family to persuade his elderly, spinster aunt to return to the bosom of her family. She has remained in Hawaii much longer than they think is proper. The murder of Winterslip’s uncle throws a spanner into the works and some seventy pages into the novel we at last meet Charlie Chan. Though not physically imposing, Chan does make an impression and we soon see that his supreme virtue is that of patience to sift through details of the crime, its setting and all the people involved.
The Chinese Parrot, next in the series, finds Chan in the southern California desert, accompanying jeweler, Bob Eden, to deliver the aforementioned pearls to an eccentric millionaire. As the novel unfolds, the reader wonders who among the desert characters introduced isn’t suspicious. Most significant is the sense of unease which prevents both men from following through on their mission. Something isn’t right and Chan continues to delay until he and Evans can discover just what.
Reading the third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, made me wonder why it wasn’t titled The Chinese Slippers, since they are the key clue to solving a series of murders that stretch across years and continents–or are they? Retired Scotland Yard detective, Sir Frederick Bruce, has few regrets in his career, but the murder of a solicitor and the disappearance of a belle of the regiment in India fifteen years ago continue to haunt him.
Almost immediately, yet another murder is committed and despite the assistant DA’s pleas, Chan is on board ship to return to Honolulu for the birth of his eleventh child when he overhears a peculiar conversation coming from the adjoining ship’s cabin relating to the aforementioned murder. What he hears causes Chan to race back into San Francisco to continue to unravel complex clues, to tie together seemingly unrelated incidents and to work around a hostile police captain to solve what seems insoluble.
The novels of Earl Derr Biggers and the series of Charlie Chan movies made Chan the first Asian character to capture American hearts. He may be seen as a literary countermeasure to the racial stereotyping of Chinese still prevalent at the time he was writing. Perhaps Chan’s detractors see him as promulgating the myths of Asian inscrutability and superior intelligence rather than admiring his strength and humility in the face of prejudice. In other words, Chan sets the bar too high.
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