01 December 2011

Yunte Huang on Charlie Chan

Whenever I have a spare moment lately, I've been reading "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History" by Yunte Huang.  I'm about half way through the book.

I owe my knowledge of the book to a commenter on a FaceBook page that I follow.  After I became aware of the whitewashing scandal of The Last Airbender film, I discovered Racebending, a discrimination awareness group focusing on the entertainment industry. 

Racebending's latest project is highlighting and critiquing the upcoming Akira film that follows The Last Airbender pattern of filling all the main good-people roles with Caucasians (although for Akira, and this makes the situation particularly ludicrous, they retain their Japanese names), and, on occasion, making the staggeringly generous decision of allowing the main bad character to be played by a person of color [sarcasm cleanup on aisle four].  On a post about it - I believe it was the one announcing Kristen Stewart's gracing of the cast with her presence - someone posted a link to an NPR article about Yunte Huang's book.

Huang's writing is wonderful, and the book is interesting and quite engaging.  According to Huang, his book details four versions of the Charlie Chan legend,

" The first story, of course, is the man himself, beginning with Chang Apana, the bullwhip-toting Cantonese detective in Honolulu. Then there is Earl Biggers's story, unwinding from the cornfields of small-town Ohio to the old-boy parlors of Harvard Yard, followed by Chan's reinvention on the silver screen, a legend annealed in Hollywood and America's racial tensions. And, finally, there is Chan's haunting presence during the era of postmodern politics and ethnic pride in contemporary America."
But in addition to being in bulk a biography of Chang Apana, the real-life person who inspired Bigger's character and providing a look at Hawaiian history that's in-depth enough to serve as a framework with which to view the rest of the book, Huang also relates and reflects on  some of his personal experiences, both from his childhood and days as a student in China and his studentship and eventual professorhood here in America. 

The book is a must read for history buffs, classic movie fans, and those who simply enjoy being treated to an alternative point of view from the mainstream Caucasian culture. 

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