By CHARLES McGRATH
To many Asian-Americans, Charlie Chan is an offensive stereotype, another sort of Uncle Tom. Chan, the hero of six detective novels by Earl Derr Biggers and 47 Hollywood movies between 1926 and 1949, not to mention a 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, is pudgy, slant-eyed and inscrutable, and he speaks in singsong fortune-cookie English, saying things like, “If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.” The California-born author and playwright Frank Chin, who has written essays denouncing Chan, would like to see him disappear altogether.
But Yunte Huang, who was born and grew up in China, can’t get enough of Chan and has written a book about his obsession: “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History.” The book, which comes out from Norton next week, is part memoir, part history, part cultural-studies essay and part grab bag of odd and little-known details.
Biggers, who overlapped at Harvard with T. S. Eliot but did not exactly share his literary taste, said he got the idea for Chan while sitting in the New York Public Library in 1924 and reading about a real-life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. Mr. Huang suggests that Biggers may have misremembered the details, but there is no doubt that Apana was the model for Chan, and Mr. Huang gives a full account of a life that was in many ways more interesting than the fictional version: born in Hawaii to Chinese parents, Apana moved to China and then back to Hawaii, where despite being virtually illiterate, he rose in the detective ranks of the Honolulu police. He wore a cowboy hat, carried a bullwhip and was said to leap from rooftop to rooftop like a human fly.