On…. Charlie Chan


It’s been far too long since I wrote something that wasn’t a review, and there has been something that has been bugging me for a little while which I would like to talk about, that maybe is not without a wee touch of controversy.

When I was a little lad, one of my little pleasure was watching re-runs of Charlie Chan films from the 1920s-50s.  To be honest, I was little more than a detective movie addict, and any question of whether the films were politically correct would not have entered my mind (heck, I don’t think the term PC even existed back then).  What I saw were fun, tight little mysteries, with a lead character who was just a little different to my other heroes of the time.  At some point it seems, even though we have a million TV channels now, showing all sorts of demeaning rubbish (to both the viewer and participants), there isn’t a place for these things in the world anymore.  Same thing goes for Boris Karloff’s James Lee Wong series and and Peter Lorre’s Mr Moto films.

It was my recent investigations into Anna May Wong that then got me thinking about the films again, and started to hunting them down.  I read somewhere that Anna actually gave a defence of the films (despite her being personally affected by things such as the rules against Miscegenation in the Hays Code), saying in effect that Charlie Chan was actually the most positive of role models to Chinese people.  And I would have to agree.  He is always the smartest guy in the room, he is respected by his peers, and when confronted by racist attitudes is able to counter them by his words and actions.  The whole essence of his existence comes from the original novels by Earl Derr Biggers, who wanted to create a positive alternative to the overwhelming “Yellow Peril” stereotypes prevalent at the time (to whit – Fu Manchu.  Though even here, I have to say both Walter Oland and Boris Karloff played the insidious criminal mastermind).  Heck, he was even based on a real person.

Then there is the “Yellowface” side of the controversy, for which I have mixed feelings.  There were a couple of attempts at putting Chan on the screen with Asian (Japanese I believe) actors, but these were unsuccessful.  It was only when Warner Oland got the role that the films became popular.  Oland is an interesting character, who is probably most well known for his role in “Shanghai Express” (also containing a fantastic Anna May Wong performance).  Actually born in Sweden, he was apparently part Mongolian (though I find many sources that dispute the authenticity of this, but he is undeniably vaguely Oriental in appearance).  So whilst I can make some kind of defence for Oland being least partially Asian, I can’t say the same for Sidney Toler or Roland Winters (or indeed the ill fated Peter Ustinov film from a more recent era).  But we have to say that these were restrictions enforced in a much less enlightened time – I can’t forgive the underlying attitudes of these eras, but I can defend the characterisation. 

An aside – I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle about a recent furore about the use of “Yellowface” in the very recent “Cloud Atlas” where a bunch of American Asians got very hot under the collar about a whole gaggle of white actors being given the old spirit gum treatment.  Seems to have slipped their attention that fundamentally the film is talking about the fact we are all the same and connected under the skin, and that Bae Du-na and  Zhou Xun went “Whiteface” in return.

The real sad thing for me is that the films on the whole are really superb and tight little mysteries.  Sure they were churned out, and at only 60-70 minutes each, they are not going to win any awards.  But if you keep an open mind, you are a harsh critic who cannot enjoy “Charlie Chan in London”, a film whose biggest fault is that hardly any of it actually takes part in London at all!

I guess where I am going with this is that maybe it is time for Charlie to make a comeback.  Detectives are as popular as ever, and whilst full Asians are still as rare as rocking horse droppings in Hollywood, there is a list of Eurasian actors and actresses as long as my arm.  Or why not go a step further, and actually cast an honest to goodness Chinaman?  In my mind, I even have a compromise – Anthony Perry.  Or as he would be better known to regular readers – Anthony Chau-Sang Wong.  Sure he is still Eurasian, but he is possibly a familiar face to many more people in the West than you might think. It doesn’t even have to be a Western vehicle – the original movies were very popular in China. 

Anyway, there’s my thoughts – maybe you have a comment or fuel to a debate on this?  There is a comments section on here for a reason you know Smile


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