Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang

Charlie Chan
The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
by Yunte Huang
Paperback ISBN: 9780393340396
W.W. Norton & Company

A couple weeks before I headed off on my Hawaiian honeymoon, I started reading this book. The timing was perfect. I was at least 100 pages in before I left Boston and finished the book while in Oahu, Hawaii. If I had read it when I purchased the book last year, I might not have had the experience that I did.

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History is not just about Charlie Chan. It's the story of Chang Apana, the original Honolulu Chinese detective, Earl Derr Biggers, the author of the Charlie Chan books and the legacy both of these key figures left behind in the form of the fictional character Charlie Chan. Yunte Huang is most concerned with the story of Chang Apana, a Chinese-American living in Hawaii who proved to be one of the best undercover detectives on the force. In the early 20th century, Hawaii was rife with crime, especially in Honolulu's Chinatown. Chang Apana looked like your average Hawaiian citizen and could open up a can of whoop-ass when the occasion called for it. He was a very smart detective and developed a long history of successful arrests and solved cases. Stories of his detective work made it over to the mainland and caught the attention of author Earl Derr Biggers. Inspired by Chang Apana's detective work and by a sign he saw for a Charlie Chan laundry by a railroad, he put the detective and the name together to create fictional character of Charlie Chan, the honorable detective.

It's very clear from reading this book that Yunte Huang is more enamored with Chang Apana and more interested in Earl Derr Bigger's work than he is with Charlie Chan as a character. So if you pick up this book thinking it's a history of the Charlie Chan movies, then you might be disappointed. That does not mean that fans of Charlie Chan should avoid this book. On the contrary, Huang provides so much context for the origins of this beloved on-screen detective that it only enriches the experience of being a Charlie Chan fan. It is important to note that Huang is also very concerned with the representation of Chinese-Americans (and other minorities too) in the Charlie Chan stories, the books, the movies and even the cartoon TV series. Is Charlie Chan just a silly Chinese stereotype? Or does his ability to outsmart everyone, especially the criminal, make him a superior character?

"All things Charlie, it seems, are radically polarizing." - Yunte Huang

Huang notes that most detectives in fiction are quirky. Take Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan and Miss Marple. They all have unusual personalities and unique back stories. These detectives stand out from every other character in their book whether it be criminal, victim or innocent bystander.

What made my experience reading this book all that much better was reading it in Oahu, Hawaii. It was wonderful to read about places and then just take a quick drive and see them in person. We passed through Honolulu's Chinatown, which featured very prominently in the book. We went to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and saw the exact spot where Earl Derr Biggers posed for a photograph with a fake Charlie Chan. We had dinner and listened to live music at House Without A Key, an outdoor/indoor lounge where it is thought that the original house that inspired the novel/movie once stood. We traveled to Kailua Beach where a scene from the Charlie Chan movie The Black Camel (1931) was filmed. We even went to the Honolulu Police Museum and saw the Charlie Chan/Chang Apana exhibit. There were a few other locations mentioned in the book that we didn't make it to. Including Chang Apana's grave and Punch Bowl Hill where the famous Charlie Chan house can be found (or at least where it supposed he would have lived had he been a real person, it wasn't the actual home of Chang Apana).

What was great about this experience was reading the book influenced our trip to Hawaii! And even my husband Carlos got excited about visiting the Honolulu Police Museum and I caught him several times reading the book. 

It was really wonderful reading this while on my trip to Oahu, Hawaii because Huang provides quite a bit of the early history of Hawaii including it's settlement by Americans, the first cows, horses and cowboys on the islands as well as the early history of law enforcement on Oahu and in Honolulu specifically. If you are interested in Hawaiian history, there is also quite a bit about another detective John Jardine (we saw some pictures and articles about him at the Honolulu Police Museum) and the infamous Massie Trail. Although that was not really connected to Chang Apana or Charlie Chan, it did give really great context about criminal justice and prejudice amongst Chinese-Americans in Hawaii.

I would suggest this book to anyone who is traveling to Hawaii or to anyone who loves history and Charlie Chan.

A special thank you to blogger Meaghan who not only recommended this book to me but tipped me off to House Without a Key, both the novel House Without a Key and the lounge! Check out her review of the book here.

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