Charlie Chan: Book summary and reviews of Charlie Chan by Yunte Huang

Charlie Chan

The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

by Yunte Huang

Charlie Chan by Yunte Huang X
Charlie Chan by Yunte Huang
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  • Published in USA  Aug 2010
    354 pages
    Genre: Biography/Memoir

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Book Summary

On a balmy July night in 1904, a wiry figure sauntered alone through the dim alleys of Honolulu's Chinatown. He strolled up a set of rickety steps and into a smoky gambling den ringing with jeers of card sharks and crapshooters. By the time anyone recognized the infamous bullwhip dangling from his hand, it was too late. Single-handedly, the feared, five-foot-tall Hawaiian cop, Chang Apana, had lined up forty gamblers and marched them down to the police station.

So begins Charlie Chan, Yunte Huang's absorbing history of the legendary Cantonese detective, born in Hawaii around 1871, who inspired a series of fiction and movie doubles that long defined America's distorted perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans. In chronicling the real-life story and the fraught narrative of one of Hollywood's most iconic detectives, Huang has fashioned a historical drama where none was known to exist, creating a work that will, in the words of Jonathan Spence, "permanently change the way we tell this troubled yet gripping story."

Himself a literary sleuth, Huang has traced Charlie Chan's evolution from island legend to pop culture icon to vilified, postmodern symbol, ingeniously juxtaposing Apana's rough-and-tumble career against the larger backdrop of a territorial Hawaii torn apart by virulent racism. Apana's bravado prompted not only Earl Derr Biggers, a Harvard graduate turned author, to write six Charlie Chan mysteries but also Hollywood to manufacture over forty movies starring a grammatically challenged detective with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into singsong Chinatown blues.

Examining hundreds of biographical, literary, and cinematic sources, in English and in his native Chinese, Huang has pursued the trail of Charlie Chan since the mid-1990s, searching for clues in places as improbable as Harvard Yard, an Ohio cornfield, a weathered Hawaiian cemetery, and the Shanghai Bund. His efforts to refashion the Charlie Chan legend became a personal mission, as if the answers he sought would reshape his own identity—no longer a top Chinese student but an immigrant American eager to absorb the bewildering history of his adopted homeland.

"With rare personal intensity and capacious intelligence," Huang has ascribed a starring role to "the honorable detective," one far more enduring than any of his wisecracking movie parts. Huang presents American history in a way that it has never been told before. 35 black-and-white photographs and illustrations

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Book Awards

  • award image Edgar Awards, 2011

Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review, This is a beautifully written analysis of racism and an appreciation of Charlie Chan and Chang Apana, made credible by Huang's background. As Huang says, As a man from China, a Chinese man come to America, I say: 'Chan is dead! Long live Charlie Chan!'" - Booklist

"Beyond the extraneous biography and historicizing, Huang presents an absorbing study of art taking on a life of its own." - Publishers Weekly

"As provocative as it is engaging, Charlie Chan will captivate fans of all genres. " - Bookmarks Magazine

"[A] fascinating cultural survey full of engaging tangents.... one of Huang's greatest accomplishments is his vivid narration of the history of Chinese immigration to the United States." - The Daily Beast

"Writing easily without turgid academic cant, Huang, a former restaurateur, offers a tasty narrative menu. " - San Francisco Chronicle

"[A] virtuoso of curiosity.... Huang digs up fascinating research on everything from the demographics of capital punishment in Honolulu to the origins of The Manchurian Candidate.... a work of exhaustively researched popular history that reads like a dime-store romance." - Time

"Excellent and very sympathetic...You don't need to be a fan of Charlie's to enjoy Huang's narrative, maybe because he's told so many stories here, all of them intriguing" - Newsweek

"It's a story so engaging on so many levels that, as with any good detective book, you won't want to put it down." - The Oregonian

"Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang's very original, good-humored and passionately researched book." - The New York Times Book Review

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Author Information

Yunte Huang

Yunte Huang a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Transpacific Imaginations and Charlie Chan. Born in China, he lives in Santa Barbara, California.

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