The Dastardly Past: Revisiting Charlie Chan.
Several weeks ago, I posted about Charlie Chan at the movies in The Scarlet Clue. The question came up about why the world’s most famous Chinese detective was played by European-American actors? This led me to pick up a book by Yunte Huang entitled Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (2011). The book itself is well written in an academic way although, as some reviewers have mentioned, it regularly strays from its subject. Nevertheless, I found much of interest. Charlie Chan fans should definitely take a look at it.
So why didn’t they use Asian actors for Chan? Well, in the first two Charlie Chan productions, filmed in the silent era, they did. The first starred George Kuwa, the second Kamiyama Sojin. So, on the plus side, the first two Charlie Chans were Asian. On the minus side, they were both natives of Japan—and let’s not delve any further into the thought processes of the producers who cast them. As it turned out, neither of these Chan films proved popular at the box office.
So when it came to sound motion pictures, why did Hollywood break with recent precedent by casting European-American actors? If I understand him correctly, Huang attributes the reason to what he calls “cultural ventriloquism.” He uses 19th century minstrel shows to illustrate what he means. In minstrelsy, black and white entertainers alike put on blackface to “safely” caricature African Americans and diminish their perceived threat to the social order. In the 1930s and 1940s audiences concerned about immigration and international unrest would pay to see racial stereotypes, but the real thing was far too scary. So in the same way that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood caricatured a real theatre in China, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller provided a caricature of what a real Chinese detective might be.
To his credit, Warner Oland did study the philosophy and art of China and worked at learning Mandarin. He also wore minimal make-up, attributing his appearance to his Russian mother’s central Asian ancestry. In contrast, Sidney Toller’s ancestry derived from central Missouri, and he relied on heavier treatments from the make-up department.