By Cherylene Lee
Before attending the SFIAAFF29 screening and the following discussion of CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS, I wanted to make sure I had read Yunte Huang’s beautifully written book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, as he presented a revisionist image to the Charlie Chan movies I had seen where a white actor played the sage, wise, unbeatable detective. As a Chinese American actor myself in film and TV, the idea of a white actor playing the lead character rankled, and the movies’ continued popularity rankled even more. Asian American actors couldn’t catch a break, even the Chinese heroes of mainstream media were appropriated by what white producers deemed palatable–a Chinese hero filtered through the lens of what white studio heads believed that a Chinese hero should be. My USC-trained father in 1936 couldn’t practice dentistry in many parts of Hollywood despite the so-called positive image presented by the Charlie Chan films.
I was heartened that Yunte Huang’s book actually gave vivid life to the real-life detective, Chang Apana, a Hawaiian policeman, who inspired Earl Biggers to create the Charlie Chan book series. Huang’s book is extremely well written and well researched, and he does acknowledge the racism of the times.
Still I wondered at the reception CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS would receive as I sat in the audience. First I noticed that those attending the film were decidedly older than those I saw at SAIGON ELECTRIC the day before and more were non-Asian, than Asian. There were undoubtedly many fans of the old Charlie Chan movies despite the “yellow face” of the leading character.
The discussion following the film was not confrontational, perhaps because Yunte Huang acknowledged the racism so inherent in casting a white man in the leading role. He even mentioned the irony that the Chinese in China were so taken by the American Charlie Chan movies that they created a series of films emulating the American Charlie Chan, a Chinese actor copying a white actor who portrayed a Chinese. After the discussion I asked Huang what drew him to this project, that a man who was born and raised in China should spend so much time on a fictional character whose image was loathed by American born Chinese (particularly by those of us in the film industry). He said that he was first introduced to Charlie Chan in book form, that he’d picked up an old paperback and was struck by the humor of the characters and the book’s intricate plotting. He acknowledged that perhaps if he’d first seen the films with the non-Asian lead, not read the books, he might not have become so fascinated.
I told Huang that I played two of the voices in the cartoon version of THE AMAZING CHAN AND THE CHAN CLAN, that he praised in his book as the most successful outgrowth of the Charlie Chan legacy–Hanna Barbera’s Saturday morning cartoon series created in 1971-72. Unfortunately the producers’ intention to use all Asian American voices could not be sustained. I think Huang understood on an intellectual level how crushing such an experience could be to be replaced by an actor such as Jodie Foster, but as one who saw Asian voices being replaced week after week by white actors’ voices for a cartoon series where they weren’t even seen, the sting of yellow face and its inherent unfairness pierced the heart of this Chinese American born actor in a much more visceral way.
In 2010 Cherylene Lee received the SF Cultural Equity Grant to stage a reading of excerpts from her memoir JUST LIKE REALLY at the 9th Street Independent Film Center. She is best known perhaps for her performance in FLOWER DRUM SONG, singing and dancing with sister Virginia in “The Other Generation.” She is a an unsung Asian American show biz pioneer with dozens of network television and Hollywood film credits during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a Las Vegas act with her sister back when the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. were playing literally next door to the Lee Sisters show, Oriental Holiday, at The New Frontier Hotel.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan