Buried deep within the annals of mystery fiction, it is written Detective Charlie Chan was once as recognized a fictional character as Superman, Tarzan, or Mickey Mouse. Within literature he emerged as one of America’s first, new breed of detectives–on par with S. S. Van Dine’s Detective Philo Vance, Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op, Sam Spade and The Thin Man, or Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. Now you might “guffaw or snigger” at this little know fact, but on the Silver Screen (were talking Hollywood; not made-for-television or streaming like today) the Detective Chan films surpassed any rival–even today! Try to find another fictional American-sleuth with some 44 Hollywood films seen around the world–you won’t! And on a Sunday in March 1936, Swedish born Actor Warner Oland–the first actor to successfully portray Chan–docked at Shanghai, China on the steamship American Empress in celebration of that fame!
So how did it go? Unfortunately they beheaded him!
Naa, just kidding. He was a huge hit! Given today’s moral awareness stressing individual rights and political correctness, a present day Chan film with Caucasian in “Yellow Face” would indeed be revolting. However, that wasn’t the case in the 1930s and 1940s. These films emerged during a very different time historically and racially in America. While the majority of Asians living in America were experiencing intense Anti-Asian Sentiment, Chinese in their homeland were conversely enjoying what they considered a positive portrayal of their race on the big screen. It obviously helped that China’s film industry wasn’t up-to-par with the western world, which provided much of their viewing along with films from Hong Kong, Macau and others. In fact, Chinese-film producers and actors in the late ’20s to mid ’30s “mimicked” American productions, with Chinese versions of Shirley Temple, Laurel & Hardy and Tarzan gracing the big screens at local cinemas!
Meanwhile, back in America the character of Charlie Chan, perhaps for the first time nationally, was surprisingly working “against” the negative stigma and Anti-Asian Sentiment that prevailed! Whether intentional or not, Charlie Chan was giving the “average” American reader a completely different perspective on what had come to be thought of as the “Yellow Peril.” There’s always been discord on whether or not Charlie Chan was a positive or negative influence for Asian Americans. Still, the novels then big screen effects were calming (vice antagonistic) for the masses, primarily Caucasian, who were only fed xenophobic negative insights from governing bodies surrounding Asians, particularly Chinese.
So what about that trip Charlie took (or was it Oland) to China? Check out this video post 1936 Shanghai – Actor Warner Oland (Charlie Chan) in China” by the site Myfootage.com. They specializes in archival film clips from the late 1800’s to 1970’s. It is extremely short, but you’ll see Oland crowded by admirers; a celebrity and accepted cinematic hero of the day.
Then, peak inside this article from The Chinese Mirror, Charlie Chan in China (May 2008), on Rush Glick’s Charlie Chan Family Home website. The Chinese Mirror (I believe now cancelled) was an on-line literary journal of Chinese Cinema. The article provides a more in-depth look into that visit, as well as a thought-provoking read on Asians in film (at home and abroad.) It was written by a U.S. professor (contributed by Don Marion) who visited the University of Beijing, China. It’s only one- and a-half pages (you can do it!)
So there you have it. The true story of a Swedish-born actor, starring in American films, portraying a Chinese-Hawaiian detective, who became a global sensation and visited China in the role and was recognized (or at least honorarily accepted) as one of their own! Can it get any better than that?
“Appearance are a hellish liar”Charlie Chan, The House Without a Key, 1925, Chapter 10