I was cleaning up files on my computer and came across notes that I took for a potential blog post on the Charlie Chan mystery novels and racism.
I had a grand plan – I would read all of the books and discuss the race issues. Reading all of the books wasn’t a problem. When I sat down to write about them, it felt more like an academic research paper (ie work) than a pop-culture blog post and all of the enthusiasm went out of the window.
Putting a research paper online that I wrote for school? Not a problem. Writing one for the heck of it? Nope.
From the notes:
- I am NOT the audience this book was written for—and neither are you. At a time when Chinese characters in fiction were villains, Charlie Chan would be seen as a big change.
- real world: anti Chinese immigration, etc
- CC is “safe” and uses his cunning/etc in the course of justice; he is a former houseboy who worked for a wealthy family (before joining police force)
- CC cast against “lazy” native Hawaiians and treacherous Japanese
- In the novels, upperclass people tend to be “liberal” but a subtle bias shows through.
- Wealthy/affluent characters don’t express anti-Chinese at all; they are more than welcoming to the detective.
- occasionally, a woman from the elite class breaks into a monologue about her knowledge of “orientals”
- Still, they don’t quite give him the respect they give other policemen
- Overt racism is reserved for the lower classes (servants, occasionally a policeman)
- A butler challenges Charlie Chan because he’s not accustomed to having a Chinese gentleman walk throught the front door instead of the service entrance.
- In “The Chinese Parrot” – it’s the sheriff who instantly wants to arrest CC for the murder of another Chinese because, “I know these Chinks. They think nothing of sticking knives in each other.”
- In The Chinese Parrot, CC has to go undercover as a houseboy and must play to stereotype.
- narrative the pain of having to debase himself in pretending to be ignorant/uneducated
- this also underscores the idea that his normal (“safe”) disposition is real and he’s not
And at that point, I started to have academic flashbacks and stopped.
But here are Some critical perspectives on Charlie Chan and Race, Region, Rule: Genre and the Case of Charlie Chan (pdf).