Sorry, Charlie.


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).

Published by Tawanna

Sometimes writer, most times editor. Lover of mysteries and 70s/80s horror movies. Author of The Next Girl (short story collection) and The Closet Case (mystery).

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