inside + outside, Movies & Movie Stars, racism

Charlie Chan: “Hollywood Is Famous Furnisher of Mysteries”

Popular film figure, Charlie Chan who was never played by a Chinese actor. ©2016 Norine Dresser photo collection.
Film figure Charlie Chan, who, during the height of popularity, was never played by a Chinese actor. © 2016 Norine Dresser photo collection.

The current uproar over the lack of African American representation in Oscar nominees is not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to the African American community.

Beginning in 1926, Earl Derr Biggers created the first of five novels about Charlie Chan, a brilliant Hawaiian Chinese detective who solved murders with the help of his Number One Son. Biggers created Chan to counter the then-current Asian stereotype as sneaky and dangerous. Fu Manchu best represents this Yellow Peril. Biggers’ novels led to over four dozen Charlie Chan movies.

Ironically, Charlie Chan himself later became a stereotype with his Pidgin English and oblique way of looking at and commenting on the world, a kind of Confucian wisdom distorted through Western eyes. In contrast, his son was very Americanized and commonly said, “Gee, Pop…”

When you are not a member of a minority, you are unaware of the constant hurts. In 1977, dear friends, the late Judge Delbert and Mrs. Dolores Wong, invited my husband and me to a banquet meeting of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.That night the organization honored three pioneer Chinese American actors, specifically, those who portrayed Chan’s Number One Son on screen: Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong.

Their talks shocked me. I had never before been cognizant that during his hey-day, no Chinese American actor had ever portrayed Charlie Chan. Instead, Warner Oland (Swedish) and later Sidney Toler (American of Scottish descent) played Chan, relying upon the talents of studio make-up artists who added arched eyebrows, slanted eyes, and dark goatee and mustache to create the illusion.

Naively, I never realized they were not authentic. But for the Chinese American community this was a slap in the face, no, an outrage. And these gross miscastings continue. White actor, Joseph Fiennes, has recently been hired by British Television to play Michael Jackson in a comedy. Really?

Sometimes, it takes a bit of courage to step outside one’s social comfort zone. Nonetheless, my late husband, Harold, and I regularly enjoyed that adventure.Thus, I am proud to say that I am a charter member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

Being an outsider inside unfamiliar organizations broadens one’s perspective of life and increases knowledge of their sensitivities.The same applies to having friends from other ethnicities and religions. Consequently, I empathize with the indignation of the African American community about being excluded at the 2016 Academy Awards. I saw “Concussion” and was disturbed discovering that its excellence had been ignored.

For a while, I fretted over a title for this blog. At first, I tried to find an appropriate paraphrasing of the saying, “You don’t know what it’s like for another person until you have walked in their shoes? Moccasins? Manolo Blahniks?” I failed at that, but please don’t accuse me of being PC.That’s a term I hate.There is nothing wrong in caring about how words and actions hurt other people.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who believes that learning about people unlike herself enriches life.