Dr. Yunte Huang discusses his latest novel
It was at a yard sale in Buffalo, N.Y. that a young Yunte Huang came across the tales of Earl Derr Biggers' controversial literary figure Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective protecting the streets of Honolulu, Hawaii, from crime. The novels left Huang with unanswered questions, and now, as a Professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara, Huang has written a book to examine the character of Charlie Chan and shed some light on Chang Apana, the real life person on whom the character was based. In this way, Dr. Huang's book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History" serves as both an in-depth character analysis and a biography.
Upon reading the Charlie Chan novels, Huang pondered how a character could be so hated yet simultaneously loved by millions of Americans.
"While millions of Americans really love his character because he's very funny and wise-cracking, a lot of Asian-Americans have found him to be very offensive," said Huang. "They think he's a stereotype against Chinese or Asians." Huang's curiosity to explain this polarity in the perception of Charlie Chan served as the main inspiration for his book.
Huang does not believe the Charlie Chan character is inherently negative or positive. He argues that the character of Charlie Chan exists as a paradox, and that is where his interest lies.
"It's not just a question of whether he's a role model or just a demeaning character or stereotype," Huang said, "we have to look at it both ways. On the one hand, he's a hero because he catches the bad guys and he's a famous detective. On the other hand, we cannot deny that in the making of this cultural icon there is racism."
Huang's book is a true labor of love, with Huang's solitary research taking him from Harvard University to the state of Hawaii. Huang researched the author, Earl Derr Biggers, as an assistant professor at Harvard,. Bigger, a Havard graduate himself,, left Huang with an abundance of information at his disposal.
The research on small-town Ohio native Biggers served to answer a single burning question Huang had in his mind.
"In writing this book," Huang said, "one of the questions I wanted to answer is how it is possible for a young Buckeye from Ohio, in the early 20th century, to create such a lively Chinese image. " As Huang explains it, Biggers creation of Charlie Chan in the mid-1920s was an interesting feat because the 1920's were one of the most xenophobic eras in the history of United States – due in large part to the 1924 Johnson-Reed act, a huge anti-immigration bill that was not repealed until 1965.
Huang also traveled to Hawaii to research the life of Chang Apana, the Honolulu detective who was the inspiration for Biggers' Charlie Chan character. While in Hawaii, Huang found it challenging to research the life of Chang Apana because Huang was looking for information from the late 19th and early-20th century, and much of the paper trail was lost.
"There are not a whole lot of well-kept records on Apana, but there are newspaper clippings and stories that you can uncover," Huang says. "It's not such an easy job because the story has not been written before."
Huang will speak of his latest novel at Santa Monica College on Thursday, March 23 at 11:15 a.m. in HSS 165.