Thursday, July 26, 2018

Could (and Should) They Bring Back Charlie Chan?

With Hollywood still madly rebooting every franchise in sight, I've been gunning for them to bring some of the older and more obscure ones out of mothballs, especially after the success of the new "Murder on the Orient Express." Maybe Warner Bros. could take another run at "The Thin Man." Surely Doctor Mabuse and Fantômas could be spruced up and return to the big screen.

And this always inevitably brings me back around to the question of Charlie Chan, the Chinese-American detective character who was massively popular in in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1926 and 1949 he featured in a whopping 47 films, played by three different white actors in yellowface. Six more were made in Shanghai and Hong Kong for Chinese audiences, who generally enjoyed the films and viewed the Chan character positively. Three Spanish language films were also made by three entirely different productions in three different countries. Spinoffs included a short-lived television series in the '50s and a Hanna Barbera cartoon, "Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan," in the '70s.

Finally, there was "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," a 1981 comedic reboot of the franchise starring Peter Ustinov as Chan. Its production was protested by members of the Asian American community who decried the use of yellowface and outdated stereotypes. They didn't stop the film from being released, but it was a flop and the last official piece of Charlie Chan media to date. Other reboot attempts, however, have been made since. Miramax planned a new series of films with Russell Wong in the '90s to capitalize on a surge in martial arts movies. Fox tried ten years later with Lucy Liu. Ultimately neither project went forward.

Part of the hesitancy was surely due to worries about offending Asian-Americans. Charlie Chan is often viewed a harmful Orientalist stereotype, perpetuating the image of the Asian as a mysterious Other in American society. With his fortune cookie aphorisms, thick accent, and exaggerated mannerisms, Chan is an unfortunate caricature, even if he's meant to be a positive one. It's worth remembering that not a single portrayal of Charlie Chan in any of the media produced in the West features an actual Asian male in the part - with the embarrassing exception of Key Luke voicing the Hanna Barbera cartoon version. Charlie Chan is thus an unfortunate yellowface image through and through.

The modern reboots all planned to do away with the problematic aspects of the character, but these are ironically the things that people tend to remember the most about Charlie Chan. And it also begs the question, of course, that if you're going to make a film or series about an Asian-American detective, starring a real Asian-American, who in no way resembles the original Charlie Chan, why call it "Charlie Chan"? Why not just make something original that doesn't have all these problematic connotations? Well, for the same reason that Lucy Liu is currently playing Dr. Watson on "Elementary." Sometimes a new spin on an old character can yield good things. Also, it's much easier to sell media that comes with famous names and some notoriety.

Though I absolutely understand and respect all the problems that people have with Charlie Chan, and all the bad history he evokes, part of me really wants to see him resurrected and rehabilitated. I want to see him done right for once. Chan, unlike his contemporaries Fu Manchu and Mr. Moto, wasn't invented out of whole cloth. He was based on a real person - badass Honolulu detective Chang Apana. And though Charlie Chan was always a white actor in makeup, the series did cast actual Asian actors in other parts, the most notable of them being Key Luke as Lee Chan, Charlie Chan's goofy Number One Son. Back in the '60s, Bruce Lee screen tested for a television show where he would have starred as a cooler version of Lee becoming Chan's successor.

There still isn't much media featuring Asian actors in lead roles in the US, and a revamped Charlie Chan could be a great opportunity for more representation. There are some positive aspects to the character I feel are worth saving. After all, we were never supposed to laugh at Charlie Chan, but root for him and marvel at his cleverness and wisdom. He's a very imperfect and inauthentic Asian-American hero, but he is an Asian-American hero, and those are still in terribly short supply.


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