Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Charlie Chan Is Dead and Living in Honolulu

[Yunte Huang, 2007]

The Ohioan Earl Derr Biggers took a real Chinese man from Hawai`i, Chang Apana, and immortalized him as Charlie Chan; now a real Chinese man from Santa Barbara, Yunte Huang, has written the story of Earl Derr Biggers and his creation. That is to leave out at least one significant step, namely the declaration that Charlie Chan is Dead, not once but in two anthologies of Asian American literature edited by Jessica Hagedorn of the Philippines and New York City. If Asian American literature can be seen to emerge out of the death of Chan, then another way of looking at American history and culture rises from his ashes in Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, from Norton. Huang does several things in his book: he writes the biography of Chang Apana, who inspired Biggers's Charlie Chan; he situates Chang Apana in the 19th and 20th century history of Hawai`i; he writes about Biggers himself, as well as about the actors who played Chan, most importantly Warner Oland; and he uses these individual stories to tell the larger tale of Chinese immigration to the United States. If this were not enough, Huang also writes an autobiography of sorts, inscribing his own cultural, national, and linguistic histories into the narrative. And so the book opens with an awkward anecdote of a department secretary who tells Yunte Huang that he reminds her of Charlie Chan. By the end, the awkwardness of this anecdote is gone, and Huang has added Charlie Chan to his own version of The Making of Americans.

Let me start at the end of the book, since that is where I come in. A couple of years after Tinfish Press published Yunte's Cribs, a book of documentary/comedic poems (unusual combination) that featured wild linguistic leaps, he came to UH to participate in a conference on translation and to give a reading from his work. It was not an easy time for him, as his marriage was breaking up; I too began to flinch whenever his cell phone rang. He had little privacy during these phone calls because he and his then wife, both Chinese, spoke to one another in English. During a break in the conference proceedings and from the dreaded phone calls, we went on an excursion to the police department museum and then to the Chinese graveyard in Manoa, where (in a driving rain) we found Chang Apana's grave.

Yunte gave a talk on translation. That he is himself translated was more evident in his linguistic choices: speaking English to his Chinese wife, punning extravagantly in English to English speakers as if to point out, syllable by syllable, the strangeness of their own tongue. His Tinfish book is called Cribs, and is rather inevitably a doubling of "crib" as a manger or enclosure for children, and "crib" as a theft or plagiarism. Or, the translation of the book you're trying to read in the language you don't adequately know, which explains perhaps why so many copies of The Stranger by Albert Camus were bought by members of my high school French class. Where Yunte's translations from Chinese often concentrate less on "meaning" than on the "radicals" that accumulate into meaning, in Cribs he finds the radicals in English. He unpacks words according to their syllables, hence:

I want to
bask in your basket
toll in your toilet
ski on your skin
nap in your napkin
chat in your chateau
pace in your space

("For MIA, Made in America: A Song of Love that Goes Nowhere," 12)

Or he conjugates the word "it": "i / it / sit / shit / shite / hite / hit / it / t" (19).

And he performs a turnabout on the othering of Asians according to their "nese-ness":

"One day, in the street of New York City, he was asked by a white man who was apparently annoyed by his exotic appearance: 'What sort of 'nese are you? A Chinese, Japanese, or Javanese?' The famous author of The Book of Tea replied: 'What sort of 'key are you? A Yankee, donkey, or monkey?'" (59)

Words, then, at once mark the "foreigner" and provide ammunition for a counter-attack. I've written elsewhere on this blog about the writing of Goro Takano, a Japanese writer who wrote his novel With One More Step Ahead in an English at once odd and brilliant. One might say that the ark inside the mark of their English becomes a good part of their art. Charlie Chan's -isms, by way of Biggers's "translations" of Confucian philosophy, render estrangement into wisdom:

--Man who flirt with dynamite sometime fly with angels.
--Slippery man sometimes slip in own oil.
--Time only wasted when sprinkling perfume on a goat farm.
--The wise elephant does not seek to ape the butterfly.

These Chanisms resemble the sayings of Confucius run through a translation engine. How much Biggers knew of Chinese philosophy, if anything, is not made clear in Huang's account of him, but Huang knows a thing or two about Confucius and his western pupil, Ezra Pound. Biggers's "translations" of Confucian philosophy are comedic; Pound's translations are likely also askew, but they also infused modern American poetry with a Confucian pragmatism not unlike that of Ben Franklin. (See Josephine Park.) Without knowing, can we really tell which writer penned the following saying: "He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good"?

[Chang Apana & Warner Oland, 1931]

The sayings of Charlie Chan, then, place him firmly in an American tradition, as well as the Chinese tradition that Biggers is mimicking. (If Biggers did not immerse himself in Apana's family's culture, then Warner Oland did, studying Chinese and traveling to China.) But of course he's also part of a more problematic American tradition, that of the Asian character as created by a white man for the entertainment of (mostly, one presumes) white people. Warner Oland is a Swedish minstrel, a yellow-faced white actor; one has only to remember the controversy over Miss Saigon's casting to realize how flammable the issue has been. It's here that Huang is at his best, weighing--with nearly Confucian dexterity--the racist underpinnings of Chan's popularity against the virtues of the novels and the movies they inspired. Among other things, Huang points out that Charlie Chan belongs in a pantheon of film noir detectives, and that, while Chinatowns have been used in film to denote crime and seediness, it was Chan who was responsible for rooting crime out. He distinguishes between the sinister character of Fu-Manchu, also played by Warner Oland, and the more benign Charlie Chan, in order to present Chan in a more favorable light. Ultimately, however, it's the link between the early 20th century Chang Apana/Charlie Chan and the late century immigrant, Yunte Huang, that makes the case most palpably.

Despite its deft combination of graceful prose and substantive research, there are problems with the book. The presentation of Hawai`i's history is more broad than deep (but is, at least, broad), and occasionally Huang uses terms more poetically than scientifically. My biggest concern was with his use of the term "pidgin" to describe the language that Chan speaks. Certainly Apana would have heard a lot of Hawaiian Creole English (or Pidgin) in his daily life, more than we hear now on the streets of Honolulu. But Biggers did not know pidgin and could not give Apana what might have been one of his languages to speak. To Huang, as to Biggers, "pidgin" refers to what is sometimes called "broken English" or to an idiosyncratic (idiolectical) version of "weird English." So, when Huang writes that he "adopted a poetic diction that imitates Charlie Chan's pidgin," or when he writes about Chan's "pidgin speech," he is not using the term as we use it in Hawai`i, where people actually do speak Pidgin. This will not be a problem for most general readers not in Hawai`i (what they don't know won't hurt them, I suppose) but I do wish he'd done more research on language, rather than plunking terms down on top of meanings they already bear. He also relies on Jack London as reference for Ko`olua the Leper, rather than going to Hawaiian sources. (Much more could be said on the reception of W.S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs in Hawai`i, along these lines.)

In Cribs, Huang writes about the "paper-sons and paper-daughters" who came by boat to the United States from China. Entire villages memorized stories to tell the immigration officials in the US, officials who would try to trip them up. "The questions put to them were so absurdly detailed and irrelevant, that they would sometimes confuse the 'real' sons and daughters and not the paper ones" (40). Hence, immigrants would enter the country on crib-sheets. While Yunte Huang entered the country on a student visa, no doubt, he is also a "paper-son" of the USA. In that, he is like Charlie Chan, albeit a Chan who is literate, literary, and who has composed an important (auto)biography of the Chinese diaspora in the USA. Yunte Huang is a self-made Chan. And that, I hope, is progress.

[Manoa Valley with the cemetery in the foreground, 2007]


andy godefroy said...

Very interesting review. It made me curious to read the book. I enjoyed the hawai'I perspective and your usual care to read in terms of a context many don't seem to notice.

Anonymous said...

I reviewed this book for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and made the point about pidgin English (i.e., that Chan by any definition does not speak it). Glad to know from someone in Hawaii that I'm not alone.

Jon L. Breen