Frank Chin debates Yunte Huang on the topic of Charlie Chan


Thanks, N and C for sending this: Sleuthing Out Charlie Chan. Click on “Listen To This Show” on the top of the page (or click here), and you’ll be able to hear Frank Chin debate Yunte Huang about Huang’s new book on Charlie Chan.  The show is part of NPR.

This interview took place just last Friday.  I first learned about Huang’s new book from a NY Times article which also mentioned Frank Chin.  I don’t have much of an opinion on Charlie Chan the character since I’ve never seen the show, but I agree that it’s an important part of history and a provocative subject of debate, and for that reason, it’s good that Huang wrote this book.

Fans of Frank Chin will appreciate the man’s brashness and fierceness that continues to this day.  Even when Huang seemed to try to pull a Sun Tzu style attack and butter him up with compliments, Chin kept moving forward and stuck to the issues.  I checked out some of the comments on the show’s page, and like the Italian American caller from the radio show who was kind enough to enlighten the colored folks of America by comparing the racism he endured in his White American experience with what we face in our Asian American experiences, there are lots of people in the comment section telling Frank Chin to “lighten up.”  There are also commenters accusing Frank of “hijacking” the show.  I think the comments illustrate how much further we have to go before people really open their minds to allow themselves to understand the Asian American experience.

(I also have to admit that there are also funny comments.  The funniest was the one which said: “holy crap is frank going to hurt somebody?”)

I didn’t understand why Huang thinks we need an “antidote” to Bruce Lee.  The word “antidote” implies that there is a disease, and that that disease is Bruce Lee, and that Charlie Chan somehow cures that disease.  That makes no sense to me, as I’m a HUGE Bruce Lee fan.  I think most people like Bruce.  Nor did I understand how Huang applies Monkey King thinking to Charlie Chan.  I don’t think most Chinese families encourage their kids to be like the Monkey King, who is a fascinating character but who happens to be very childish.  As Frank Chin notes in the interview, the Monkey King is not a man.

Otherwise, the interview brings out many interesting points about the books we read, the heroes we have, and the lives we live.  I thought the moderator Tom Ashbrook did a fantastic job of allowing both men to hit the important issues.  And even though those angry people are writing/calling in to tell Frank Chin to be quiet, they’re better people for having heard about the discomfort that most of us Asian people have with racial stereotypes.  They got to hear a great man speak from the heart.

25 thoughts on “Frank Chin debates Yunte Huang on the topic of Charlie Chan

  1. Credit where its due, Ashbrook did a decent job coordinating this interview.

    I remember Philip on YOMYOMF proposing a remake of CC – but with asian actors.

    I guess the character of a smart chinese detective who gets to the bottom of each case and sometimes makes the bad guy look stupid, could be entertaining. Bit like Columbo. But whether Hollywood would respect this, given the whole yellowface bad memories of the past of CC played by white actors, this remake would have to be taken with some great consideration not to offend Asians, who are trying to make their name known.

    Personally, I would never support this unless an Asian American with some studio clout was producing or had some heavy creative influence on the project.

    I think from listening to the audio, Professor Huang who,in promoting his book, seems to support the idea of an asian hero of intelligence and wisdom or trickster, rather than an asskicker like Bruce Lee.

    I agree with you ‘antidote’ is the wrong word, because Bruce was just being himself. I think Huang was referring to the genteel humour that Bruce or Jackie don’t have. ( although Jackie has slapstick humour, but again humour is a personal preference), Again, this comes down to different character ‘types’.

    As a book promo, that’s one thing. But If there was a Charlie Chan movie remake, then does the AA male, with his anger at misrepresentation, need an intellectual hero or an alpha asian one?

    Listening to some of the show’s listeners ( mainly white american) dial in and talk about how much they liked original series, they seemed to be touched by the character’s cleverness, whilst all asians could see was the stereotype and name calling at school etc.

    I guess it was an asian man dressed up in white makeup playing a white detective, they may have felt like Frank did…insulted.

    But if this thing did get remade, it’d better be made with say Chow Yun Fat in the main role or something. And produced by a considerate hollywood exec ( on the side of the Asians and not a yes-man.)

    Frank ..wow yeah – he comes in angry. ‘ Do you know Guan Gung?’. Frank didnt really get that much time to talk except to say that he thinks ‘Guan gung’ is the ideal Asian role model for kids. Seems like they were talking at cross purposes. One is talking about the virtues of an intellectual hero, the other is talking about needing a powerful alpha male and negating this ‘stereotyped white-made detective’

    They’re two different types. A bit like Huang and Chin debating – almost like the difference between Huang( Asian upbringing) vs Chin ( Asian American upbringing), in their need for asian reps and rolemodels. Could be that Asian men are tired of tough guys in films as they are spoilt for choice of actors, wherease AA’s are starved of it because the media representation, and maybe lack of actors.

    I guess asian men need Alpha Male ‘representation’ first and foremost, and THEN once that’s settled down, Charlie Chan ( respectfully portrayed by an asian and true to the character as opposed to the gimmicky stereotype )

    Only then i guess Frank would be okay with it…maybe. But that guy does have a huge chip on his shoulder, somewhat understandably, but i dunno….’different ways of skinning a cat ‘ as the saying goes?

    Anyhow thanks for the link J – it was a great listen. Its great to be part of Asian culture as it finds its feet in east and west. isnt it?:)

  2. Bwahahaha!

    That was simply entertaining. When they introduced Frank Chin, there was dead silence. Then he spoke:

    “I…

    “can’t….

    “believe….

    “that I’ve….

    “been listening….

    “to this CRAP FOR THE LAST HALF HOUR!!!!”

    omg, I was rolling on the floor when I heard that. anyway, that was great find. Yunte Huang had me going for awhile, but lost all credibility when he said Charlie Chan was the antidote to Bruce Lee.

    WHAT?!

    Did he miss the logic train on that? Bruce was the antidote to Charlie Chan motherfucker.

    I watched the first Charlie Chan movie in AA film class, and I found it kind of funny, mildly entertaining. Charlie Chan’s quips and comebacks were funny in the same way Arnold Schwarzenneger’s one liners were funny in a corny/cheesey/schlocky way. Plus somebody who’s never heard of Charlie Chan would find the character funny, because the stereotype is so outdated. I’ve never cared to watch the other Charlie Chan movies, but from what I understand the yellowface caricature becomes more and more exaggerated.

    But Huang does make a good point in that for it’s time, Charlie Chan was a stereotype portrayed subversively. So in this sense, he does resemble the Monkey King. Not everyone can be an Alpha Asian like Guan Yu, so the trickster archetype is a welcome alternative.

  3. While I agree with the notion that “when you underpresented, you’re misrepresented.” I don’t agree with the Bruce Lee. Sure, he was an extreme, but he was also an extremely positive image for AMs growing up, especially in my teens. Basically all my AM friends (and some WM friends as well) idolized Bruce during our teens, and Jet Li too (before he started working in America).

    Charlie Chan was obviously before our time, but it’s really hard to take any yellow-faced character seriously. I mean, can any AMs actually see positives in David Caradine character (which arguably is created through racism in Hollywood).

  4. LOL. I love Frank Chin’s entrance.

    People can criticize his anger all they want, but hell… if you understand it and where it’s coming from… completely justified.

  5. Great interview!

    Frank Chin demonstrates his supremacy once again! Anger? Reframe that as passion. He’s simply telling it as it is, as he has been since the 1970s lol he never stops.

  6. Pingback: ‎”Bruce was the antidote to Charlie Chan motherfucker” | N.E.A.A.T.O.

  7. goddamn! thank you bigwowo!!!!!!
    glad you shared w/ us this linkage.

    here was my comment to the commentators:

    “wow Frank Chin….settle down “Optimist only sees doughnut. Pessimist sees hole.”

    >>>maybe because, all that is left after everyone ate the doughnut is the hole!!!

    “Can’t we just take the Charlie Chan
    movies for what they are: entertainment.
    Nothing more and nothing less.”
    >>>WTF, black face is entertainment too?

    “You can’t discount someone who wrote a book on, oh, John Keats, just because you want more people to pay attention to Julius Caesar. (This is a horrible analogy, but seriously, I would/could not have come up with something like “You must introduce Guan-gong to the West!” as an antidote to the image of the aphorism-spouting, yellowface Chan)”

    >>now everyone is mentioning guan-gong in their comments. frank chin knows what he’s doing

    “I was hoping the host would stuff a sock in Frank’s mouth. Good Lord, he’s angry.”
    >>>you think blacks wouldn’t be mad at blackface? really?

    “Please get this overly-passionate man off the air.”
    >>>overly passionate as a negative. wow, seriously?

    i love frank chin lol

  8. Somebody give Yunte Huang his “Oriental 4 Life” card.

    Huang’s claim that Charlie Chan is an “antidote” to Bruce Lee is like saying that Sambo was an antidote to Denzel Washington.

    Can you say “race fail”?

    Some younger people today might not understand the historical significance of Charlie Chan since he was before their time, but this character was one of the defining racist icons of the 20th-century for Asian Americans–right up there with Fu Manchu and the Dragon Lady.

    And Charlie Chan is basically the “Oriental” version of a popular cultural tradition called Minstrelsy that dates back over a century and includes “beloved” icons like Jim Crow, Sambo, Stepin Fetchit, Zip Coon, and others.

    The idea behind Minstrelsy was White (and sometimes even Black) actors dressing up in Blackface to mock and denigrate African Americans, particularly their ways of speaking, for the enjoyment of White audiences.

    Sound familiar?

    That’s basically what Charlie Chan was about from the use White actors in yelllowface to the ridiculous ConfucianSpeak he spouted.

    It seems to me that Huang’s argument that Charlie Chan is actually “subverting stereotypes” is a backdoor way to politically rehabilitate this racist icon and enable contemporary audiences to enjoy this type of minstrel humor guilt-free.

    Maybe, that’s why NPR, WBUR, the NY Slimes, and other mainstream media are giving his book so much love.

    Incidentally, I’ve read that a similar type of argument/rationalization is now even being made about the Stepin Fetchit character played by Lincoln Perry.

    Perry was not pandering to White audience by playing the “Black coon.” Instead, he was … uh… actually subverting this stereotype! Honest.

    The more things change…

  9. If Earl Derr Biggers made Charlie Chan more like the real Chang Apana (the Chinese detective in Hawaii that the Chan character was probably based on in 1924), Charlie Chan would have been a cowboy on horseback brandishing a bullwhip, part of the equipment for an employee of the Humane Society. After joining the police department, Chang Apana’s derring -do included his being thrown out of a second story window, grappling with sickle-wielding attackers, and dangerous hand-to-hand combat with lepers who refused to go peacefully to the leper colony. On a gambling raid in which Chang worked undercover, he arrested 70 people by himself, an all-time record for the department. Chang may have spoken pidgin English, but his fists made his meaning quite clear. He would never have bothered spouting aphorisms like “Admitting failure is like drinking bitter tea.” (“Charlie Chan in Egypt,” dir. by Louis King, 1935). No gulping bitter tea for this detective.

  10. Good point, Nancy. It’s supposedly based on the character, but it looks nothing like the character. Chang Apana using his bull whip definitely would’ve been a far more compelling character than Charlie Chan and his goofy Orientalist aphorisms.

  11. Why did the NPR conversation about Charlie Chan also include Kwan Kung, who is, according to Frank Chin, the god of war, the god of literature, and protector of writers, scholars and actors who play him? Perhaps Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald, in the introduction to “The Chickencoop Chinaman; The Year of the Dragon–Two Plays by Frank Chin,” Univ. of Washington Press, 1981, can explain:

    “…to counter the effeminate, Christianized Charlie Chan image of the post-1925 era, (Chin) has restored the immensely masculine Kwan Kung, whose strength of mind and body, individuality and loyalty, capacity for revenge, and essential aloneness are reminiscent of the rugged Western hero of American myth.”

    Earl Derr Biggers may have written Charlie Chan as an anti-dote to Fu Manchu, but for Frank Chin, Kwan Kung was the anti-dote to Charlie Chan.

  12. Charlie Chan would have been a cowboy on horseback brandishing a bullwhip

    Chang Apana using his bull whip definitely would’ve been a far more compelling character than Charlie Chan and his goofy Orientalist aphorisms.

    Yeah, he would have been a real badass, even by today’s standards. Hawaiian crooks are no joke. Anyone who would try walking into a seedy bar in Hawaii and bringing in the local moke would have his hands full.

  13. And that would make some awesome action in any film, RCR. It would have been so much better than the Aphorism Man.

  14. @Alpha Asian: Yunte Huang misspoke when he said that Charlie Chan was the antidote to Bruce Lee. He meant to say Chan was an alternative to Bruce Lee, if you can see the subtle difference.

  15. Sally wrote: “Yunte Huang misspoke when he said that Charlie Chan was the antidote to Bruce Lee. He meant to say Chan was an alternative to Bruce Lee, if you can see the subtle difference.”

    I’m sure that’s what he meant, but that was a poor word choice on his part. Yunte is a gentleman scholar, so he should know better to say what he means and mean what he says.

    but even then I would never consider Charlie Chan to be an alternative image to emulate. The trickster archetype, yes. But not Charlie Chan himself, because he is the very first Asian stereotype born of racist love (Fu Manchu of course being the first Asian stereotype born of racist hate).

  16. It would have been so much better than the Aphorism Man.

    When I think about it, I puzzle over the thought process in going from what Chang Apana really was to what Charlie Chan ended up being. Apana would have been a total local boy, growing up working with animals–was appointed the initial employee of the Hawaii Humane Society–hence the bull whip. He was a man who made his life and early career in the outdoors of a developing Hawaii, fluent in the rough-and-tumble lifestyle one might ascribe to any “cowboy” on any continent in the world. That image is a very far cry from the soft-bodied, aphorism-spouting, Charlie Chan. In reality Apana would have been much closer to the charisma Humphrey Bogart embodied as Rick in Cassablanca. How’s that for a complete 180?

    Thinking of it from a Hollywood writer’s point of view, I can see how a very exotic detective character could be a novelty and hold some sense of adventure and romance in terms of a story. It is an interesting reveal of the writer’s mind and the social environment of a public that would devour the idea of Charlie Chan. But IMHO, turning a real-life BADASS into a schlumpy old guy is just a bizarre change to make. I guess the voyeuristic peek into an imagined, incense-steeped “oriental life” was more titillating than riding along with a cigar-smoking, horse riding, battle-scarred, frontier-living cop.

    Things that make you go “hm..”

  17. Biggers’ wife has said that Charlie Chan’s physique was based on Biggers himself–just look at the short, squat lumpy figure of the author. As for all this new attention focused on Charlie Chan, a lot of the burden of explaining why some AAs object to the stereotype has fallen on Frank Chin, and even though he humorously says,

    “You can answer the Charlie Chan questions for yourself. Please. The questions I’m answering are getting a little repetitious. The curse of being the only Chinaman with all the answers. The real answers are to be in my work–which is not teaching, but writing.”
    I think we can all understand why he’s wearied of this task that he’s had for over 40 years!

  18. Here’s a link to a Mystery Scene Magazine article by Jon L. Breen (the author of the Weekly Standard book review). Breen, who was a librarian and a mystery story writer, talks about why he finds the Biggers novels charming and why he criticizes AAs who don’t like Chan’s image:

    \But Asian Americans who protest Charlie Chan are making themselves look foolish, mainly because they show no evidence of having seen the products they want to suppress.\

    http://mysteryscenemag.com/test15/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=119:charlie-chan-the-case-of-the-reviled-detective&catid=24:film

  19. It is obvious to me that Frank Chin doesn’t have a clue what Huang’s book is about. And I’m equally surprised by many others who damn something without having read any part of a work. Huang is just as versed on Chinese culture as others commenting here and his book uses Charlie Chan as a stepping stone into the whole process of the Chinese integration into American society, filled with all the cruel prejudice that Frank Chin is purportedly fighting. I’m finding Huang’s book really fascinating.

  20. Frank Chin frankly is making an ass of himself in the clip. His major mistake analogizing black history with asian history. A better parallel would be Asian history and Italian history. You haven’t seen Italian stereotypes? Mario brothers, Tony Soprano? How about the Irish? They’re well-versed in self-mockery. That is what Charlie Chan is. He is not Uncle Tom or whatnot. He’s more like the lepracaum at the end of the rainbow.

    Deep down inside, I think that Frank Chin is angry about Charlie Chan because he hasn’t fully accepted inside that he is asian.

  21. @yesme

    ‘Deep down inside, I think that Frank Chin is angry about Charlie Chan because he hasn’t fully accepted inside that he is asian.’

    You should read Frank Chin’s ‘Racist Love’ essay:

    http://chintalks.blogspot.com/2008/08/racist-love.html

    After you read it , you may think, maybe, Frank is pissed because like Alpha said above, Charlie Chan is Frank Chin’s Racist Love, a trickster inside a Racist Love stereotype. And Franks’ also pissed ( probably) also that this shit is being revived. And he’s also pissed ( maybe) at the ignorance affection that non Asian’s have for this racial stereotype. And as ( maybe) as a misunderstood representative for Asian American culture, is pissed at seeing in 2011, East Asian image still getting raped over and over by racist media and…just because apart from the Youtube guys, any representation is on the racist media payroll. But what do I know I’m only a doppelganger.

  22. LOL Frank Chin talking about himself in the 3rd person is funny.

    For every detractor who kowtows to the mainstream media, there are probably two who see the light and are actively boycotting it.

  23. Pingback: Open Letter to MFA Workshops with Bibliography « Drunken Whispers

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