Could a Charlie Chan movie be made today without seeming racist?
June 8, 2009
Way back yonder, when I was in my college Asian American Studies class, I remember watching a presentation of Asian stereotypes in the media. Some examples included the asexual asian man in tv shows/movies such as Bonanza and Enter the Dragon , the so called dragon lady phenomenon, and the portrayal of Asians by Caucasian actors in “yellowface”. One of the most glaring examples was the old Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s and 40s where a white actor played the Chinese detective who solved various crimes.
Taken from Charlie Chan wikipedia page
Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers, who acknowledged that he was inspired by the career of Honolulu policeman Chang Apana. Chan is the hero of a number of books and dozens of movies. A detective in the Honolulu Police Department, he and his wife have a very large family of children (the oldest of whom is colloquially known as “Number One Son”) and live in a house on Punchbowl Hill. He is a large man but moves gracefully, and is known when asked in the Warner Oland films, to not have a strong drink, but a sarsaparilla instead.
Chan was born in China and immigrated to Hawaii when very young. He is a faithful husband and proud patriarch of a “multitudinous family” of fourteen children. His character is portrayed as kindly, insightful and wise, as well as a dispenser of appropriate aphorisms, such as “Ancient Chinese philosopher say, ‘Hope is sunshine which illuminate darkest path’” (Charlie Chan at the Olympics). Identified in early stories as a sergeant, he was quickly promoted and known afterward as Lieutenant or Inspector. In later films, he is often seen working as a special agent for the U.S. government, and toward the end of the run is portrayed as being in private practice based in San Francisco. During the course of the series he traveled to over two dozen cities and five continents and is mentioned as having worked on a case in Australia.
Appearing in more than three dozen films from the silent era to the late 1940s, Chan outlasted many imitators and competitors rising to the ranks of the greatest movie investigators to stand alongside Sherlock Holmes, Nick Charles, and Sam Spade. However, Chan is also the subject of a great deal of controversy, with some calling him an offensive caricature or stereotype.
According to Wikipedia (not always a reliable source, I know) the last Charlie Chan movie was made in 1981 still portrayed by the Caucasian actor Peter Ustinov.
I know that times have changed alot since then, and there are certainly alot more Asian/Asian American actors who could fill the role of the the detective. Maybe not Jackie Chan, but someone out there could pull it off without coming off demeaning nor offensive. A modern take on this could involve a more hipper, slimmer, less cliched Chinese-American detective and his children, a cross between The Joy Luck Club and Brick. Maybe that guy from Eli Stone could play him, he seems like a decent actor.