Again, sadly I have fallen far, far behind in telling you about the books I've read (and I'm sure your lives have all been hanging in the balance waiting for my insipid verdicts). So let me try to cover a few quickly here. And I mean super quickly.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang. The Charlie Chan books and movies were big hits when they were released in the 1930s and '40s, but now are looked on as an embarrassing (or camp) artifact of the days when American perceptions of Asians consisted of the "Oriental other," an obtuse figure who spoke strange aphorism in pidgin English and used his super sneaky Asian skills to solve crimes. The casting of white actors to play Chan is more evidence in the history of Hollywood racism.
It is not uncommon for Asians now to denigrate, scorn, or again, simply be embarrassed by Chan. The movies are rarely shown for fear of offending people, or when they are shown, they're shown to make the above negative point about Asians in American culture. However, Yunte Huang, a literature professor born in China and educated in the United States, feels that Chan has been given an unfair place in history; rather than reviled, he should be embraced.
Huang comes at the Chan story from a number of angles. He tells the story of Chang Apana, a Chinese man who lived in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century. He first worked as a rancher, but then a rich, white woman financed his role as the first humane officer in Hawaii. Notoriously wielding a bullwhip, Apana investigated instances of animal cruelty, helping out the horses, dogs, cats and livestock of the island. He was so successful that he got a job on the Hawaiian police force, and became a department stalwart for decades.
Huang also tells the story Earl Derr Biggers, the author who created Chan. Biggers was a Harvard graduate who had written a successful mystery novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, but struck gold in his second, " " when he introduced as a minor character, Charlie Chan, a Chinese Hawaiian police officer. Biggers came across his Hawaiian settting honestly--he had been sent there for the winter for his health, but long claimed that he had based Chan on articles about Apana that he found in a newspaper in the New York Public Library. Huang, however, searched and couldn't find any mention of Apana in newspapers of that time period. Biggers couldn't seem to help making up a story about everything--which is why he had dropped out of a career in journalism. Anyway, Chan became a hit, with readers begging Biggers to write a book featuring the detective. He obliged, and Chan made him rich. Biggers did meet Apana during one of his visits to Hawaii; the two died within a few months of each other.
Part of Chan's popularity came from the movies based on the books. Huang covers these in detail, pleading their case as a much better representation of Asians in American culture than they seem--Chan is witty, resourceful, and the hero of his stories; he's not subservient to anyone. In contrast, the late 19th century vision of Asians was based on Bret Harte's damning poem "The Heathen Chinee," which depicted Asians as sly and untrustworthy. After that came the dastardly evil and notably effeminate Dr. Fu Manchu. In other words, there was really nowhere else to go but up for Chan. Even though he was portrayed by Caucasian actors (first Warner Oland, and then Sidney Toler), the detective was still the probably the most positive representation of Asians in American culture up to that time.
Huang tells about his own relationship to Chan and how he, as an emigre from China trying to make his way in the United States, sorts out his own reaction to the character. His story is pretty good too--he was protesting in Tianamen Square in 1989 when his family, nervous about the government's response, falsely told him his mother was sick, in order to get him to come home quickly; good call on their part, as that meant he had left the square when the massacre occurred. Additionally, the book contains a great deal of information about various Chan-related topics--Hawaiian history, the experience of Chinese in Hawaii, early 20th the century Harvard, and numerous other related things. It's all a lot of fun and interesting reading, especially if you're like me and you like to stumble across new, unexplored parts of history. Huang doesn't really offer a critical appraisal of the Chan books or movies (other than a close look at one that featured Stepin Fetchit as a sort of sidekick for Chan, which gives students of portrayals of race in Hollywood enough material for about 15 dissertations), but I guess that's a whole other book for another day. Or you could just read them and watch them yourself and decide.