Racial Ventriloquism

I went to hear Dr. Yununte Huang, an English professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara speak for one of my other journalism courses and found many of the key concepts rather interesting. I was supposed to be taking pictures but was so intrigued that I completely forgot my reason for being there until the audience began to applaud. Huang  who is currently a fellow at Cornell, recently wrote a book on Charlie Chan, a fictional Chinese detective, residing in Hawaii. Chan, created by Earl Derr Biggers as part of a series of novels. Chan was well known for his odd-words of wisdom and wit. Shortly after their publication, Hollywood picked p the series and created 47 Charlie Chan films. After watching a short clip of one of the films, Black Camel, which was released in the 1930’s, I was surprised to find out that the man who played Chan was Swedish-born was Warner Oland. As it turns out,the directors used yellow face to make Oland appear oriental. Oland was also drunk during most takes, slowing down his speech and changing his facial expression. What Dr. Huang pointed out as remarkable that was at the time the chinese community in America did not find these film degrading, and in China Oland was greeted like a celebrity. Soon the Chinese Cinema created its own version of the Charlie Chan films where the Charlie Chan character imitated Swedish actor Oland, who in turn was acting as a “chinaman”- racial ventriloquism. Today, according to Huang, the character of Charlie Chan is seen by many as a demeaning character depicting Asians. Dr. Hang has recently released a book on the matter, The Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History: Charlie Chan considering turning his book, the story behind the fictional character, into a movie.

“Men that flirt with dynamite sometimes fly with angels.”- Charlie Chan.

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