Coming to the Festival of Books: Yunte Huang
Yunte Huang's book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History" unpacks the many complicated layers of Charlie Chan with humor and affection. The book, our reviewer wrote, "is a scintillating, provocative work of discovery, a voyage into racial stereotyping and the humanizing force of storytelling. It is also a deeply personal book in which Huang draws on his own upbringing in China and the questions of race and identity that he continues to consider today." It was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in biography.
Huang, who is on the faulty at UC Santa Barbara, will be at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday at the 11 a.m. panel "Larger Than Life: Behind the Icon." He answered our questions via email.
Jacket Copy: Your book looks at the original detective upon which the Charlie Chan detective was based, as well as the books and movies in which the character appeared. Was there any one thing that you discovered that surprised you the most?
Yunte Huang: The most surprising thing for me was how long a cultural icon can live on in people's memory even after having disappeared from the limelight for many years for various reasons.
JC: There are many layers of identity in your book -- although Chinese, Charlie Chan, was played on film by Swedish actor Warner Oland; author E. D. Biggers created Charlie Chan and took his exploits from Chang Apana before ever meeting him; and Apana, when the character became famous, often took on the Charlie Chan persona. It seems a little bit like assimilation, but more complex. What would you call it? Do you think it still goes on?
YH: I would call it imitation, an artistic form that can be creative or lame, empowering or demeaning, inspiring or racist. Racial ventriloquism was historically a driving force of American creativity. It is still ubiquitous in comedic genres.
JC: Do you have a favorite Charlie Chan book or movie?
YH: The first Charlie Chan novel "The House Without a Key" is really a great novel. "The Black Camel" (1931) is my favorite Chan film, partly because it was made on the beaches of Hawaii and partly because of all the forty-seven or so Chan film, it is closest to the original novel.
JC: Have you found yourself using Charlie Chan aphorisms?
YH: Yes, but you'd have to take my answer with a grain of MSG.
JC: Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the Festival of Books this year?
YH: As someone who has spent a lot of time writing book reviews, I look forward to meeting some book review editors in person.
JC: Is there anything you plan to do in Los Angeles while you're here, apart from the Festival of Books?
YH: Santa Barbara is my home, but I just spent a year living in the snowy woods in Ithaca, NY. So, coming to LA directly from Ithaca is really my sweet homecoming. Being at home is what I plan to do.
Tickets to the L.A. Times Festival of Books are available now from Eventbrite.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Left, Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. Credit: Reuters. Right: Author Yuente Huang. Credit: Miriam Berkley