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Cartoon Graveyard: A Chan For All Seasons

May 28, 2009

Seeing as how I care about maintaining variety in this column more than any other person on the face of the planet (which is to say, somewhat), I believe it’s time to hop in the Wayback Machine and dive into yesteryear.  By the way, a word to Mr.  Peabody: way to not kill Hitler.  I mean, sure, you could’ve gone back in time and kicked Lee Harvey Oswald’s ass or disinfected Sumner’s blankets, but hey, I guess helping Christopher Columbus find his spyglass is a better use of your now-infinite time.  Hooray for you.

But where is our Wayback Machine going, no one asks?  Well, since it’s entirely metaphorical, retroactive tyrannocide is really out of the question, so instead we’re whizzing along to 1972 for a look at a definite anomaly in the toonverse.  The good news: it features some of the only Asian protagonists (non-kung-fu division) of old TV.  The possibly-bad-news-depending-on-your-point-of-view: they’re all related to Charlie Chan.

Title: The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan
Network: Who Cares, It Was 1972
Premise: Charlie Chan solves crimes, is awful parent

Before getting into the aforementioned clan, it’s worth going over the history of their proud patriarch.  The very name “Charlie Chan” carries very negative connotations these days, often as a shorthand for mainstream Asian stereotypes.  But it took some evolution to reach that position. Charlie, in his original incarnation in novels by Earl Derr Biggers, is a member of the Honolulu Police Department and a very successful detective.  He solves crimes around Hawaii, sometimes venturing elsewhere, and occasionally aided by one or more of his children, whom he has a habit of introducing by birth order.  In this form, the character himself isn’t all that racist.  He does seem to have a Chinese accent, being a native of Hong Kong, which is mostly indicated by overly formal speech.  He is also aware of the stereotypes surrounding his ethnicity: in one adventure, he goes undercover as an exaggeratedly stereotypical Chinese servant to a rich suspect, all switched l’s and r’s and lots of bowing.  He refers to this caricatured performance, rather sarcastically, as his “Mr. Moto act,” so make of that what you will.

When Charlie made the leap to the movies, Hollywood took a curiously earnest and oblivious approach to his ethnicity.  On the one hand, they were clearly unprepared to cast a Chinese actor in a starring role, leading to a succession of white men playing Charlie, the most famous being the very Scandinavian Warner Oland.  What makes this situation even more ludicrous is that they evidently had no trouble casting Chinese actors to play other Chinese people, such as Charlie’s cheerful, Americanized oldest “Number One” son.

Chinese man, left; Swedish man, right.

Chinese man, left; Swedish man, right.

Movie Charlie also picked up a few “racialized” traits that Book Charlie was missing.  He’s more prone to vaguely “wise” sayings and slightly broken English, and has a pronounced and clearly faked accent.  This is the Charlie most people are familiar with, and the one their ire is directed at.  What they forget is that this significantly more racist Charlie Chan was coupled with an incredibly racist sidekick: cabdriver and Everything That’s Wrong With The Portrayal Of Blacks In Cinema exemplar Birmingham Brown.

Racism bar: raised.

Racism bar: raised.

Christ, I don’t even know what to say about that.  Suffice to assure you that his character acts in the movies pretty much as that picture would lead you to believe.

Now, by the 1970s, the Chan name was not yet the object of scorn and derision it is in some circles today, so Hanna-Barbera, never one to let a possibly lucrative franchise slip through its hands, snagged rights to the character and revamped him for the go-go ‘70s.  The new Charlie (played by a Chinese actor for the first time ever) is an inveterate globe-trotter, traveling to exotic locations the world over just in time for their jewels to be stolen and other kid-friendly crimes.  Curiously, he also sees fit to bring along his children, and there are a lot of them.  Evidently Charlie and the never-seen missus went at it like Catholic jackrabbits up until the late ’60s, because he now has ten kids following him around, ranging in age from teens to toddlers.  Also, because it’s a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, they have a band.  Their opening sequence lays this all out nicely, along with vaguely Chinese-sounding (read: not Chinese in any way) theme music, and a dutiful obedience to the rule that if one has a cartoon band, and said band has a female member, said female must play the tambourine.

Patriarchal Oppression, right; inexplicably tiny drums, center.

Patriarchal Oppression, right; inexplicably tiny drums, center.

Standard cartoon crime-solving shenanigans ensue, most of them involving the kids bickering among themselves while they try to capture a thief or eavesdrop on a suspect or some such thing. This raises a perhaps self-defeating question: why the hell would Charlie Chan let his kids tag along while he tracks theoretically dangerous criminals?  Regardless of the level of racism of his portrayal, Charlie Chan is always represented as an extremely intelligent and skilled detective.  Surely someone so brainy would come to the conclusion that crimebusting is not a suitable pasttime for prepubescent children, especially in foreign countries.  Someone should be looking after these kids!  Is Mom around?  If not, why not, and shouldn’t a successful man like Chan be able to afford a sitter?  God knows his older kids can’t be counted on to keep the others out of trouble.  In the end, why the Chan Clan hasn’t had its ranks violently whittled down over the years is the real mystery.

Final Judgment: Another prime example of how freakin’ weird Hanna-Barbera can get if you let them.

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