A History Of Detective Stories: Asian Detectives

This is the second installment in a series on the history of detective fiction.

In the many literary magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, detective fiction was extremely popular, and numerous subgenres emerged. One of the most prolific was the Asian detective story, which was first popularized by Earl Derr Biggers through the Charlie Chan character. The portrayals of Asian characters in the various Asian detective stories have become a major source of controversy today, preventing the works from enduring the decades as readily as the earlier Holmes and Dupin stories. Yet the films and stories based around these characters are a fascinating time capsule of early 20th-century American racial characterizations and attitudes.

The framework for the Charlie Chan character was established in 1919 when Earl derr Biggers went on vacation in Hawaii and conceived an idea for a detective story to be set there, The House Without a Key. In seeking a unique hook for the novel, Derr Biggers was inspired to create the Chan character based on Chang Apana and Lee Fook, two Chinese-American detectives in the Honolulu police force. To derr Biggers, the Chan character represented a major step away from the “Yellow Peril” stereotypes of Chinese characterization in popular literature of the time, exemplified by Fu Manchu, among others. By contrast, Chan was benevolent, forward-thinking, and (relatively) Americanized. When the novel was finally published in 1925 although Chan was not one of the main characters, he was by far the most popular and would go on to appear in five other novels: The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind That Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), and The Keeper of the Keys (1932). 
 
Although Derr Biggers believed that the Chan character represented a major step forward in the portrayals of Asian-Americans, popular reaction to the Chan character was troubling as early as 1926, when Pathe studios released a 10-part serial adaptation of The House Without a Key, starring Japanese actor George Kuwa as Chan. The film received poor critical notices largely because it had cast an unknown, non-white foreigner as Chan rather than an established Hollywood character actor. Universal Pictures’ adaptation of Behind That Curtain (1929) and Fox’s Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) both met similar negative response with critics and audiences alike. It was only once an established white character actor (Warner Oland) was cast as Chan that the character became a popular film subject, becoming Fox’s most successful B-movie series and a major revenue generator for the studio. Oland appeared in such entries as Charlie Chan in London, Charlie Chan in Paris, and Charlie Chan at the Opera. Both of the actors who would play Chan following Oland’s death in 1937--Sidney Toler and Roland Winters--were white character actors. The die had been cast; despite the fact that the character had been intended as a positive portrayal of a Chinese-American, audiences of the time would only accept a white actor in the role.Actor Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan
  
Because of this prior concession to the preferences of early 20th-century American audiences, the Chan films are typically seen in a negative light by modern audiences. Despite the fact that the series provided good work for two Asian-American character actors (Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung as Chan’s Number One and Number Two sons, respectively), the series’ emphasis on white character actors portraying Chan in “yellowface” has made it extremely controversial. Indeed, the negative reaction in the Asian-American community against television channels that air the Chan films is so strong that the films are rarely shown, even on classic movie channels. The fact that the Chan character was one of the first positive portrayals of a Chinese-American in American popular literature is often forgotten, and Derr Biggers’ creation is banished from television due to concessions to the tastes of a 1930s film-going audience.
 
Twentieth Century-Fox enjoyed such great success with the Chan series that it quickly started production on another series starring an Asian detective. Created by John P. Marquand in response to the Saturday Evening Post’s demand for a new Asian detective character following the death of Earl derr Biggers, Mr. Moto the Japanese detective appeared in five novels: Your Turn Mr. Moto (1935), Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937), Mr. Moto is So Sorry (1938), Last Laugh, Mr. Moto (1942), and Right You Are, Mr. Moto (1957). In 1937, Twentieth Century-Fox produced its film adaptation of Think Fast, Mr. Moto, starring Peter Lorre as the Moto character.
 
The Moto series is separated by the Chan series by a number of important differences. Whereas Chan as portrayed by Oland (and subsequent actors) was typically nonthreatening, benevolent and Americanized, Lorre’s Moto was allowed to remain foreign. In all of Marquand’s novels except the final entry he was an agent of the Imperial Japanese government. In the film series, he is a Japanese citizen who serves as a member of the “International Police.” Moto was also skilled in martial arts and could appear menacing and dangerous at times in the films. Lorre portrayed Moto in seven subsequent films, Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937), Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939), Danger Island (1939), and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939). Marquand was heavily involved with the production of the film series, writing the stories for Thank You, Mr. Moto, Mysterious Mr. Moto, and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation
 
The popularity of the Moto series diminished greatly with the onset of World War II and the U.S. conflict with Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Marquand’s Moto, despite his trickster nature and dangerous edge, was always portrayed as a pro-American figure who felt a great kinship with Americans and desired to help them. Although Marquand retained this multifaceted characterization of Moto even after the war, it became very difficult to market to a nation that was extremely angry with the Japanese, and the series popularity never recovered. As with the Chan series, the Moto films are rarely shown on television now, although in this case it is as much due to the series’ post-World War II fall into obscurity as it is to the then-popular convention of casting a white actor in an Asian role. The one cinematic effort to restore the series’ popularity, The Return of Mr. Moto (1965), was an extremely low-budget attempt to cash in on the James Bond series starring an extremely un-Japanese Henry Silva as Moto. This film, which is not based on any Marquand story and barely resembles any characterization of Moto, has little merit beyond obscure novelty value.
 
Cover art of the 1st English edition of The Chinese Maze Murders, by Robert van GulikInterest in Asian detective stories also extends to the realm of historical fiction, and one of the most prolific writers in this field was Robert van Gulik. A noted scholar of Asian cultures and an expert in the Mandarin language, van Gulik worked as a linguist for the Dutch government for most of his life and began translating the 18th Century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An into Japanese in 1941. His finished translation, Meiro no Satsujin, was first published in Tokyo in 1948; he would only find a publisher for his English-language translation, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, in 1957. The novel received strong reviews in all the countries in which it was published, and van Gulik began to write his own novels about Judge Dee in the Chinese detective tradition, starting with The Chinese Maze Murders.
 
Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels are distinguished from other Asian detective stories by both their deep understanding of Chinese culture and their use of Chinese literary conventions. Van Gulik describes the world of Ming Dynasty China (1368-1644) and its people’s way of life in great detail, including methods of dress, food, and art styles popular at the time. Van Gulik’s understanding of the Chinese religious tradition is quite deep as well, and the differences between the Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions are the source of mystery and conflict in several of his stories. The Chinese storytelling convention of solving three different cases within a single novel was utilized by van Gulik multiple times over the course of the series, and his characters are realistic and well-defined. As an author van Gulik made two major concessions to make his stories more appropriate for a Western audience. The supernatural element of the original Chinese stories was largely removed, and depictions of torture were heavily censored, if shown at all. Some of van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels are The Red Pavillion, The Monkey and the Tiger, The Chinese Bell Murders, and Judge Dee at Work
 
 In the current literary world, most depictions of Asian detectives are likely to be historical novels that resemble van Gulik’s works rather than depictions like the Chan and Moto characters of the early 20th Century. Characterizations of Judge Dee similar to van Gulik’s appear in Eleanor Cooney’s Deception: a Novel of Murder and Madness in T’ang China and Zhu Xiao Di’s Tales of Judge Dee. Continuing interest in historical detective stories means that the Asian detective--a character type hugely popular in the mystery literature of the early 20th century--will continue to survive, although perhaps in a form that owes more to the works of van Gulik than those of Derr Biggers and Marquand.