There seems to be a new trend in biography. An author takes a deep "core sample" of the entirety of the world around the biography's subject, often even injecting his or her personal experiences researching and writing the book. Weather, stock tables, the history of minstrel shows or solid state engineering or cooking can weave in and out amidst unexpected finds at flea markets and wars.
A bellwether of this kind of tome, for this reviewer at least, was David Hajdu's magisterial Ten Cent Plague, a history of the comic books that could be an x-ray of American art and politics of our time. Yunte Huang's new, essential tome about Charlie Chan is a thrilling addition to this trend.
First off, if the subject of the Most Honorable detective ever came up on Jeopardy, and if you had read this book, you would KILL! Not only would you know everything about the fictional Chan and his three or so (Caucasian) embodiers in film, but you would know about the real Chan (a Honolulu cop who was always a cowboy and the first head of the then territory's ASPCA!), you would know about what is arguably Clarence Darrow's most compromised civil rights case, you'd know about how the railroads were built, you'd know about how it is to open a Chinese restaurant in the South, and, as they used to say on the ads that bracketed the screenings of the Chan flicks on the Late Late Show, "much much more!"
Huang is an intrepid, searingly honest guide on this maze of a tour. You carom around like a charmed pinball amidst the binging and banging of the twentieth century, delighted all the while. I assume it helps to be a devotee of Chan, as I confess I am, but even if you're not, you will be intrigued by the time this journey comes to its beautiful conclusion. Sometimes it gets too minute in its explorations, but the moments of tedium are soon upended with "plot twists" that would have charmed the fictional Chan's Harvard-educated creator, Earl Derr Biggers. Not to mention some daring, scholarly interpretations of the place of "yellow face" in American popular culture along with "black face" and other ethnic stereotyping in pop culture. But it never gets stuffy.
And, as an extra dollop, Huang includes a tasty appendix of real "Chan-isms," those comic/serious/ pearls of wisdom that fans of the detective sit on the edge of their seats waiting for. Here are a few to remember this book by:
Nut easy to crack often empty.
No poison more deadly than ink.
If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.
Talk cannot cook rice. - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.