Study: Miscellaneous (MC021)

New York Times (reformatted), January 12, 1997


By Somini Sengupta, The New York Times

CHARLIE CHAN, the cherubic Chinese detective with the dainty step and fortune-cookie wisdom, is about to be resurrected. This time, however, he will be played by a Chinese American instead of a white man in yellowface.

RUSSELL WONG, best known for his role in the syndicated television series “Vanishing Son,” will star as the new Chan, a Chan for the ’90s  – hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and (what else?) a martial-arts master, says Cary Granat, senior executive vice president at Miramax Films.

Miramax bought the rights to the franchise and hopes to produce several films based on the popular 1930s and ’40s series in which first Warner Oland, and then Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, played the detective in 44 films. The studio has selected Steven Soderbergh to direct the project, which will go into production this year.

The old CHARLIE CHAN films, drawn from the novels of Earl Derr Biggers, have come under attack by Asian Americans not only because Chan was played by a white man but also because many see the character as the stereotypically inscrutable Oriental. To some, in fact, he now comes across as the lovable counterpart to the diabolical Oriental genius of the 1930s, Fu Manchu. (Oland, who died in 1938, also starred in a couple of Fu Manchu films.)

The old CHARLIE CHAN spoke English in an exaggerated accent. “May I extend courteous greeting?” he offered in sing-song cadence. He rattled off faux-Confucian aphorisms: “Man seldom scratches where does not itch.” He was accompanied by his bumbling sons, who often prefaced their sentences with a “Gee, Pop!” And in many of the films, he was seen with a wide-eyed African American sidekick who provided comic relief.

There have been several recent adaptations. In 1981, Peter Ustinov starred in “CHARLIE CHAN and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” a slapstick Chan remake, and Wayne Wang’s 1982 sleeper hit, “Chan Is Missing,” poked fun at the old Chan.

More recently, the playwright David Henry Hwang, a Tony Award winner, wrote a screenplay in which CHARLIE CHAN’S son discovers his father’s true identity: a white man in yellowface. That film was never made.

Now audiences will be offered Miramax’s new Chan, a private detective who is the old Chan’s grandson.

“We’re going to have a smart, deductive action hero,” Granat said, adding that studio executives had not yet decided whether the new Chan would also be named Charlie.

The imminent revival of CHARLIE CHAN is drawing mixed reactions from Asian Americans. Some are disgusted and others delighted, while still others are curious though skeptical.

(Among African Americans, the same spectrum of emotions is likely to arise with Harry Belafonte’s planned remake of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”)

The project comes at a time when Hong Kong action pictures are growing more popular in the United States. The director John Woo, a leader in the genre, has recently been embraced by Hollywood. Chow Yun Fat, the baby-faced hero of many of his films, is suddenly in demand, as is the martial-arts star Jackie Chan, whose latest film, “Jackie Chan’s First Strike,” opened this weekend in Sacramento.

The prospect of luring fans of those movies was not lost on Granat. “We hope to tap into that market as part of the audience,” he said, adding that the new Chan films would send Wong’s character to Hong Kong as part of the murder investigation.

For Wong, a 33-year-old native of Albany, N.Y., the three-picture deal with Miramax promises to be his biggest break. It was just 13 years ago that he went to Hong Kong to pursue an acting career, discouraged by the dearth of roles for Asian American men in this country.

“It was like, I’ve got to go out of my own country to make a living,” he recalled. “It was disheartening.”

In Hong Kong, Wong starred in a Chinese film similar to “Flashdance” and was discovered by the producers of the 1986 movie “Tai-Pan.” He returned to the United States for a part in Abel Ferrara’s “China Girl” in 1987, then appeared in “Eat a Bowl of Tea” in 1989 and “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.

He is currently at work on his first Miramax film, “Ashtown.” The Chan films will bring him his first starring roles in the United States.

Bill Gee, executive director of Asian Cinevision, which produces the annual Asian American Film Festival in New York, said he hoped the films would buoy Wong’s profile as an Asian American action hero. “We hope they do it right,” said Gee, whose group presented the Asian American Media Award to Wong this summer. “I’m assuming it will avoid the stereotypes.”

The novelist Gish Jen, who is Chinese American, expressed confidence that the studio would. “It would be a lot of fun sensitive,” said Jen. “It would be  great to see an Asian American in that role rather than someone in yellowface.”

But the playwright and novelist Frank Chin shot back that a new Chan would only revive an old racist notion of the asexual and servile Chinese man, regardless of the star. “CHARLIE CHAN will always be a symbol of white racism, no matter who plays him,” he said. “If you put a black man in a hood, does that make the Ku Klux Klan a civil rights organization?”

Jessica Hagedorn, who edited an Asian American literary anthology entitled “CHARLIE CHAN Is Dead,” is also troubled about the project. “I’m a little taken aback,” she said. “It’s like if you resurrected Sambo or Stepin Fetchit or Aunt Jemima. What if you said Angela Bassett will play Aunt Jemima?”

Others said that they could well imagine a film that subverted the old CHARLIE CHAN. But they were skeptical of the Miramax project, arguing that the film industry had generally failed to create multifaceted roles for nonwhites.

“I’m willing, in part, to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I have my doubts,” said David Mura, an actor and writer. “If you want to do an Asian American detective, why don’t you just do one, rather than something that calls back a legacy of the stoic, mysterious Oriental?”

Hwang, whose own Chan screenplay never made it to the screen, said he would withhold judgment on the Miramax project but was heartened by the prospect of a Chan depicted as a real Chinese American action hero.

“I think it’s possible to reinvent a stereotype,” said Hwang, who is best known for his play “M. Butterfly.” “I hope they create something better. But it could be just as stereotypical.”

For his part, Granat merely urged the critics to wait and see. The new Chan, he said, will be a “more well-rounded character” than the one in the CHARLIE CHAN movies starring white actors.

Unlike the portly hero of the past, Granat added, the Chan of the 90’s will be tough. “The original Chan never got into physical situations,” Granat said. “Our Chan will be a lot more adventurous.”

And in a sharp departure from the past, the new Chan picture will also feature a female star, who may turn into the sexy sleuth’s love interest, Granat said, though he declined to name any candidates for the part.

“Clearly, by the casting of RUSSELL WONG as the new Chan, our efforts are to make him into a real role model for Asian and non-Asian audiences,” he said.

Wong, too, is confident that Miramax’s new Chan will not repeat the stereotypes of the past. “The concept of the chop suey, very clevah, very Charlie Chan,” he said, “I think that’s so un-Chinese.”

But he said he also understood the apprehension of the Asian American critics. Growing up in a largely white section of Albany, where his family owned a Chinese restaurant, Wong, whose father is Chinese and mother a white American, endured his share of racist taunts.

“They would do certain kinds of imitations, whatever they saw on TV; maybe it was CHARLIE CHAN,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “I accepted it as normal, but I guess it wasn’t.”

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