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The Hardboiled and the Haunted: Race, Masculinity, and the Asian American Detective


Created by Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920s, Charlie Chan appeared in six popular mystery novels and a long-running film series that starred white actors in the title role. Since the early 1970s, however, attempts to revive the fictional character have drawn fervent protests from Asian American critics and activists. Despite his initial fame, Chan became closely identified with the racist stereotyping of Asians in U.S. popular culture. While he may indeed be culturally "dead," Charlie Chan remains a controversial figure in Asian American discourse even today. Seeking to clarify this agonistic relationship, this dissertation presents the first critical examination of Asian American detectives in literature and film that have emerged in the wake of Chan's ostensible demise.

Chapter 1 provides a close reading of the "canonical" body of work featuring Charlie Chan and explains why this infamous cultural icon -- an otherwise moribund relic of the early twentieth century -- remains deeply inscribed in the U.S. cultural imaginary. Chapter 2 examines three detective films that eschewed Yellowface casting in favor of spotlighting Asian Americans in starring roles. While historicizing these movies within the context of the often Orientalist representations of Asians in classic Hollywood cinema, I demonstrate how each of these landmark films re-signifies Asian American male subjectivity, examining what it means to be Asian American in the shadow of Charlie Chan. Chapter 3 explores the work of a group of Asian American male writers -- Dale Furutani, Leonard Chang, Ed Lin, and Henry Chang -- who each confront the emasculated stereotypes of the past and reframe Asian American masculinity through the use of the hardboiled detective genre.

This dissertation concludes with an overview of more recent efforts to revive Charlie Chan onscreen and a survey of contemporary Asian American detective fiction. Through an analysis of these various attempts to exorcise Charlie Chan's lingering specter, this dissertation seeks to illuminate the long shadow that this notorious Yellowface icon has cast for nearly a century and bring a new subgenre of Asian American cultural production into the light.

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