Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Warner Oland: No Known Asian Ancestry

This posting is more about the exchange of ideas (such as it is) on the Internet than about anything else.  As readers might know, the character of Charlie Chan, created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1925, is controversial.  Although Biggers devised him as an antidote to the sinister “yellow peril” stereotypes of the era, the character hasn’t aged well, especially for Asian Americans.


While Charlie Chan may have appeared as a fully positive hero to the audiences of the day, contemporary audiences are more critical.  Chan was based on the real-life Honolulu police detective Chang Apana, but the fictional character bears little resemblance to his inspiration.  Apana was said to be a tough customer who carried a whip with him on his assignments in case he got into a fight — in a word, Apana was a badass.  Some Asian American critics now say that Biggers removed Apana’s badassery to come up with the less aggressive, more humble Chan.  In his films, Chan is also made to talk in a heavy Asian accent while speaking in artificial-sounding “Chinese” aphorisms, which are other traits that put off contemporary Asian American audiences.  And in those films that portray Charlie Chan as the lead character (all but three), the Chinese Hawaiian detective has always been played by non-Asian actors, of whom Warner Oland is perhaps the best remembered.  As Wikipedia sums up the controversy:
Critic Michael Brodhead argues that “Biggers's sympathetic treatment of the Charlie Chan novels convinces the reader that the author consciously and forthrightly spoke out for the Chinese — a people to be not only accepted but admired. Biggers’s sympathetic treatment of the Chinese reflected and contributed to the greater acceptance of Chinese-Americans in the first third of [the twentieth] century.” S. T. Karnick writes in the National Review that Chan is “a brilliant detective with understandably limited facility in the English language [whose] powers of observation, logic, and personal rectitude and humility made him an exemplary, entirely honorable character.”  Ellery Queen called Biggers’s characterization of Charlie Chan “a service to humanity and to inter-racial relations.”  Dave Kehr of The New York Times said Chan “might have been a stereotype, but he was a stereotype on the side of the angels.”  Keye Luke, an actor who played Chan's son in a number of films, agreed; when asked if he thought that the character was demeaning to the race, he responded, “Demeaning to the race? My God! You've got a Chinese hero!” and “[W]e were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood.”

Other critics, such as Yen Le Espiritu and Huang Guiyou, argue that Chan, while portrayed positively in some ways, is not on a par with white characters, but a “benevolent Other” who is “one-dimensional.”  The films’ use of white actors to portray East Asian characters indicates the character’s “absolute Oriental Otherness”; the films were only successful as “the domain of white actors who impersonated heavily-accented masters of murder mysteries as well as purveyors of cryptic proverbs.” Chan's character “embodies the stereotypes of Chinese Americans, particularly of males: smart, subservient, effeminate.”  Chan is representative of a model minority, the good stereotype that counters a bad stereotype: “Each stereotypical image is filled with contradictions: the bloodthirsty Indian is tempered with the image of the noble savage; the bandido exists along with the loyal sidekick; and Fu Manchu is offset by Charlie Chan.”  However, Fu Manchu’s evil qualities are presented as inherently Chinese, while Charlie Chan’s good qualities are exceptional: “Fu represents his race; his counterpart stands away from the other Asian Hawaiians.”

Still, Charlie Chan also has his very outspoken defenders.  A number of critics (most of them Caucasian) seem resentful of contemporary criticism regarding the character.  Back in 2003, cable’s Fox Movie Channel announced a TV festival of newly restored Charlie Chan films, but when the cable channel was criticized by Asian Americans, it cancelled the festival.  As a compromise, Fox Movie Channel screened four of the films bookended by a discussion of Asian American critics moderated by George Takei.  In response to this, author Max Allan Collins angrily denounced the channel’s decision:

Takei does an excellent, dignified job [as moderator] in this effort, but his panelist are mostly a bunch of ill-informed, blinkered “experts,” all Asian (isn’t that racist?), various academics and a few actors.  One film scholar tries to defend the films, mildly, as of their times; the others seem not to have seen the films that they dislike so and talk of heavy-handed make-up (neither Warner Oland nor Sidney Toler used much, if any, make-up) and “shuffling” (Chan is polite, you see … making him an instant Uncle Tom).  (Max Allan Collins, “Foreign Crimes,” Asian Cult Cinema #41, p. 13, emphasis and ellipsis in original)

Reading Collins, one might think that Asian Americans didn’t have the right to speak out against Asian portrayals that they found objectionable, and one might think that Asian Americans have always enjoyed the same kind of equal access to their portrayals in mainstream entertainment that whites have had.  But Collins isn’t a solitary voice, as a number of Charlie Chan fans in print and on the Internet declare their support for the character in the same hostile, indignant tones against Asian Americans for their reappraisal of the fictional detective. 


As mentioned by Collins, one element of the controversy is the use of make-up to allow Chan’s white portrayers to look more Asian, a practice denounced by Asian Americans as “yellowface.”  Some of Chan’s defenders say that since the white actors wore very little make-up, yellowface was not employed, but as I have said elsewhere, others regard yellowface to be practiced whenever a white performer plays an Asian character — whether appearance-altering cosmetics are used or not. 

Perhaps to remove this last argument against Charlie Chan, a Facebook member recently posted a relatively lengthy contribution to his timeline saying that Warner Oland, perhaps the best-loved actor to essay the character, was of partial Asian ancestry and therefore never wore yellowface.  Besides playing Chan, Oland played several other Asian characters — as well as non-Asian ones — throughout his long career in Hollywood, including Fu Manchu.  The Facebook member reported that Oland, a native of Sweden raised in the United States, claimed that his mother was Asian to explain his vaguely Asian appearance.  The writer went on to mention other Asian and Asian American contributions to the Charlie Chan series.  But the main point of his post seemed to be that Oland was of part-Asian descent, and that this information should lessen any charge of racism clouding the character of Charlie Chan. 

I replied to the Facebook member’s post, saying although Oland sometimes claimed to be of partial Asian ancestry, this had never been confirmed, and according to Wikipedia, Oland’s biographers have found no Asian relatives in his family tree.  Oland’s claim that his mother — whose maiden name, according to the Internet Movie Database, was Maria Johanna Forsberg, not the most Asian-sounding of names — was Asian may have just been a fanciful story he told to those inquiring about his background.  Other on-line sources also said that Oland was not of any known Asian descent.

A Sámi man of northern Scandinavia
I went on to speculate that Oland’s somewhat Asian appearance may have been the result of a possible relation to the Sámi people (a.k.a. Laplanders) of northern Scandinavia, who are Caucasian but sometimes have features somewhat similar to East Asians.  I haven’t read much about the facial characteristics of the Sámi, but in some pictures that I’ve seen, a few of them have what might be called “hooded” eyelids, which may not be incomparable to the epicanthic fold of most East Asian peoples.  While I can’t find any literature detailing the frequency of their “hooded” eyelids, at least one on-line article (of indeterminate reliability) says that Sámi eyes are sometimes “slanted.”  I concluded my reply by saying that given his Swedish birthplace and Scandinavian lineage, Oland being of Sámi ancestry seemed more likely than his being of Asian ancestry. 

My reply wasn’t lecturing or combative — indeed, I thought I sounded downright friendly and hoping to connect with a fellow film enthusiast.  I posted my reply last night, and I woke to see that the Facebook member had now blocked me from his page.  I don’t have access to what he wrote anymore.  I can no longer view his post to make sure that my recollection of it is completely correct. 

Since I can’t communicate with the Facebook member anymore, I can only assume that he was very zealous in his efforts to rehabilitate the character of Charlie Chan, and when someone questioned part of his argument for doing so, he brooked no contradiction and shut down the exchange. 
I’m guessing that this is mostly about the contentiousness of the character of Charlie Chan.  Some people absolutely love the fictional detective and are in high dudgeon that anyone would object to him.  Charlie Chan is one of the 20th century’s few regular media representations of an underrepresented racial minority who felt that this character misrepresented them.  But many hard-core fans (again, virtually all of them seemingly non-Asian) dismiss this view of the character — and they dismiss his critics as artificially aggrieved. 

Just because marginalized communities have found a voice in this society, don’t expect the dominant culture to listen to it. 

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