I’ve heard some Asian American activists point out that the character of Charlie Chan has always been played by white actors in yellow face. While it’s true that most cinematic portrayals of the Chinese detective have featured Caucasians in the lead–most notably actors like Warner Oland who played Chan in 15 films and Sidney Toler who made 22 films–Asian actors have indeed played Chan on at least two occasions.
In the 1927 silent film The Chinese Parrot, legendary Japanese actor Sojin played Chan. No copies of this movie are thought to exist; although we know the plot revolves around a cursed pearl necklace, a bi-lingual parrot that can translate Chinese into English and a brief appearance by Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong as a dancer who gets murdered.
(Anna May Wong)
But it wasn’t until a Saturday morning cartoon premiered exactly 37 years ago this week on September 9, 1972, that an actor of Chinese descent finally played the iconic detective. The show was Hanna Barbera’s The Amazing Chan And The Chan Clan and Charlie Chan was voiced by veteran Chinese American actor Keye Luke who had previously played Chan’s #1 son in a series of films with Oland.
(Luke with Oland)
Although the series lasted only one season (16 episodes), it was a watershed moment for American TV. For the first time on a regular network cartoon, we were seeing an Asian family that shared more in common with Scooby Doo or The Archies than the stereotypical Charlie Chans we knew from the past.
Like most of the Saturday morning cartoons of the era, the premise was pretty simple. Mr. Chan (his first name was only referenced in one episode), his ten children and their dog Chu Chu traveled the world in their Chan van (which can magically transform into any vehicle—that was pretty awesome!) solving mysteries. That was pretty much the plot for every episode.
The show aired before my time, but I did watch it in reruns and I remember thinking how cool it was seeing faces that looked like mine. But what was even cooler was how progressive the children were. They didn’t speak with an accent—in fact, they were all “American” and pretty hip (the groovy 1970s outfits they wore are proof of that). The kids were also in a band called the Chan Clan and in every episode they would take the time to rock out to a song just like they did in Josie And The Pussycats or The Archies (in fact, the music was supervised by The Archies’ Don Kirshner).
What was also great was how developed the characters were. Each of the Chan children had a distinct personality: Henry was the mature leader, Stanley was the comic relief, Suzie was the sweet and sexy one, Tom was the brains, Alan was the inventor, Anne was the tomboy and so on. As simple as these cartoons were, these may still be some of the more three-dimensional Asian characters to appear on American TV, which is a sad statement on the medium.
In addition to Luke, The series also featured the voices of other recognizable Asian American performers including Robert Ito and Brian Tochi. Gold Key Comics released a comic book based on the series at the same time, but it ran for only four issues (I found and bought a near mint copy of one issue at a garage sale for only $1. Woo hoo!).
The series was by no means perfect. It suffered from the same redundant simplicity in both the quality of the animation and the storytelling as many other cartoons did back then. Mr. Chan still often spoke in that “fortune cookie Oriental” talk, although that was off-set somewhat by the American-ness of the children. And many of the Asian actors originally hired to voice the children were replaced by Caucasians—most notably, future multiple Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster who took over as the voice of wise-cracking tomboy daughter Anne Chan.
But how many television series, animated or not, can you name today that stars 11 Asian American characters (12 if you count the dog)? It’s still a groundbreaking show that deserves to be re-discovered by a new generation of Asian Americans. Here’s a suggestion: other Hanna Barbera cartoons like Scooby Doo and Josie And The Pussycats have been successfully brought back as live-action feature films. Maybe it’s time for someone to resurrect Mr. Chan and his amazing Chan Clan.
Following is the pilot episode entitled “Crown Jewel Caper” in two parts. The series was released on DVD in May as part of the Saturday Morning Cartoons 1970s Volume One box set.