Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers, who acknowledged that he was inspired by the career of Honolulu policeman Chang Apana. Chan is the hero of a number of books and dozens of movies. A detective in the Honolulu Police Department, he and his wife have a very large family of children (the oldest of whom is colloquially known as "Number One Son") and live in a house on Punchbowl Hill. He is a large man but moves gracefully, and is known when asked in the Warner Oland films, to not have a strong drink, but a sarsaparilla instead.

Chan was born in China and immigrated to Hawaii when very young. He is a faithful husband and proud patriarch of a "multitudinous family" of fourteen children. His character is portrayed as kindly, insightful and wise, as well as a dispenser of appropriate aphorisms, such as "Ancient Chinese philosopher say, 'Hope is sunshine which illuminate darkest path'" (Charlie Chan at the Olympics). Identified in early stories as a sergeant, he was quickly promoted and known afterward as Lieutenant or Inspector. In later films, he is often seen working as a special agent for the U.S. government, and toward the end of the run is portrayed as being in private practice based in San Francisco. During the course of the series he traveled to over two dozen cities and five continents and is mentioned as having worked on a case in Australia.

Appearing in more than three dozen films from the silent era to the late 1940s, Chan outlasted many imitators and competitors rising to the ranks of the greatest movie investigators to stand alongside Sherlock Holmes, Nick Charles, and Sam Spade. However, Chan is also the subject of a great deal of controversy, with some calling him an offensive caricature or stereotype.

Charlie Chan appeared in six novels by Earl Derr Biggers, published from 1925 to 1932.

* The House Without a Key (1925)
* The Chinese Parrot (1926)
* Behind That Curtain (1928)
* The Black Camel (1929)
* Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
* Keeper of the Keys (1932)

Film adaptations

Pathe Studios produced The House without a Key in 1926 (with George Kuwa as Chan), and a year later Universal followed with The Chinese Parrot (with Sojin as Chan). These first two film adaptations of the Chan novels are both lost.

The film rights acquisition of the Chan novels by Fox Film Corporation was to prove enduringly popular and profitable for the studio. The series at Fox began with Behind That Curtain in 1929, effectively a Somerset Maugham-like melodrama about love among the colonial classes that included E.L. Park in a very small supporting role as Chan. But the true breakthrough came with the next adaptation, 1931's Charlie Chan Carries On,produced by Sol M. Wurtzel , this time with Warner Oland as Chan. Oland starred in a further fifteen Chan movies at Fox, up to the time of his death, after which the mantle passed to Sidney Toler. By this time, Fox had merged and been succeeded by 20th Century Fox, which produced eleven more Charlie Chan films through 1942. Toler then bought the screen rights himself, and arranged a new series for Monogram Pictures in 1944. Monogram made another eleven Chan films starring Toler and then six starring Roland Winters after Toler's death. The progression of Chan films from Oland to Toler (under the two incarnations of Fox), and especially to Monogram's films (whether with Toler or Winters), involved lower budgets and variable scripts, and generally less modern respect.


On radio, Charlie Chan was heard in different series on four networks (Blue, NBC. ABC, MBS) between the years 1932 and 1948. Walter Connolly initially portrayed Chan as part of Esso Oil's Five Star Theater, which serialized adaptations of Biggers novels.

Ed Begley Sr. had the title role in NBC's The Adventures of Charlie Chan with Leon Janney as Number One Son. Radio Life magazine described Begley's Chan as "a good radio match for Sidney Toler's beloved film enactment.

Comics, games and spinoffs

A Charlie Chan comic strip drawn by Alfred Andriola was syndicated by the McNaught Syndicate from 1938 to 1942. There was also The Great Charlie Chan Detective Mystery Game (1937) - a board game, and the Charlie Chan Card Game (1939).

Over the years several Charlie Chan comic books have also been published first by Prize Comics (5 issues, 1948), which later moved to Charlton Comics (4 issues, 1955). DC Comics published a title (The New Adventures of Charlie Chan) that tied in with the new TV show and lasted 6 issues in 1958. Later, Dell Comics did the title for 2 issues in 1965. In the 1970s, Gold Key Comics published a short-lived series of Chan comics based directly on the Hanna-Barbera animated series mentioned below.

In 1957-1958, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, starring J. Carrol Naish in the title role, were made independently for TV syndication in a series of 39 episodes, by Television Programs of America. The series being filmed in England.

The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, an animated series made in the 1970s by Hanna-Barbera Productions and starring former Chan co-star Keye Luke, was noteworthy because, firstly, it was the only occasion on which Charlie Chan has been played by an actor of Chinese descent. (Two Charlie Chan films made in the 1920s had starred Japanese actors; and several of the Chan sons had been played by Chinese American actors in the later movies, including Keye Luke as the eldest son, Sen Yung (later Victor Sen Young) as son #2, Benson Fong as son #3, Keye Luke's brother, Edwin Luke, as son #4, and Layne Tom Jr. as Charlie Chan Jr.) Secondly, the series featured future Oscar winner Jodie Foster, who provided the voice of Anne Chan, Charlie Chan's pre-teen tomboy daughter.

Two offbeat Chan films appeared to little fanfare years after the main canon. The Return of Charlie Chan in 1973 was a made-for-TV film starring Ross Martin. It had a challenging plot, but was otherwise unengaging. Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen in 1981, was a theatrical feature starring Peter Ustinov, Angie Dickinson, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Apparently intended as a satire, it was not seen as a comic success, although critics noted its visual appeal.

The character of Chan was parodied in the 1976 comedy film Murder by Death, featuring Peter Sellers made-up as "Sidney Wang" in elaborate Chinese costume and using heavily affected speech.

Controversy and criticism

The pre-1950 film character exhibited many traits considered to be honorable by Americans in the 1950s, including: intelligence, stalwartness, kindness, responsibility, and heroism in the pursuit of usually white villains who were able to outwit the police or government establishments which hired him. During this time as well as later, the films have come under criticism from at least one group concerned with Asian-Americans, on the grounds that Chan was played only by white actors in makeup rather than by any performer of Chinese or Asian heritage. Thus, the portrayal of Chan by white actors has been likened to blackface films and has been referred to as yellowface.

Some feel that the Chan films of the 1930s and '40s both created and perpetuated Asian racial stereotypes. Critics make the objection that the negative caricature of Charlie Chan has at least as much of an effect on the audience as do his positive traits. The National Asian American Telecommunications Association called Chan "one of the most offensive Asian caricatures of America's cinematic past."[1] The thesis that the Chan pictures are "demeaning to the race" was disputed by Keye Luke, himself an Asian-American who appeared in many of the Chan films: "Demeaning to the race? My God! You've got a Chinese hero!"

The portrayal of the black sidekicks and servants of the Chan family in some of the movies has also been controversial. These characters, however, were a popular and recurring fixture in the Chan films, particularly the character of Birmingham Brown, portrayed by the inventive comedian Mantan Moreland.

In 2003, the Fox Movie Channel discontinued a planned Charlie Chan Festival, soon after beginning restoration for special cablecasting, after a special interest group protested. (And to which Charlie Chan fans protested hotly.)

After a lengthy delay, Fox finally began releasing these restored versions on DVD in 2006; as of mid 2008, Fox has released all of the extant Warner Oland titles and has begun issuing the Sidney Toler series. The first six Monogram productions, all starring Sidney Toler, were released by MGM in 2004 and found a ready audience despite their humble reputations. The films, when broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel, were followed by round table discussions by prominent Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry, led by George Takei. Curiously enough Mr. Takei has himself done voice over work in cartoons such as Disney's "Kim Possible", playing a Chinese wise man stereotype.

In 1993, author Jessica Hagedorn edited a compilation of Asian American literature, titled "Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction." The appellation was a contemporary response to pervasive Asian-American stereotypes.



* The House Without a Key (1925)
* The Chinese Parrot (1926)
* Behind That Curtain (1928)
* The Black Camel (1929)
* Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
* Keeper of the Keys (1932)

By others

* Charlie Chan Returns (1974) by Dennis Lynds, a novelization of the TV film
* Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981) by Michael Avallone, a novelization of the film.
* Charlie Chan in the Pawns of Death by Bill Pronzini
* Charlie Chan in The Temple of the Golden Horde by Michael Collins


Early Chan films

* The House Without a Key (1926) (considered lost)
* The Chinese Parrot (1927) (considered lost)
* Behind That Curtain (1929)

With Warner Oland

* Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) (considered lost)
* The Black Camel (1931)
* Charlie Chan's Chance (1932) (considered lost)
* Charlie Chan's Greatest Case (1933) (considered lost)
* Charlie Chan's Courage (1934) (considered lost)
* Charlie Chan in London (1934)
* Charlie Chan In Paris (1935)
* Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)
* Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)
* Charlie Chan's Secret (1936)
* Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
* Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)
* Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)
* Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
* Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)
* Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938)

With Sidney Toler

* Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)
* Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)
* Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)
* City in Darkness (1939)
* Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (1940)
* Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)
* Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)
* Murder Over New York (1940)
* Dead Men Tell (1941)
* Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)
* Castle in the Desert (1942)
* Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)
* The Chinese Cat (1944)
* Black Magic (1944, later retitled Meeting at Midnight)
* The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
* The Red Dragon (1945)
* The Scarlet Clue (1945)
* The Jade Mask (1945)
* Dangerous Money (1946)
* Dark Alibi (1946)
* Shadows over Chinatown (1946)
* The Trap (1946)

With Roland Winters

* The Chinese Ring (1947)
* Docks of New Orleans (1948)
* Shanghai Chest (1948)
* The Golden Eye (1948)
* The Feathered Serpent (1948)
* Sky Dragon (1949)

With Peter Ustinov

* Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)