Charlie Chan in the movies
Charlie Chan in the movies
Charlie Chan in the movies

E verybody thinks they know Charlie Chan. He’s a caricature, a cliché, an inscrutable Asian who talks like a fortune-cookie. Isn’t he? No. He was created a hundred years ago by novelist Earl Derr Biggers, to challenge the stereotype of “yellow peril” villains. In Honolulu, he learned about a Chinese-Hawaiian policeman called Chang Apana; and thus inspired, he created a Chinese police detective who could straddle the white and non-white worlds of melting-pot Hawaii. Chan has an accent, and a calm but steely demeanor, and finds hints to solving his cases in ancient words of wisdom. He does not kowtow to any authority but the law. As Asian-studies Professor Peter Feng insists, wherever Chan is on the job, he is “always the smartest man in the room.”

Biggers wrote five Charlie Chan novels, but of the dozens of “Charlie Chan” films that were made, only two draw on plots that Biggers created. The first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, published in 1925, was filmed six years later. An early “talkie,” it starred a Japanese actor as Chan. But that film is lost: no print has survived.

When a notorious scoundrel is stabbed to death in his home on Waikiki Beach, suspicion falls on the people in his orbit. There’s his fun-loving sister; his angry, moralistic brother; his nephew, freshly arrived from Boston; his daughter, home from college, who’s in love with his lawyer; his neighbor, whom he refuses to talk to; his houseboy, found with stolen property; and his young but unfaithful sweetheart. It’s up to Charlie Chan to follow the clues and nail the killer.

Sherlock Holmes, played by Jake McPherson

I adapted The House Without a Key into a one-act stage play that runs about 75 minutes. It was produced in Hawaii, with a Chinese-Portuguese actor as Chan, and an ethnically appropriate supporting cast. The production script is for sale for $25. It is a .PDF file, which includes end-notes for music and sound-effects cues, props, and costumes.*

An email will be sent within two business days, giving the URL from which the script can be downloaded.

*If you intend to mount a production of The House Without a Key, please alert me in advance, by email. In our modern age of “color-blind” casting, this play must be an exception. It is no longer tolerable for a Caucasian actor to portray Chan in yellow-face makeup. If you produce my script, I must have your assurance that an actor of Asian ancestry will play the lead.

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