Asian Americans are typically lodged between the twin racist stereotypes of “model minority” and “yellow peril” in a way that makes their experience uniquely discriminatory and lamentable. Hanna-Barbera’s Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan bravely attempted to shatter these racist tropes. The television show’s effectiveness and its limits precisely mirror those of the character of Charlie Chan himself, an ambiguous American creation.
The strategy of Amazing Chan is ingenious: create a kids’ mystery adventure show that follows an entirely familiar style and rhythm, and then cast it with exclusively and explicitly Asian protagonists, all of whom act, talk, and sing, just like white folks.
Figure 1: Ten kids and a dog, with the Amazing Chan all on his own; that makes the Brady Bunch look pretty lame.
Amazing Chan imagines Charlie Chan, that famous 1930s detective, back in action in contemporary 1972, solving jewel heists, foiling dognappings, and rescuing kidnapped baseball stars. He does so while dragging his children, aged from 6 to 18, in tow. The kids snoop around, get into car chases, and often make things worse for their father, but are irrepressible, energetic, and imaginative. There is no sign of their mother.
With each episode clocking in at thirty minutes, things move fast and follow a formula any child of the era would recognize. Something weird happens, an investigation ensues, the kids get into a jam, they are pursued to the sound of a pop song, and the mystery is resolved with a “big reveal” of the villain – typically someone we have met earlier in the episode. The show is enlivened somewhat by an ingenious transforming van (pre-dating 1974’s Hong Kong Phooey) and a clever dog, Chu Chu. Frankly, this is pretty dull stuff by contemporary standards and not especially notable for its plot or pacing. The obligatory laugh track is especially off-putting. Today’s kids probably would be bored.
Figure 2: Taking the wheel of the Chan Van, Henry Chan leads the gang into adventure.
What sets the show apart is simply the enormity of its cast – no fewer than ten children! – and their clearly ethnic heritage. By smoothly inserting an Americanized Charlie Chan and his family into the familiar Scooby Doo model, Hanna-Barbera Productions was making a statement.
Diversifying the Scooby School
This kind of show was ubiquitous in the era, after all, but otherwise almost exclusively white. The incredible success of Scooby Doo, a franchise starting with Scooby Doo, Where Are You! in 1969 (and still alive today), coupled with the relative cheapness of its production, made it an easy formula to replicate over and over. And as the Saturday morning lineup began to be the established territory of cheap kids shows and breakfast cereal advertising, from 1970 to the early 1980s, a spate of shows from the “Scooby School” proliferated.
Figure 3: The Chan Clan are lifted right out of the Josie and the Pussycats playbook (are those Alexander Cabot’s glasses?), but with a difference… can you see it?
Hanna-Barbera studios alone produced at least a half dozen shows in this model during the 1970s, including Funky Phantom (1971), Speed Buggy (1973), Goober And The Ghost Chasers (1973-1975), Clue Club (1976-1977), and the unforgettable Josie and the Pussycats (1970-1971), followed by Pussycats in Outer Space (1972-1973), as well as variants like Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-1980). While varying in style and including unique characters, these are effectively the same program.
Notably, moreover, in all of these shows, the characters are almost exclusively white. Only the black characters of Dee Dee Skyes (from Caveman) and Valerie (tambourine player of the Pussycats) provide any sign of a non-white world.
Chan Clan enters the genre with a huge cast of Asian-appearing kids, albeit ones who are entirely Americanized, without a hint of an accent. Voices for the cast mostly came from white television actors (like Gene Adrusco, a veteran of Bewitched and other 1960s programs) and rising child stars (Jodie Foster as Anne Chan!).
Figure 4: Yes, that’s the voice of Jodie Foster as Anne Chan, the guitar-playing, baseball-wielding tomboy.
The Chan kids even have a fully American rock band (like those of many Scooby Shows); imagine The Partridge Family or the Pussycats, but drawn with slightly yellow skin tone. Indeed, The Chan Clan sound just like the Archies and the Monkees – precisely because their sound was produced by none other than Don Kirshner, who had previously produced both those pre-fab pop acts. The Chan band’s lead voice, moreover, was singer Ron Dante, the singer of the Archies. This is pretty white territory.
Figure 5: Is that Scooby Doo‘s Daphne or Mary Tyler Moore? Neither; Suzie Chan played a mean tambourine.
And yet clearly not white. The patriarch of the family retains a familiar accent. Charlie Chan is here voiced by Keye Luke, the actor who originally played Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son” Henry back in the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s, though Henry, as second-generation migrant, had no accent. This casting is notable insofar as that makes him the first Chinese person to actually play Charlie Chan, who had otherwise been styled by white actors in bad makeup. The script eschews Chan’s notoriously broken English grammar, but Luke maintains the character’s distinctive accent.
And the kids look unmistakably of Asian heritage.
Figure 6: Don’t catch the Amazing Chan and his brood on a bad day; these detectives are tough. Who’s the white lady? Probably a criminal!
This setup is interesting and definitely reflects a deliberate urge to diversify Saturday Morning television, without roiling the waters too much. Writer Sid Morse penned a number of episodes of Amazing Chan, just before a stint writing for The Secrets of Isis, another effort to diversify Saturday kids television.
Even so, choosing Charlie Chan as the lead protagonist necessarily carries with it some heavy baggage.
The Enigma of Charlie Chan
This is because Chan’s character has always walked a narrow line between the hackneyed tropes of the “mysterious East” and the fully American Chandleresque gumshoe of the pre-noire era.
For those old enough to remember, the original Charlie Chan character, created by Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920s, solved crimes in Honolulu, using Holmesian logic and a deep perception of human character. But as an Asian, he spoke in broken English and fell back on echoes of “ancient wisdom”, constantly talking like a fortune cookie.
Figure 7: Keye Luke (right) playing the “Number One Son” to Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan in “Charlie Chan in Paris” (1935)
The film adaptations of the 1930s are littered with racist caricature, moreover, including the appearance of the notorious Stepin Fetchit in at least one production (Charlie Chan in Egypt – 1935). In this way, Charlie Chan resembles the character of Mr. Moto, or even the sinister Fu Manchu, by playing to the worst of white audience expectations.
And yet, the particulars of Charlie Chan also elude simple diagnosis as racist caricature. Remarkably, the character of Chan was inspired by an actual Chinese-born Honolulu police detective, Chang Apana, who busted up rackets and carried a bullwhip on the beat (see Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang for incredible details).
Biggers’ Chan really is the smartest guy in the room, and executes his investigations by luring – Colombo-like – his enemies to underestimate him. Biggers created a character who periodically humiliated his white opponents and onlookers, simply by succeeding in the face of their racist expectations. Charlie Chan was wildly popular in China before the revolution and stands as a point of pride for many Asian Americans.
Figure 8: Falsely accused of burglary, Charlie Chan and his kids investigate the mystery; needless to say, white police power gets some needed come-uppance.
It is this ambivalence that makes Chan an interesting target for Hannah Barbara’s efforts to diversify children’s programming. And it explains, in part, why Amazing Chan would drag a dated and long disused American chestnut out of retirement to make a contemporary kids show. Charlie Chan is, after all, an Asian many Americans felt comfortable with, liked, and trusted; Chan is unthreatening. All the while, Chan’s ability to subvert Anglo-dominance in a genre replete with tough white detectives makes him a challenge to the worst of white expectations. Chan mounts that challenge, however, by occupying and replicating some regrettable Orientalist habits.
And so it would be for Saturday Morning kids. Through Amazing Chan, kids were invited to discover a way out of the lily-white cartoon world of the era. But the reminder of problematic stereotypes would subtly persist, in the person of Charlie Chan himself.
Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan is, on balance, a laudable effort. It may not hold the interest of today’s children but a re-viewing reminds you of how daring it could be to write for Saturday morning.
My experience of the show: Good
Chances Alexander will enjoy this cartoon: Poor
Wow. I don’t know that I remember this show. The Charlie Chan movies were played often on Channel2 (our local nonnetwork station) but I don’t recall this cartoon.