guest post by Vivian Obarski
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about big media, it’s that they can’t resist taking an idea and beating it into the ground.
First there was the 2009 Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, which brought a nice pulpy edge to the consulting detective. Then there was the BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, set in a modern setting. Unlike the blockbuster movie, the BBC version is a bit more cerebral than the Ritchie version (not that there’s anything wrong with either takes — the beauty of Doyle’s work is that people have taken it so many different directions).
The only reaction I had to that news is a mix of complete lack of surprise and a confession:
I am Sherlock’d out. I am worn out of consulting detectives who can figure out what I had for breakfast, the age of my daughter, where I live and what kind of coffee I drink after a five minute meeting. I am worn out of prickly personalities with genius intellects who have weirdly co-dependent relationships with their best friends.
You know what I want? I want more diversity in my mysteries. For some reason, we keep getting stuck on having white folks solve mysteries. Who are mostly men. Case in point: Sherlock Holmes. House. Gil Grissom. Shawn Spencer.* Rick Castle.
Maybe it’s because I’m an Asian-American woman who’s grown up loving mysteries and private detectives. It’s in my blood — my paternal grandfather spent his time translating Mickey Spillane novels into Chinese and I was raised watching Mike Hammer with my father. I own both the Baring-Gould and Klinger annotated Sherlock Holmes books. If there’s a murder and guns involved, I’m probably going to love reading it.
There are others out there that deserve some attention. One such icon is full of racial baggage, but I think under the right hands and with the right showrunners, it could be an interesting take on turn of the century Hawaii, hard-boiled detective fun and a possible critique on race relations during the turn of the century and possibly even today.
That’s right. I’m talking Charlie Chan.
Not the mystical-gibberish speaking, mild-mannered Charlie Chan made famous by the Earl Derr Biggers novels, which then expanded to the movies and some really shameful examples of yellowface. What I’m talking about is the real Charlie Chan, Chang Apana, a member of the Honolulu police department.
The only Chinese member of the police force, Apana patrolled Chinatown, cracking cases related to opium smuggling and gambling. The dude was so badass that he carried a bullwhip around to deal with unruly suspects. He arrested 40 gamblers, armed only with his bullwhip. Hell, he was once thrown out of a second story window and landed on his feet.
Yes. He was so badass he landed on his feet.
It could be so interesting to watch visually. Instead of Hawaii 5-0, it’d be humid and historical. A bit of costume p0rn for people who love their Victorian suits and some rich history that most of us didn’t learn in school (for example, did you know there was a leper colony in Hawaii? I didn’t until recently) mixed with some hard-boiled detective action.
Instead of a soft, doughy Chinese man fond of spewing fortune cooking cliches, Charlie Chan would be a small, slight built man with a hot temper and a scar over his right eye from being attacked by a Japanese leper with a sickle. It’ll be a dangerous kind of sexy many people would be drawn to.
This guy would also have to be adept at bridging two worlds — the Chinese enclaves and the white world of his professional peers. He’d have to be personable, smart and wily enough to rise in ranks to detective. Maybe he used the stereotypes to his advantage, similar to how Columbo used the idea of a buffoon in a trench coat to get a confession out of a murderer .
It’s a chance to reclaim something that has been considered a black mark in the portrayal of Asian-American men. Hell, if the BBC can take Sherlock Holmes and make him modern and relevant, as opposed to a stuffy Victorian drawing room drama, why can’t we make Charlie Chan the detective Chang Apana was? In the right hands this would be rollicking good fun.
I know that there was once talk of Lucy Liu developing a modern-day version of Charlie Chan and making Charlie a woman instead of a man. To me, that’s not the same as attacking and dismantling the terrible legacy that those movies and books left behind.
But maybe that’s why people want to modernize it. They don’t want to deal with the legacy that Charlie Chan has left for many Asian-Americans. Maybe I’m expecting too much out of Hollywood and current mainstream media. After all, this is the same media that keeps rehashing Sherlock Holmes until eventually everyone — not just Doyle, who tried so long ago — is going to want to hurl the iconic detective off a waterfall.