Asian Characters in American Mysteries
As Asian writers embraced and worked within the originally Western genre of mystery fiction, American writers also imagined Asian detectives and villains with whom to fascinate, puzzle, delight, and shock their readers. When Earl Derr Biggers created his detective Charlie Chan, he based him in part on real-life Hawaiian detective Chang Apana (Chang Ah Ping). Similarly, John P. Marquand’s spy Mr. Moto had some roots in authentic Japanese characters, even though Moto’s Japanese-sounding name is an invention, not a real Japanese name. Because of their reliance on stereotypes, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto earned the scorn of later-generation Asian American critics such as Frank Chin, who hated Charlie Chan with a vengeance.
Matters were not helped by authors such as British-born Sax Rohmer, who created the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, whom contemporary American literary critics deconstructed as the embodiment of xenophobic anti-Asian resentment. At first Fu Manchu fought to expel Europeans from China, but after 1949 he took on the communists in China, changing from villain to hero.
Asian Americans also began to write crime fiction. Singapore-born Leslie Charteris, who had a Chinese father and a British mother and later became an American citizen, created Simon Templar, “the Saint.” Ironically, both Japanese sleuth Sano Ichir, active in late 1600’s Tokyo, and Japanese American amateur woman detective Rei Shimura were created by a Korean American, Laura Joh Rowland, and a half-British, half-Indian woman born in England who became a naturalized American, Sujata Massey (1964- ). Shanghai-born Qiu Xiaolong (1953- ), who came to the United States in 1988, created Inspector Cao Chen, a modern Chinese series character whose cases fascinate American readers with their penetrating, authentic probings of the deep social conflicts of Chinese society.