Those who have an interest in the meanings behind the Charlie Chan films are cordially invited to take a look at my December 31, 2001/January 7, 2002 article on the topic in the Weekly Standard. Subscribers and potential subscribers can read it here, and others may read a longer version of it here. The article explains why so many politically motivated persons have taken such an intense dislike toward this exemplary character, and it shows the rich layers of meaning we can find in seemingly simple genre fiction. For example:
In his best films, Charlie is an almost ideal human being, in terms of personal character: wise, calm, observant, humble, polite, patient, affectionate, and generous, but also, when necessary, crafty, devious, and merciless. He frequently uses subterfuge to trick the killer into revealing his or her guilt, as in Charlie Chan at the Circus, where he sets up a fake operation on an injured circus performer to lure the murderer into trying to finish the job. Comedy helps the films avoid sappiness. Near the beginning of Charlie Chan in Egypt, we see the great detective awkwardly riding a donkey and unceremoniously falling off. In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940), Jimmy Chan, mistaking his father for a wax figure, kicks Charlie in the backside.
Chan’s great knowledge and wisdom are, of course, at the center of the narratives. It is Charlie, after all, who solves all the mysteries, through the most ingenious insights the writers can devise. In Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), he figures out that two horses have been switched when he observes how the stable boy’s pet monkey reacts to them. In that same film, he deduces that a man claiming to have received an anonymous threatening note actually wrote it himself, because he does not use his glasses to read it and thus must already be aware of its contents.
As befits a successful police detective, Chan is highly observant. When he walks into a bank in Charlie Chan in Paris, his eyes rove as if by long-ingrained habit, examining everything, and he even checks his watch against the bank’s clock. "You’ve certainly got an eye for detail," says a man helping him later in that film, to which Chan sagely replies, "Grain of sand in eye can hide mountain." He is adept with the use of technology, saying, "Good tools shorten labor," in Charlie Chan at the Circus, but he is not overly dependent on it. His detection techniques blend both ancient and modern ways of thinking, a major theme of one of the earliest and best of the films, Charlie Chan in Egypt.
Also of great value in Chan’s work is his remarkable patience. He always takes his time in following the evidence and deducing its meaning, whereas the other police, and Charlie’s well-meaning sons, inevitably rush around trying to do everything too quickly, jumping to absurd conclusions. Charlie observes patiently until he has enough facts to draw valid inferences: "Theory like mist on eyeglasses – obscures facts," he says in Charlie Chan in Egypt. In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, he says, "Suspicion is only toy of fools."
This composure clearly flows from the character’s great humility. When a dignitary raises a toast to him in Charlie Chan in London, saying, "To the greatest detective in the world!" Chan demurs: "Not very good detective, just lucky old Chinaman." In that same film, a British policeman repeatedly calls him Chang, but Chan seems to take no notice of it. In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, he is forced into a public debate with a celebrated criminology professor, and when his opponent continually brags – "I have a photographic memory!" – and insists on taking the seat reserved for Chan – Charlie does not respond in kind. "Kindness in heart better than gold in bank," the detective says in Charlie Chan in Paris.
Such selflessness affords Chan an extraordinary but undemonstrative courage. In Charlie Chan at the Circus, Lee says, "It’s kind of creepy here in [the murder victim’s] room," to which his father replies, "Then recommend you brush teeth, say prayers, and go to bed." After an attempt on his life shortly thereafter, Chan tells Lee that they can go back to sleep: "Enemy who misses mark, like serpent, must coil to strike again." When Chan receives warnings that his life is in danger, as in Charlie Chan in Shanghai and Charlie Chan in Paris, he persists in seeking the truth, and he frequently enters dangerous situations – cursed Egyptian tombs, forbidding ghost towns, the Paris sewers, etc. – without trepidation.
Chan’s humility also makes him a model for the virtues of bourgeois conventionality and self-control. Short and plump, soft-spoken, always well-groomed and well-dressed but never ostentatious, Chan typically wears simple dark suits or plain white suits befitting his tropical home. He invariably says "please" and "thank you" when making even the most minor requests, often rather comically, as when he asks, "If you will honor other room with your presence?" in Charlie Chan in London. He neither smokes nor drinks, and he always shares his money with the poor: "Is always good fortune to give alms upon entering city," he says in Charlie Chan in Paris.…
Hence, ironically for a man of Chinese descent, Chan not only works to strengthen the Western, Christian, bourgeois moral order but, perhaps equally important, he exemplifies it.