NPR considers giving Charlie Chan a second chance:
Depending on your cultural politics, you’ll find the following scene from the 1934 film Charlie Chan in London either charming or wince-making: Our venerable detective is being congratulated by a British official for his cleverness in discovering the true identity of a dastardly criminal. The actor who played Charlie Chan in that and 40 other films was Warner Oland; like Sidney Toler, the actor who succeeded him in the role, Oland was Caucasian — Swedish, in fact! But, to Hollywood, Oland looked vaguely Asiatic. To play Chan, Oland merely brushed his eyebrows up and had a few drinks to make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth. Offensive, right?
But, before we condemn Oland’s “Yellowface” incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film. (After all, compared with the venal Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero.) The nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland’s Chinese screen mannerisms and speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing — or dismaying.