Searching for Charlie Chan

For “Katie” and for Corrigan Hayward Neralich, my own Chan – never stop searching, my son

Just over two decades ago, I found myself in a Chinese cemetery in Hawaii, partly because one of my uncles had given me an incense burner in the shape of a red dragon on my tenth birthday.

That is a complicated beginning for a posting,
and that’s the point of it: the unexpected and mysterious ways in which we become and discover who we are. I asked questions about the dragon which my family could not answer, and so I went to the library, where my researches led me to books about China, and I began my love affair with its culture.

warner-olandBuddhists accept the reality of karma, and so they would say that, as I searched among the stacks, I was destined to find the detective fiction of Earl Derr Biggers. A few months later, I began watching the movie versions of his novels that featured the wonderful Warner Oland playing Charlie Chan, and that’s why I became an Asian studies teacher, though I first had to be confounded among oriental tombstones. Is that clear?

I am a bookish man; my college degrees are in history and literature. I have an abiding faith in the ability of reason to unwind nearly every raveled mystery, and I have an equally strong belief in the power of language to explain most of the world. One of my philosophy teachers once declared that if he knew all the facts, he could solve any problem. This man convinced me that a rigorously logical approach to questions would almost inevitably bring successful results, and perhaps that explains why I and so many other people adore detective fiction, since it affirms that we are, finally, rational beings who can untangle the knots of chaos that occasionally threaten to constrict our ambitions and joys.

To some extent, I still hold this comforting view of things, though it has been tempered by my visit to a cemetery.

changapanaOne day, as I sat in my study in the hills above Waikiki, I decided that it would be an appropriate tribute to Biggers and, more importantly, a fitting honor to the man who inspired his novels, if I were to burn some incense at the gravesite of Chang Apana, the Honolulu detective who solved a series of notorious crimes during the 1920s.

By the time I arrived in Hawaii, I had studied Buddhism, though mostly through books, and I knew about the famed “koan” of the Zen sect – the word puzzle that a teacher gives to his student in order to help him break his enthrallment by reason and language and experience enlightenment.

I had found a Buddhist teacher in Hawaii, though I was a poor student, and when I told him of my plans to locate Chang Apana’s grave with the help of a map and a guide, he said, “What makes you think that everything is on your map? You are burdened with too many facts to realize your goal.”

He was always saying things like “You must seek to comprehend the whole and not merely analyze the parts,” and “Who is it that is doing the seeking?,” but, as I already stated, I was a notably incompetent disciple and rarely understood him.

chang-apana-cemetaryDetective Chang was buried in a Chinese cemetery located in the lovely Manoa valley, and I set off with my guide early in the morning of a typically beautiful Hawaiian day. She was a woman of great resolve who had lived in the islands for years. One of her friends had told her the approximate location of Apana’s resting place. “We will definitely find him,” she said, and her conviction was contagious. A small dragon, carved of red stone, greeted us on the threshhold of the graveyard, and, after consulting our map, we entered the gate and set out in search of Charlie Chan.

But despite our map and our systematic search, we met with no success. Biggers once said that if you understood a man’s character, you can predict what he is apt to do in any set of circumstances, but he was wrong. After a long morning of fruitless questing, my open-natured, unflaggingly cheerful guide suddenly became inscrutable; she refused to talk about Charlie Chan, and soon she lapsed into sullen silence.

We took a break, and I began questioning my presence among the dead. What had led me here? As I traced my route backward – through libraries and red dragons and time – things became less and less clear, my track more and more uncertain. My confidence in many things had been shaken; in the course of a few hours, I had become a far less arrogant man.

Naturally, given my own character, I was frustrated and angry, but then I experienced something so unexpected that it would have surprised Biggers as much as it startled me: I started to laugh.

And I laughed for a long time – so long, in fact, that my guide joined me, regaining her usual good humor. I laughed, truly, at the mad perfection of it all: a German-Slavic man and a Japanese-English woman searching for the grave of a Chinese-Hawaiian detective whose character was portrayed in films by a Swedish actor. What a quest! I could hear Buddha laughing with us.

Happy to have moved beyond the need for success, we abandoned our search, sat down amid flowers and tombstones, and ate our lunch. An invigorating breeze swept down the valley, and we rested, content in our failure, experiencing a moment that was utterly complete; for a glorious hour, the world and I were whole, and there was nothing to seek. “We can return some other day,” said my sweet-natured, ever-optimistic guide. But we never did.

The great detective, who had solved so many mysteries, eluded me – as so many other things have frustrated my best efforts to investigate them. As we left the cemetery, I paused, lit incense, placed it at the gate, and bowed. The wind carried the smoke across the tombs – and back, far back, in my memory.

We walked home slowly and without speaking, as I pondered the meaning of my day. I had not found Charlie Chan, but surely I had discovered something. My philosophy teacher had not been altogether right in his rationalist faith, for despite having the facts, I had encountered an intractable problem; as my Buddhist teacher never tired of saying, some mysteries in life are not to be solved but to be experienced – beyond libraries, books, and words. I had found my koan – and it was me. I had not been enlightened, but I did feel lighter, having been unburdened of the delusion that I could know and explain everything. My head was filled with delightful confusion, and I could hardly recall my own name.

The next day I visited my Buddhist teacher, and he asked me about my quest. I told him that I had failed, and he shouted, “How marvelous! Let us drink some wine to celebrate your success.” He filled two large glasses, and, as I lifted mine, I offered a silent toast to red dragons, oriental detectives, and writers and seekers of all kinds; then I drank deeply. The wine was sweet.

I no longer live in Hawaii, but I became a better student there, and I remember well my lesson in the cemetery. I continue to teach my own students about the value of reason and the importance of clear language, though I am always careful to suggest that there are experiences that lie beyond the boundaries of ideas and words.

Sometimes, watching their happy, intelligent, totally confident faces, I wonder about what life has in store for them. What books, movies, people, and distant horizons will call them out of the clear and simple certainties of youth and into their complex and ambiguous destinies? When and how will each of them encounter the true nature of his or her identity? But I know better than to ponder such thinbgs too precisely. They will eventually begin searching, as we all do, in various ways and in various places. From time to time, I still look for Charlie Chan, but not among tombstones. I find a clue and set out on his trail, even though I know that I will never find him. How marvelous!

This posting was originally published as an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. dougalMany years after we had left Hawaii, my Number Two son (shown above) returned to the Chinese cemetery in order to look for the grave of Chang Apana. His quest was as fruitless as my own. Again – how marvelous!

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