Monday, January 13, 2014

"Such stories have a tendency to create a bad impression of the Chinese people" Yee Gow Suen on A. E. Apple's Mr. Chang Crime Tales

In 1931, Yee Gow Suen of Dermott, Arkansas wrote a letter to Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine, one of the premier publishers of pulp crime fiction between the wars, complaining about the Mr. Chang stories of Detective Story Magazine mainstay writer A. E. Apple.  The letter was published in the January 2, 1932 issue:

jacket to one of the two
collections of Mr. Chang tales
published by Chelsea House
Street & Smith's publishing imprint
Dear Editor: There is not any doubt in my mind that Mr. Apple is a great writer.  But his imagination is too broad with the facts.  The things he describes in his hop-joint [a place where people gather to smoke opium-TPT] story are not true, because no such things exist in this country.  

Why does Mr. Apple always place a Chinese in a villain role, with a desire to trap an American girl? Such stories have a tendency to create a bad impression of the Chinese people.  His Rafferty stories are clean and great.

Your other authors are grand.  Tell them to keep up the good work.  Hope you will forward a copy of this letter to Mr. Apple, and also print it in the chat.  I am

"A Chinese Who Knows"

The editor did indeed forward Apple a copy of the letter, and Apple's reply was printed in the same issue.

Apple assured Suen that he knew many Chinese people and believed "them to be the most honest of races." He noted that he had introduced the character of Doctor Ling, a Chinese detective employed by "honest Chinese merchants" to pursue and "eliminate Mr. Chang as a blot on their race."

The villainous Mr. Chang, Apple asserted, merely "happened to be Chinese; no matter what other race he might have been, there would have been objections from that race."

Apple claimed "Mr. Chang just
happened to be Chinese...."
According to the publisher the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, which reprints a great deal of older crime fiction, Elmer Albert Apple (the initials of the first two names were transposed in his pseudonym) was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Toronto, Canada, where he married and had one child.  The family later moved to the district of Muskoka, Canada, where Apple did his writing "in a shed in the back of the house which he called the jail."

Apple ended the Mr. Chang series in 1931.  In his letter to Suen, Apple mentions having suffered from a "long illness."  In fact, he stopped writing entirely about this time, though he lived into the 1950s.

There is more on Apple and his fiction here, on the Battered Silicon Box website, which has reprinted his pulp fiction.

Suen thought Apple's "imagination
was too broad with the facts,"
resulting in stories that unjustly
portrayed Chinese people
The Mr. Chang series gets no less than four full pages of coverage in Bill Pronzini's classic survey of bad crime fiction, Gun in Cheek (1982).

Pronzini writes that the Mr. Chang stories overflow with "hilarious logic....insane coincidences, incredible situations, a crazy quilt of plot devices, Abbott and Costello characters, and a cathode-ray device 'resembling a three-circuit nonregenerative radio' that is capable of killing people at thirty feet, can be strapped on the back and used portably as long as the wearer carries a very long electrical cord with him, and is known among other appellations as the Crime Ray, the Death Ray and the Murder Machine."*

*(Gun in Cheek is not in print currently, but you can and should find a second hand copy)

The Mr. Chang stories are also discussed by Robert Sampson in Volume Three of his fascinating Yesterday's Faces (1987) series of volumes on crime fiction of the past.

Apple's Rafferty series, which Yee Gow Suen in contrast with the Chang tales enthusiastically praised as "clean and great," is about a character whom the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box designates as the "Raffles of Canada."

Today Demott, Arkansas, is a town of about 2800 people, about a four hours drive from Memphis, Tennessee.  It has been noted for having, back between the wars, a small but significant population of Jewish businesspeople.

It would be interesting to find out more about Yee Gow Suen, a Chinese-American who loved American pulp crime fiction but clearly not its racist aspect.  According to arkansasgravestones, he was born in 1903 and died in Dermott, where he and his wife owned a store, in 1991.  The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox (1996) mentions Dermott as one of the delta towns still having a Chinese grocery in the 1990s.  For more on this subject, see this interesting article, "Mississippi Bok Choy: Telling the Stories of Chinese American Groceries in the South."


  1. Good heavens! I have both of the Mr. Chang novels from Chelsea House (the book publishing arm of Street & Smith) and they were on my To Be Reviewed list for 2014. We really *must* stop doing this to each other, Mr. Evans. Really! You're not planning on writing up the Ashton-Kirk books anytime soon, are you? Hmm... I better jump on those soon.

  2. The book are all yours, John! Just think of this as an appetizer for your main course. I can't wait to hear what you have to say.

  3. Fascinating Curt - never read any of the stories but great to see that the debate about the depiction of Asian American was already being had even in the pulps.

    1. Thanks, Sergio. Yes, it was great to see the perspective of a contemporary Chinese-American pulp fiction fan.

  4. Yee Gow Suen was my grandfather. Never got to meet him, but he and his wife immigrated to Dermott after working on the railroad for a number of years. His children and their children (including me) and their children are spread out around the country, including Hawaii, California, Texas, Tennessee and many still remaining in Arkansas.

    1. Brennan, that's so interesting, thanks a lot for commenting. I was wondering how your grandfather came to Arkansas. So he was connected with the railroad initially....