Sunday, August 15, 2010

Charlie Chan Actor Warner Oland Not Mongolian, Say Wikipedia

When my mom was pregnant with her third child, my dad loved it when people asked if they were expecting a boy or a girl. "Well" he'd answer with a twinkle in his eye. "They say one of every 3 children born in the world are Chinese, so for our third child, that's what we're expecting!"

My parents were Swedish. My father was born in Gary, Indiana, but grew up in northern Sweden; my mother was born in Sweden and her mother was a Lapp, or Saami. After his retirement, my father became very interested in genealogy, and he traced his ancestors and relatives, almost 10,000 of them. Since about the year 1400 Sweden has done a very good job of recording births and deaths in church records, and since people didn't move around much, it's not hard for us to trace people. In the farming villages where my parents came from, everybody is related to everybody else.

I've inherited my dad's database and I've put it online. Doing so has has put me in touch with a fascinating variety of distant cousins. Among my distant relatives was the actor Warner Oland, who became famous for portraying Charlie Chan in Hollywood movies. Warner Oland, whose real name was Johan Verner Ölund, was a third cousin to my father's mother. My father noted in his database that he remembered when Warner Oland came to their village by car and met my grandparents. It must have been the same year Warner Oland died, 1938.

Naturally, I pay attention whenever Oland in mentioned in the media. Over the last week, I've read articles in the New Yorker and in the New York Times about a new book by UCSB English Professor Yunte Huang. The book is entitled Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History; it tells the story of the "real" Charlie Chan, a detective in Honolulu, Hollywood's portrayal of Charlie Chan, and Huang's own story as a chinese immigrant in America. A significant part of the book recounts the odd story of how a Swedish actor came to portray the quintessential Chinese detective.

When I read the New Yorker article, I immediately put the book on my "must read" list. (Unfortunately, it's not available as an ebook, and is sold out of my local bookstores!) But one sentence of the New Yorker review, written by Harvard history professor Jill Lapore, stuck out for me:
Oland, born in Sweden in 1880, had, beginning in 1917, specialized in playing Oriental villains, including Dr. Fu Manchu. (Oland's mother was Russian, and he had slavic features.)
Oland's mother was NOT Russian. Oland's mother was my grandmother's third cousin. His father was a 5th cousin to my grandmother. The Swedish genealogist Sven-Erik Johansson has specialized in the digitization of the church records in the region of northern Sweden where Oland and my grandparents came from and has published an ancestor chart for Warner Oland going back 5 generations. None of those ancestors come from Russia. To top it off, Warner Oland was born in 1879, not 1880 as reported in the New Yorker.

So where did the idea that Oland had a Russian mother come from? Doesn't the New Yorker have fact checkers? I went to Wikipedia to find out. The Wikipedia article said that "His mother was Russian of Mongolian descent.", referencing a "page not found" Internet Movie Database (IMDB) article. I refound that article, which says:
He didn't need make-up when he played Charlie Chan; all he would do is curl down his moustache and curl up his eyebrows. In fact, the Chinese often mistook him for one of their own countrymen. He attributed this to the fact that his Russian grandmother was of Mongolian descent.
So IMDB says it's his grandmother who's Russian and of "Mongolian descent"; the key thing to note is the attribution. I immediately edited the Wikipedia article to omit to spurious information. A day later, a wikipedian had put back the Mongolian bit, but more accurately worded as being something Oland said. A proper reference, to a book by Ken Hanke, Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism (Google Books, Amazon) had been added. That book says:
"Even before the role of Charlie Chan came his way, Oland was a frequent onscreen Oriental, despite the fact that he was born in Sweden to a mixture of Swedish and Russian Parents. Physically, he had an exotic look to begin with, and the addition of an Oriental-style mustache and beard made the transformation complete. "I owe my Chinese appearance to the Mongol invasion," he once told Keye Luke. "That's true," Luke agrees, "because the Mongols did get up there around Sweden and Finland and naturally sired some children, and so, he said, 'I come by it naturally.' And, his whole family looked like that." There was never any need for elaborate make-up. "All he did," explains Luke. "was put that little goatee on his chin. Otherwise, he had his own mustache. Everything was just like that. No make-up. It's just amazing."
At this point, I must make an observation. Please look at the photo and decide for yourself. As far as I can judge, Warner Oland didn't look the least bit Oriental. He looked like most everyone else living in that area of northern Sweden would look if they put on a smudge of eyebrow makeup. But the resemblance to that Chinese detective in the movies is uncanny!

There is, however, a story I remember my dad telling about a deserter from the Russian army. (The Russians burned down the closest city, Umeå, in a war in 1720.) It was said that this deserter hid in the woods or disguised himself as one of the locals. The way my dad told it, it was quite a scandal, even 200 years later. So maybe Warner Oland was joking when he said his mother was "Russian". In any case, the mysterious Russian in my family does not appear in the church records!

If Oland really had exotic features, it's much more likely he got them from a source other than a stray Mongolian. The closest the Mongols got to northern Sweden was Lithuania. In the area where Oland's family originated, the ethnic mix was dominated by Finns, Swedes, and Saami.

Take a look at a photo of my mother's cousin (unrelated to Oland), a pure Saami. With a bit of make-up (and some acting talent), she would have easily been able to play a Chinese woman. The Saami look quite different from the Finns and the Swedes. They are an indigenous people of Scandinavia, and no one really knows where they came from. Though their language is related to Finnish, they are not genetically related to the Finns. A recent DNA study (PDF, 399KB) published in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggests that they are related to the Berbers of northern Africa. It may well be that Oland thought they might be related to the Mongols.

There's another interpretation of Oland's references to his "Mongolian" blood. In his time, children with Down's syndrome were referred to as "Mongoloid". In the 19th century, Down's syndrome was regarded as an expression of genetic "degeneration" toward the inferior "Mongoloid" races. It could well be that jokes about Mongolian ancestry reflected a belief that cases of Down's Syndrome were a result of racial contamination. My father's database shows many examples of women with large families bearing children into their 40's; his own familiy of 11 included one Down's child.

So it seems likely that Warner Oland's statements about his ancestry were either inventions or jests. What's interesting to me is how this truth is constructed. It's not hard for people to look at the evidence now available and decide that a genealogist working with church records is probably more reliable than a co-star's recollection of an actor's constructed persona with regard to Oland's ancestry. Yunte Huang, the author of the new book, emailed me to say he agreed that it was a jest of Oland, who was known to be "quite a wisecracker". Now THAT sounds like my Dad's family!

At first glance you might say Wikipedia is totally unreliable, because anyone can change it. But compared to the New Yorker, IMDB, and a book published in 2004, Wikipedia is more reliable because it CAN be changed, and because it supports a version history and a culture of citation and transparency for any information that might be disputed. While I'm optimistic about Wikipedia's ability to construct truth, I'm worried about systems that extract facts from Wikipedia articles and feed them in to the semantic web. While editing the article on Warner Oland, I deleted the assertion that he was a "Swedish Person Of Russian Descent". I wonder about the lifespan of this assertion as it has been copied and distributed throughout the world. There are really no good mechanisms to de-sert this sort of assertion. It's only with context that assertions can build truth.

As it happens, I married into a family that really IS Chinese. I remember showing my mother-in-law old pictures of Saami ancestors in their traditional dress. "Those look like Manchu people!" she exclaimed. It's true. If you put aside the lens of race, we all look more or less alike, and we all look a bit exotic.

Update: The author of the New Yorker article, Jill Lapore, got back to me to report that her article relied on the entry for Warner Oland in American National Biography (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000) for the assertion about Oland's mother's ancestry.

Update, August 23: Some additional research shows that Oland is also a third cousin of my grandmother.


  1. Fascinating that the New Yorker article may have contained errors. I've heard a number of authors complain about the laborious process of fact checking at the magazine. I would have thought they would have been more diligent.

    Here is another link for the Ken Hanke book for your readers who might want to borrow a copy ;)

  2. Seriously cool. And now I know why I like your style; you're one of us! :)

    I read the beginning of your article, and all I thought was Sami (shared culture across the Russian / Norwegian / Swedish / Finnish border complex), and even if there is no records of Sami blood in the history books it's a known factor of some real "scandals" throughout history when cultures clash, physically *and* romantically.

  3. Jen & Ted- It seems that the New Yorker's error propagation was not due to lack of fact checking, but to the the state of reference publishing, which appears to be in a state of slow-motion collapse (see the update).

    Alexander- There's plenty of evidence in the church records of marriages between Saami, Swedes and Finns. The area was sparsely populated and the nights were long.

  4. What I meant is that hidden in between the few official accounts there's tons of unofficial stuff. And I have the family books to prove it. :)

  5. Here is a nice review of the book. I'm not normally a fan of Maureen Corrigan's reviews, but this one is very good. She explores the complexity of the subject intelligently.


  6. Hi, there!

    I enjoyed reading your post. Just curious, what did your relatives think about Warner when they met him?

  7. Karen- They remember the car he came in.

    Maureen Corrigan's review. Thanks Ted.

    I now have a copy of the book (Thanks, Peter!) and hope to write more when I'm done reading. Not that it matters, but Huang's report of Oland's "Russian mother" stays in the context of Oland's joking remarks reported by others- and it's footnoted.

  8. You could be mistaken, with all the new advances in genealogy DNA.I have , Chinese,Japanese, Punjabi Indian and more in my DNA.Each company uses a different algorithm in determining DNA.This never came up on Ancestry or My Heritage, but did on CRI Genetics.

  9. This was wonderful to read because I really love understanding the back stories of my favorite performers. I'm very old, and I had always heard Oland was 100% Swedish. As I knew so many Swedish friends from my neighborhood, I already knew they looked somewhat exotic with sharp facial features and almond eyes. The one thing I would love to know a lot more about is whether Warner Oland was an academic who taught linguistics!


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