Charlie Chan: The (Not Entirely) Fictional Chinese Detective
December 23, 2011 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Charlie Chan is more than a fictional character created the author Earl Derr Biggers, or the star of 50 movies (played by 8 different actors). His origin goes beyond the illiterate Chinese-Hawaiian detective with a bull whip instead of a pistol (previously). Charlie Chan is more than racial stereotypes and yellow-face. A part of his far-reaching story is told inside.

Charlie Chan is a Chinese detective who first worked in Hawaiʻi, as written in the pages of the 1925 mystery novel The House Without a Key. He isn't the primary character in this tale, where he is treated with skepticism by the white folk of Boston, though he is revered in his native Hawai'i. The reason for the late appearance in this novel (Google books) was due to how Earl Derr Biggers, an American novelist and playwright from Ohio, found his inspiration for the character.

Earl De Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio on August 26, 1884. Biggers had "the need for the glory of print" at an early age, founding a monthly magazine while in high school. He accepted to Harvard, where me majored in literature. He was a member of the Advocate and the Lampoon, and in the same period, he sold a number of short fiction pieces to popular magazines. He graduated in 1907, and started his professional writing career first as a crafter of of comedic quips for the Boston Traveler (worst bestsellers (Gb), likened to "making faces in church -- it wasn't fun, and it offended a lot of nice people"). It was there he met Eleanor Ladd, who wrote under the pen name Phoebe Dwight (Gb). She influenced his writing, leading to many of his stories and plays including an independent young woman. He then got the job of drama critic, but he was too critical. He was engaged to Ms. Ladd and without a job, so he cranked out a mystery book, writing a chapter a day. The story, Seven Keys to Baldpate (; Gb, Project Gutenberg) was, in part, a mirror on the author, short on funds, writing an insubstantial but popular novels to cash in on public demand. But the book was a hit, coming out on the cusp of the golden age of detective novels. The novel was re-written (Gb) as a play, then as a film, released in 1917, and retold in film five more times. Biggers, more than able to support his family, continued to write both plays and novels, until he hit upon the character that would gain him the most renown.

Biggers was working frantically on a number of different projects, and it was taxing health, though he was only in his mid-30s. His doctor suggested he go on vacation, which lead to his stay Waikiki. Biggers visited the Territory of Hawai'i for his health in April 1920, in a time when opium use was rampant amongst the Chinese population, and local papers carried stories of the police trying to crack down on what was once an open trade and permitted use (Google news). Either while on the tropical island of Honolulu or back in the states, Biggers read about Chinese detectives on the Hawaiian police force who apprehended "a certain hapless Chinese, being too fond of opium". According to some quotes, Biggers found the notion of a Chinese detective a pleasant antithesis to the racial stereotypes spread through Yellow Peril racism, and added the character into his story that was already under way.
"I had seen movies depicting and read stories about Chinatown and wicked Chinese villains, and it struck me that a Chinese hero, trustworthy, benevolent, and philosophical, would come nearer to presenting a correct portrayal of the race."
And thus, Charlie Chan was born. But how is it that there came to be a Chinese detective in the primarily white police force of the new Territory of Hawaii? The life of this detective charts some significant points in Hawaii's history.

In 1790, while heading from the United States to China, a trading ship stopped in Hawai'i to get more wood, water and salt. The wood they found was sandalwood, which native Hawaiians used for some medical practices. Highly valued in trade, merchants bartered with King Kamehameha I, trading military uniforms, liquor, guns, silks, leather, silver mirrors, brass cannon for the valuable wood. In three decades, the Hawaiian sandalwood populations were nearly eradicated, ending the profitable trade. Sugar plantations were the next boom industry, filling the void left by the sandalwood trade, and further separating newly rich white land owners and everyone else. Like the harvesting of sandalwood, sugar plantations required significant manpower, but the population of native Hawaiians were greatly diminished, from the introduction to western diseases. Enter the Chinese coolie, the inexpensive hired hands that powered a new economy. And with that, we come to to the second son of an immigrant family, a key character in this convoluted story.

Ah Ping Chang was born on Oahu sometime between 1864 and 1871 (Gb) to Chinese parents who were working on one of the sugar plantations. The early life of Chang is vague at best, but it is known that his family moved back to China when he was three, and that he then returned to Hawai'i with an uncle some seven years later, with his old name Hawaiianized as Chang Apana. The early years of Apana's life roughly ran parallel to the life of Chung Kun Ai, who wrote a record of his life in My Seventy-Nine Years in Hawaii. But where CK Ai came from wealthy parents and ended up an even wealthier business man on Hawai'i, Apana had to make a living with more physical tasks, like dealing with the vast herds of cattle of Hawaii. Though records limited to anecdotes, it is assumed that Apana worked for the Parker ranch, the first cattle ranch on Hawai'i, where he became a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. In 1891, he went to work for the Wilder family, tending to their horses and cooking for the family and guests, and came to look upon their family as his own. Through his years of service on this ranch and the Wilder family, he gained favor from Helen Kinau Wilder, who started the Humane Society for Hawai'i. Wilder hired Apana as one of the first Humane Society officers, seeing to the protection of animals on the island, and he brought his bullhide whip with him from his days as a paniolo. From this position, Apana was hired into the first police force of the Territory of Hawaii, where the only Chinese officer, and the only officer ever authorized to carry a whip as an official duty weapon. His beat was primarily Chinatown, where he could blend in and go under cover, infiltrating gambling houses and opium dens as his white counterparts could not. This put Apana in the way of danger, but also gave him the chance to shine. He holds the record for number of arrests, for single-handedly arrested 70 gamblers. All that rabble-rousing and rough living was quite different from the portly portrayal of Charlie Chan, generally a quiet detective, but the parallels were understood by the Hawaiians who read Bigger's stories of the cunning detective.

So Chang Apana gave way to Charlie Chan, a favorite character in the Saturday Evening Post serialized story section. But wait, how was it that popular opinion of the day cast "Orientals" as "the heathen chinee"? They went from being called "one of the most worthy class of our newly adopted citizens" (Gb) in January of 1852 by California Governor John McDougall, to being taxed for not being a citizen in May of that year. This tax was aimed specifically at Chinese gold miners. By 1870, California had collected $5 million from Chinese miners, accumulating between 25 and 50 percent of all State revenues. The Chinese then moved from the gold fields to low-wage jobs in cities, and were instrumental in building the western portion of the transcontinental railroad, and Chinese men worked on various rail difficult lines from the 1850s through 1870s. Then the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which was extended and expanded upon in the following years.

The threat of the Chinese was exemplified in the stories of Fu Manchu, first serialized by English novelist Sax Rohmer in 1912, providing "inspiration" for the film The Mysterious Wu Chung Foo in 1914, and officially adapted to the screen in 1923 in The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu. The nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu was played by Swedish-American actor Warner Oland from 1929 to 1931, and then Boris Karloff took the role of the Chinese arch-villain. These facts are interesting, given that Oland would go on to be the most widely know face of Charlie Chan, from 1931 to 1937, in a total of 16 films, and Karloff played counter to Oland in one film. Though Oland was not of Asian descent (and not likely to have any Mongol heritage, contrary to his claims of the sort), the fourth Charlie Chan was the first white man to play the role, after two Japanese actors (first George Kuwa in 1926, then Sōjin Kamiyama in 1927), and the third (E.L. Park, in 1929) was a British fellow, possibly of Korean descent (Gb). The third film was the first talkie, the first for Fox, and the first film to have surviving copies to this day, but none of the first three featured much of Charlie Chan.

Wait, you say, we're already up to 19 films! Aren't there only 6 Charlie Chan novels? Why yes, you are correct. Earl Derr Biggers health problems never really let up, and in 1933, he died of a heart attack, only 48 years old. And wasn't Hollywood hit by the Great Depression? How did Fox make so many films? Well, movies, wildly popular in the Depression, were an inexpensive escape from reality, and Charlie Chan kept Fox afloat through the 1930s. For Fox, the Chinese detective could not depart with the death of Derr Biggers or his tales of mystery. And the death of their on-screen Chan couldn't stop the franchise, either. 20th Century-Fox had planned for a long career of Oland as Chan, securing another 10 films with the actor in 1937, but he died the next year, at the age of 57, in his homeland of Sweden.

The next person to become Charlie Chan was Missouri man Sidney Toler, winning out over 34 other candidates. The perennial supporting actor took the role at 65 playing Charlie Chan in 22 films, and by some accounts, becoming the most memorable portrayer of Chan. He died in 1947 at age 72. The next Charlie Chan was Roland Winters, who outlived the role, playing Chan in six films, ending in 1949. He lived to be 84. Charlie Chan had two more lives on the big screen in the US, as Ross Martin in a TV movie in the 1970s, and Peter Ustinov (looking more like a youthful, suspicious Colonel Sanders than a Chinese detective) played the role in 1981.

And that's just the US films of Charlie Chan. There were three Spanish language adaptations, shot on the same sets as the English movies, with different crew shooting at night. And in China, Warner Oland's Chan was warmly received, in part for the positive portrayal of a Chinese man in Western film. Most of Oland's 16 Chan films were exhibited in China, and the Charlie Chan series inspired its own Chinese imitations. An American's version of a Chinese Detective, played by a Swedish-American actor, was finally re-cast in China by Chinese actors.

To set some balance to the white men playing the Chinese detective in the US films, Charlie's extended family was played by a large cast, including some more-than-bit parts for his Number One and Two sons, actors Chinese-American actors Keye Luke and Victor Sen Young. They appeared together only once, in The Feathered Serpent (1948). Keye Luke would be the only Chinese actor to play Charlie Chan in the US, but in voice only. For one wacky season in 1972, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, "[for] the first time on a regular network cartoon, we were seeing an Asian family that shared more in common with Scooby Doo or The Archies than the stereotypical Charlie Chans we knew from the past."

There have been rumors and murmurs of a Charlie Chan remake or a new film for some while, from "a Chan for the '90s - hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and (what else?) a martial-arts master" publicized in 1997, to a film with Lucy Liu as the Chinese-American detective's granddaughter discussed in 2006. In between these possibilities, The Fox Movie Channel was going to run a several-months-long "Charlie Chan's Mystery Tour" showing of Chan films, but canceled due to complaints of negative racial stereotypes in the films. Counterpoint:
"As a comparatively small ethnic group in America, Asian-Americans are still too fragile to discard any icon, no matter how old-fashioned or “politically incorrect” today. We’re simply not there yet; that is, not part of the mainstream. "
Following the release of the second of the newest Sherlock Holmes movie adaptations, the question was asked: if Sherlock Holmes can make a comeback, why not Charlie Chan?



The Charlie Chan Omnibus on MobileReads (.mobi format), including:
1. The House Without a Key
2. The Chinese Parrot
3. Behind that Curtain
4. The Black Camel
5. Charlie Chan Carries On
6. Keeper of the Keys

* Charlie Chan Carries On (YT, 1:19:30; Spanish version, with English subtitles)
* La Serpiente Roja (Spanish YT clip, 2:24)

Starring Warner Oland
* The Black Camel (YT, 1:10:53)
* Charlie Chan in London (YT, 1:19:25)
* Charlie Chan in Paris (YT, 1:11:25)
* Charlie Chan in Egypt (YT, 1:12:10)
* Charlie Chan in Shanghai (YT, 1:11:01)
* Charlie Chan's Secret (; alt: YouTube, 1:11:32)
* Charlie Chan at the Circus (YT, 1:11:45)
* Charlie Chan at The Race Track (with a leading trailer for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness) (YT, 1:13:16)
* Charlie Chan at the Opera (YT, 1:07:56)
* Charlie Chan at the Olympics (YT, 1:11:17)
* Charlie Chan on Broadway (YT, 1:08:16)
* Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (YT, 1:11:43)

Starring Sidney Toler
* Charlie Chan in Honolulu (YT, 1:07:39)
* Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (Blip.TV, 1:14:03)
* Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (Blip.TV, 1:03:21)
* The Chinese Cat (YT, 1:04:50)
* Black Magic (YT, 1:04:54)
* The Shanghai Cobra (YT, 1:04:27)
* The Scarlet Clue (; alt: YouTube, 1:05:01)
* The Jade Mask (YT, 1:06:11)
* Dangerous Money (; alt: YouTube, 1:06:04)
* Dark Alibi (; alt: YouTube, 1:01:31)
* Shadows Over Chinatown (YT trailer, 1:30)
* The Trap (; alt: YouTube, 1:08:04)

Starring Roland Winters
* The Chinese Ring (; alt: YouTube, 1:07:46)
* The Golden Eye (; alt: YouTube, 1:08:10)

Starring Ross Martin
* The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness is a Warm Clue) (YT trailer, 0:30)

And if you have Netflix: Instant Watcher search results for Charlie Chan, currently listing a few films starring Sidney Toler.

* Charlie Chan Sunday Comics, from 1938 to 1942
* Some daily comics, from 1938 to 1939, and they're pretty small at their largest size

* Summaries and information on The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, a 39 episode TV series, aired from 1958 through 1959, many episodes posted online. Start with Your Money or Your Wife, and YouTube will recommend more.


Bonus links:
* The Charlie Chan Family Home, an awkwardly formatted website, full of hidden gems. Not all links are obvious, and many links send you to full scans of old articles and newspaper clippings.

* Dr. Berlin, Charlie Chan's Biggest Fan, author of Charlie Chan's Words of Wisdom (Gb) and The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia.

* Old Movie Maven's review and information on all the US Charlie Chan movies

* Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii (Google books preview), an interesting view of Hawaii, before it was a Territory of the United States

* Sailing for the Sun: the Chinese in Hawaii (Google books preview)

And the source of most of my information for this post:
* Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (Google books preview, and linked throughout this post)
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Not to mention that he is the person Chanukah was named for.
posted by milnak at 2:40 PM on December 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

The author of the last book, the source of most of your information for the post, presented at a panel hosted by my university. This is such a brain-buggeringly comprehensive post that I really don't have anything to add aside from that.

The funniest thing (buried in the post in case you skipped down here to read the comments) he talked about was that while we decry the films as racist today, the character was actually quite popular in China in the 30's and while the Chinese adaptations of the 30's didn't survive, according to written accounts the Chinese actor playing Chan was more or less imitating the Swedish actor who played him in the Hollywood films.
posted by Ndwright at 2:58 PM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is absolutely fascinating. I read about Yunte Huang's work a while back via a campus magazine, but there's tons more here I haven't read about (thanks, filthy light thief!). I think the notion that Chan (Charlie, not Apana) is a positive role model is still hugely controversial in the Asian-American community. But the real Chang Apana was an amazing character and I hope his story gets spread widely because of this.

And now I hope I have atoned for my truly horrible pun.
posted by zomg at 3:02 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is an amazing post! Thank you!
I studied asian history extensively in college, but never with a focus on the experiences of asians outside of asia. This was all new to me!
posted by GoingToShopping at 4:46 PM on December 23, 2011

Oh, some more bits and pieces:
* Chang Apana looked more like a Hawaiian than Chinese. “I was the only one without my queue in the ’80s and ’90s,” he later recalled. (The first link is a Google cache of this site).

* Yunte Huang, author of the Charlie Chan book linked above, wrote a blogpost in 2007 about some additional elements not in his book. Facts included: Oland studied the life of Apana, meeting Apana in Hawaii (and there was a publicity event, though the published photo was of a more stereotypical Chinese guy, instead of Hawaiian-Chinese Apana). That same post talks about the passing of Apana, which is covered in the book.

* A review of Fox's Charlie Chan films on DVD, including the documentaries and special features included therein. They're strewn throughout the discs, which is both nice (for pacing) and annoying (for finding a specific special feature that piques your interest at the moment).

* Ronald Knox's famous Ten Commandment list for Detective Novelists (from the Golden Era of Detective Novels) included the commandment "No Chinaman must figure in the story."
posted by filthy light thief at 4:58 PM on December 23, 2011

The first fansite for him is something pretty interesting, too. After getting kicked out of a Sherlock Holmes webring, they went their own way and started a website "for Chan" only - 4chan.

It's grown quite a bit in recent years but hasn't really stayed true to the original source material. There's still some continuing interest in investigations and forensics, of course.
posted by codswallop at 5:01 PM on December 23, 2011

Well heck, I wasn't doing anything for the next few days. FLT, this is a damn awesome post!!
posted by ninazer0 at 5:46 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not buying that Werner Oland wasn't Asian... the article goes in great detail, but makes the mistake of showing Oland's photo. Googling around, most of his headshots from when he was working on Broadway do their best to minimize the epicanthic folds of his eyes with a 3/4's view, widening his eyes unnaturally, or aiming the face down and instructing hin to look up into the camera (an old portraitist's trick for people with naturally squinty eyes, or in this case to make an Asian who could "pass" more white. Also, silly Continental mustaches.)

Idiotically, his Charlie Chan makeup "enhances" his eyes by drawing a line from the outside corner up the cheekbone, which totally works if your only exposure to someone from Asia is in comic books or wartime propaganda. What works better is his natural and neutral expression... his heritage is pretty unmistakable there. That said, there's probably little or no Chinese in his near ancestry.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:48 PM on December 23, 2011

I'd go see a film that was straight up about Apana himself, frankly. His story sounds much more interesting!
posted by droplet at 6:57 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

M-m-m monster post.
posted by Palindromedary at 7:18 PM on December 23, 2011

Amazing post! Thank you. I should let you know, though, that the link to the Ross Martin movie in the 1970s in the main part of the post is essentially a refresh button.
posted by bryon at 7:26 PM on December 23, 2011

This is interesting for me, because I'm not American, so I never really ran into this character or ever really watched any of the movies beyond knowing he existed. I watched a bit of the linked movies on Youtube above and my first thought was 'Oland's fake Chinese accent is actually less offensive than some of the crap accents in movies made more recently. But... wow, he looks pretty white. oh my god ahahaha so cheesy so, so awkward OH SNAP he zinged the French dude!'

I've two minds about the character. On the one hand, a positive portrayal is a positive portrayal, and it's good to think about someone wanting to refute the whole Yellow Peril fear, even in some small way as writing a book back when the Chinese Exclusion Act was simmering away. On the other, I can't help but think that this character made sense only in the time period and context in which he was originally made to be in, and that's where the difficulty comes from. From the freerepublic link:
"There is nothing objectionable about the character of Chan himself ... It boils down to over-sensitivity," Lucas said in an interview with

Lucas dismissed Wong's contention that the Chan character had engaged in "fortune-cookie chatter" in the films.

"Actually, what Charlie Chan does much of the time is quote the teaching of Confucius, which is philosophy and not on the level of fortune-cookie aphorisms at all," Lucas explained.

"It seems to me Eddie Wong is insulting his own people more so than Charlie Chan," he added.
This... makes me uncomfortable in a way I find hard to articulate - from my perspective in the movie I watched, Chan's little quips are exactly the very definition of cookie fluff - maybe they were presented as taken from Confucian philosophy, but it's a bit much to claim philosophical meaning and insight from one-liners and sound-bites from the Analects, if they were in fact genuine quotations (admittedly, my understanding/readings of the Analects is poor, so correct me if I'm wrong). I remember visiting the States when I was tiny and having a bunch of 'Confucius say!' jokes cracked about; I don't know where they originate from but I suspect Charlie Chan had a lot to do with it. It's almost like having a character say one-liners from the Bible and calling that Christianity while ignoring the rest of it - it's selective representation. I'm explaining this poorly. Bah.

Also, that 'oversensitive' crack.

The funniest thing (buried in the post in case you skipped down here to read the comments) he talked about was that while we decry the films as racist today, the character was actually quite popular in China in the 30's

Well, to be fair, if all the other portrayals of your culture and ethnicity within popular culture were endless Fu Manchu stereotypes any positive portrayal would be welcomed. The attitude then also played a large part, I suspect - the 1930s weren't exactly friendly towards those of Chinese descent, but it was ramping up towards the Japanese internment camps of 1942. If you feared discrimination and didn't want to be seen as a bad guy, having a well-liked Chinese character in popular media might go a long way towards differentiating yourself from those of Japanese descent, who were being explicitly targeted in America. American propaganda explicitly went pro-Chinese too - the love for Charlie Chan might have been partially motivated out of relief that Chinese people were the 'good guys' as well as genuine appreciation.

I don't know. From a first-time viewer's standpoint, I think the films were as positive a portrayal as they could've been during that time, but viewed now ring a little false (though seriously, it depresses me that Oland's accent is better than the Asian manager's on that 'Two Broke Girls' comedy show - what the hell is that).

Now if Hollywood could somehow make up a really awesome, non-goofy movie about Chang Apana, I would watch the shit out of that. That man sounds utterly amazing. Fantastic post.

(psst: your 'counterpoint' link goes to - was it meant to go here? And your 'Warner Oland's Chan was warmly received, in part for the positive portrayal of a Chinese man in Western film' link goes to a mefi comment preview page?)
posted by zennish at 8:51 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This Swedish-American blogger claims to be a distant cousin of Warner Oland, and casts reasonable doubt on his claimed Mongolian-by-way-of-Russia ancestry. He believes instead that there is Sami blood in the family, which is quite reasonable considering Oland was from the county second most northerly in Sweden, essentially part of historical Lapland. The Sami genetics trace to Europe, the Middle East, and Uralic Asia; "Mongolian" may have been a typical assumption of Swedes a century ago.
posted by dhartung at 10:56 PM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Truly a great post. Thanks for this!
posted by J.W. at 11:06 PM on December 23, 2011

What a post! Thanks for all the work! America: where the Chinese detective is played by a Swede.
posted by Fibognocchi at 12:14 AM on December 24, 2011


it's a bit much to claim philosophical meaning and insight from one-liners and sound-bites from the Analects, if they were in fact genuine quotations (admittedly, my understanding/readings of the Analects is poor, so correct me if I'm wrong)

This is a fair point. Has anybody compiled the cumulative Confucius from the films anywhere? With 40 movies (or whatever it was) you could cram a bunch of analects in there which would be a pretty positive externality for all racial shit. Conversely if it was all fake Confucius and there was absolutely zero real Confucius that would also be telling.

(metafilter's spell check does not like externality.)
posted by bukvich at 6:21 AM on December 24, 2011

Wonderful post. I spent many hours watching Charlie Chan movies on a Kansas City TV station about 40-some years ago. Always preferred Oland to Toler but can't remember why.
posted by Snerd at 11:57 AM on December 24, 2011

bryon: I should let you know, though, that the link to the Ross Martin movie in the 1970s in the main part of the post is essentially a refresh button.

Ah, thanks. That, and the links to "a Chan for the '90s - hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and (what else?) a martial-arts master" publicized in 1997, to a film with Lucy Liu as the Chinese-American detective's granddaughter are borked.

They should be:
1. The Return of Charlie Chan starring Ross Martin, on IMDb
2. 1997 remake potential story, on the Charlie Chan Family site
3. 2006 Lucy Liu remake potential story, on the Charlie Chan Family site

zennish: psst: your 'counterpoint' link goes to - was it meant to go here? And your 'Warner Oland's Chan was warmly received, in part for the positive portrayal of a Chinese man in Western film' link goes to a mefi comment preview page?

Ack, yes - the counterpoint link should indeed point to the California Literary Review response to the Fox Movies stop to the Charlie Chan rebroadcasts, and that second link should point to Charlie Chan in China, an article on The Chinese Mirror website.

In regards to the Chanisms, 1) Charlie Chan's Words of Wisdom collected 600 sayings from 41 available Charlie Chan (talkie) films, plus additional quotes from the reviews from the New York Times for the four lost films, and 2) they're in the vein of the type of wisecracks made popular by vaudeville and the early talkies, less likely rephrasing the Analects of Confucius. The pullquote upthread is more likely the thoughts from a fan of film in general, and not from someone who can tell you when a quote could be attributed to Confucius or when they're made up to mimic the style.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:36 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Really great post.
posted by latkes at 1:01 PM on December 28, 2011

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