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The Charlie Chan Legend

Hawaiian Super Cop
by Alan C. Elliott

In 1904, the soft steps of policeman Chang Apana approached a multi-story building in the most dangerous part of Honolulu's Chinatown. Along the beach houses of Waikiki, the sweet smell of plumeria floated in the ocean breeze. In this part of the city, the unsavory smells of fish, opium, and washing soap hung in the air. From his informants, Apana knew that in a hidden upstairs room, a group of men operated an illegal gambling den.

Alone and in disguise, he slipped by guards stationed around the building. In quietness, he climbed the stairs and slipped past another guard. At the top of the stairs he reached for the coiled bull whip that hung on his belt. He'd used the same whip to subdue cattle as a teenage paniolo cowboy on the Big Island. Standing barely over five-foot tall, he threw open the door to the gambling hall, and stepped into the smoke-filled room.

Forty rough and hardened men turned their eyes toward the open door, and saw Apana. They gasped. Several jumped up to escape. All forty men knew Chang's reputation as a tough and fair cop. They had only one option. To escape the kiss of his leather whip, all forty surrendered without incident to that single Honolulu policeman.

Not all incidents ended so smoothly. In thirty years of service, this first ever Chinese Hawaiian policeman survived gunshots, knifings, and beatings. His fellow officers reported that after every such incident, he got back on his feet, and got his man. When historians looked back on the century, they named Chang Apana as one of the 100 most influential people in Hawaiian history.

Warner Oland Play Charlie Chan

Thirty years later, a Swedish actor who played a Chinese Honolulu detective in American Hollywood movies was received in Shanghai in a great series of celebrations and events.  The actor was Warner Oland and the character he played was Charlie Chan.  At that time in American history, people of Chinese descent were banned by law from becoming American citizens, and a series of other state and national racially discriminatory laws forbid immigration and association of Chinese people with the majority white population. In movies of the era, Asian characters were almost always depicted as evil and degenerate. The fact that a Chinese detective (even one played by an actor who was only of partial-Asian descent) was portrayed on the screen as being an "equal" to other white police officers was remarkable. Because of this, Charlie Chan became a movie hero in China, and the actor who portrayed Chan was welcomed with excitement and enthusiasm. The Chinese government, which banned many American movies for demeaning portrayals of the Chinese, approved all of the American Charlie Chan movies. The Chinese movie industry even produced its own Charlie Chan films using an actor that looked and spoke like Oland (in Chinese.)

The last of the classic Chan movies and novels are now more than fifty years old. However, recent books, articles and websites about the Chan character have engendered renewed interest in the character. Some historians suggest that even with our more modern racially sensitive views, we should continue to celebrate the courage of author Biggers who broke through the racial bigotry of the time to create a positive image for this Chinese character. Chinese Actor Keye Luke (who appeared in several of the Chan movies as the "Number One Son") said, "They think it (the Chan character) demeans the race… Demeans! My God, you've got a Chinese hero!" As Charlie Chan might observe, "Mind like parachute – only work when open."

Author Earl Derr Biggers

The story behind the creation of Charlie Chan by author Earl Derr Biggers, and the subsequent bestselling novels and 40+ films, is also remarkable. In 1919, Biggers had already established himself as a popular author when he decided to take a trip to Honolulu to celebrate his success. Biggers took a room at a small Halekulani cottage (at that time called "Gray's-by-the-Beach") near Waikiki Beach. When he arrived to check in, he asked for the key to the cottage and was told there were no keys. At that time, Waikiki was so laid-back that few people bothered with locks. During his stay in the shadow of Diamond Head, the plot of a murder mystery formed in his mind one night as he observed a cruise ship sitting in the ocean waiting to dock the next morning. He named the novel House Without a Key. (I won't spoil the plot for you.) Today, at the luxury Halekulani Hotel, on the site of that same cottage (and where the murder took place in the novel), is a delightful alfresco restaurant named for the novel.

It took Biggers several years to finish his Hawaiian murder mystery, and late in the writing process (back in New York), he found an article in a Hawaiian newspaper about a Chinese detective named Chang Apana who served with the Honolulu police force and had been responsible for remarkable detective work. The name "Chang" reminded Biggers of a Chinese merchant in his hometown named "Charlie Chan," and he combined the two to create his own Chinese Honolulu detective to appear in his House Without a Key novel. He originally intended the Chan character to add a little local flavor to the novel, but when Charlie appeared in the novel (more than half-way through the story), his character took center stage. The story, which originally appeared in serial-style in the Saturday Evening Post, resulted in a swarm of fan mail for the new detective with requests for more Charlie Chan stories.

The Charlie Chan Influence

In retrospect, Charlie Chan's personality is an amalgamation of other popular fictional detectives. He murders the English language with witty Confucius-like sayings similar to how Agatha Christie's Belgium detective Hercule Poirot uses slightly miss-quoted English idioms. He deduces the meaning of obscure clues like Sherlock Holmes. His humble and self-effacing personality is reminiscent of Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as well as G. K. Chesterton's unassuming cleric-detective Father Brown. All of these characters would have been familiar to the well-read Biggers.

The popularity of the first Chan novel led to other novels and movies. Several early movies (silent films starting with House Without a Key in 1926 and featuring several different actors as Chan) are lost to posterity. In 1931, Warner Oland was selected to portray Chan in the movie Charlie Chan Carries On (no known copies now exist.) Oland was selected because he had played Asian characters in other movies. Although he was Swedish, he claimed some Mongolian heritage that gave him a slight Asian look. (In light of the rampant discrimination against the Chinese in that era, Hollywood had no Chinese actors to portray Chan.) Although considered "B" movies, the Chan movies were money-makers for the studios, and Oland appeared in 16 Chan movies between 1931 and 1937. When Oland died, like the replacement of James Bond, a new actor was selected for the role. Sidney Toler appeared in 22 Chan movies from 1937 to 1946. In 1947, the role went to Roland Winters, who appeared in 6 movies (through 1949). In the 1976 movie Murder by Death, Chan is characterized (by Peter Sellers) as one of the five most memorable (fictional) detectives of all time.
Earl Biggers readily admitted the association between the real detective Chang Apana and the fictional Charlie Chan. In fact, Apana was invited to attend the filming of the Black Camel in 1931. Apana, already a respected detective in Honolulu, became even more of a local celebrity. Biggers had long discussions with Apana, and gleaned many ideas for future stories.

Chan Apana

Apana was, in fact, the perfect inspiration for Chan. Born of Chinese parents in Hawaii, he grew up in China, and returned to Hawaii as a teenager. A physically small but feisty individual, he first made his living as a cowboy and later tending horse stables on the Big Island of Hawaii. After moving to Oahu, he worked in the stables of a wealthy Hawaiian family. They used their influence to get him appointed as the first officer to oversee the humane treatment of animals in Honolulu. Apana's reputation as a diligent, fair, and meticulous enforcer of the law led him to an appointment to the Honolulu Police Department in 1898. Disliking guns, he carried a leather bullwhip instead. Some Chan historians believe the whip-carrying, cowboy hat-wearing Apana influenced the creation of the Indiana Jones movie character. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spent time in Hawaii, would have seen Chan movies, known about the writings of Earl Derr Biggers, and likely heard of the legendary Apana.
Once the Apana-Chan connection was public, Apana enjoyed autographing books (as Charlie Chan) for admirers. Although he managed an exemplary 30-year career with the police force, a growing hysteria against the "heathen" Chinese forced him into retirement. Because his retirement pay would be substantially lower than his salary, several prominent Honolulu citizens made up the difference. When he died in 1933, his funeral procession rivaled those of Hawaiian dignitaries. Chang is buried in the Manoa Chinese Cemetery where a sign points visitors to the grave of "Detective Charlie Chan (Chan (sp) Apana.)"

Today, you can watch a number of the full-length Chan movies on YouTube or late night TV. Movies are also available through Netflix and Blockbuster and on DVD.  Most of the original Chan novels by Biggers are still in print. A movie about the real Hawaiian Super Cop, Chang Apana, is in the works by producer John Brekke, and a clip from "The Legend of Chang Apana" was recently shown at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Hawaiian historian Gilbert Martines has been researching Apana since 1982 and keeps fans abreast of the latest Chan news at the charliechanshawaii.com website.

When in Honolulu, you can visit several "Charlie Chan" locations.

  1. The House Without a Key Restaurant is at the Halekulani Hotel at 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu. Halekulani (Hawaiian for "House Befitting Heaven") was originally the site of a royal retreat. It became a tourist resort in 1907 and is where author Earl Derr Biggers stayed on his original trip to the islands. The current alfresco restaurant provides a beautiful view of Diamond Head much the way Biggers would have seen it in 1919 from his cozy cottage as he envisioned the plot of the novel for which the restaurant is named.

  2. The old Honolulu Police Department building at 842 Bethel Street (corner of Bethel and Merchant) was built in 1930 (on the site of a previous police building.) In several novels, Chan has meetings here. This location borders Chinatown, which is where much of Chang Apana's work as a detective took place.

  3. Also of interest are nearby buildings in this area that were around when Biggers was writing the Chan series: Cattycorner from the police building is the Kamehameha V Post Office built in 1870. The Melchers Building at 51 Merchant Street is the oldest business building in Honolulu. The Old Royal Saloon Building at 2 Merchant Street at Nu'uanu Avenue is the oldest Honolulu restaurant location (built in 1890), originally to serve hungry seamen, it is now Murphy's Bar and Grill. The Bishop Estate Building was built in 1898 at 71 Merchant Street by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop estate.

  4. Chang Apana/Charlie Chan's grave is located at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery (3200 block of Pakanu St. at Old E. Manoa Rd.) A pagoda-like sign marks the entrance. To find the grave, enter the left entrance to the cemetery. Go up the hill about a football field-length. On the left side of the road you will see a white sign indicating "8. Detective Charlie Chan (Chan (sp) Apana.)" From that sign, go up several more rows on the street and locate two prominent white markers (with the names Ho Lun and Chang Ho Shee.) Follow that row away from the street. Apana's grave is about half-way down the row. Look for a grave that has plants growing within a rectangular concrete border. Chang Apana's name appears at the top of the concrete marker, with other inscriptions in Chinese. Sometimes there are other flowers or "gifts" marking the grave.

  5. See Chang Apana's bullwhip (and other interesting artifacts from Honolulu history) at the Honolulu Police Museum located at 801 South Beretania Street, first floor. It is open Monday through Thursday from 7:45 am to 4:30pm. Call 529-3351 for more information. Admission is free.

  6. Of related interest is the Wo Fat building at 103 North Hotel (built in 1938 during the hey-day of the Charlie Chan movies.) The antagonist character Wo Fat in the (original and current) TV series Hawaii Five-O was named after this Chinatown restaurant building.

  7. To take a formal tour of Chan locations, check out the "Charlie Chan Tour" at the stevestoursandfilms.vpweb.com website.