[COMMUNITY] Will the Real Charlie Chan (Chang Apana) Stand Up
- Chan not Chinese, but still a pioneer
By Susan King, Times Staff Writer
Photos by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Famed isle detective Chang Apana made many arrests,
and ethnicity was always noted.
art by Alex Preiss
There's no getting around the fact that the vintage Charlie Chan
mystery movies of the 1930s and '40s are, to put it mildly,
politically incorrect in this day and age because three of the
actors who brought Earl Derr Biggers' sage Chinese detective to life
on screen were played by Caucasians: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and
But as the numerous documentaries point out on Fox's "The Charlie
Chan Collection, Vol. 1" ($60) DVD set, these movies marked the
first time there had been an Asian hero on screen. Generally, Asian
characters had been villains or servants. Chan was brilliant, a
fervent family man, moral and admired around the world. Biggers
created Chan as a reaction against the racist Yellow Peril stories
popular in the early 20th century.
Documentaries in the four-disc set include "The Real Charlie Chan,"
which explores the life of famed Honolulu detective Chang Apana,
and "The Legacy of Charlie Chan."
The set features four films starring the Swedish-born Oland, who
played the detective from 1931 until his death in 1938. These films
are far more entertaining and less racist than those made in the
1940s with Toler and Winters.
In 1935's "Charlie Chan in Shanghai," the detective tries to solve a
murder and uncover an opium ring with the help of his oldest son,
Lee (Keye Luke). The film also stars Charles Locher, who two years
later would become a star under the name Jon Hall in John
Ford's "The Hurricane."
The "Shanghai" DVD includes "Eran Trece," the Spanish-language
version of "Charlie Chan Carries On," in which Manuel Arbo plays
Chan. The English language version, the first with Oland, no longer
"Charlie Chan in Egypt," also from 1935, is the most politically
incorrect of this set because of the cringe-inducing stereotypical
portrayal of an African-American servant played by Stepin Fetchit
his character's name is Snowshoes. The film also features a teenage
Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino.
Also in the set are 1935's "Charlie Chan in Paris" and "Charlie Chan
in London" from 1934 (the first movie not based on one of Biggers'
six Chan novels).
Chang Apana, HPD
Bigger's real-life inspiration for Charlie Chan was Chang Apana, a
Honolulu PD detective who spoke Chinese, English and Hawaiian and
who was authorized to carry a bullwhip for a weapon.
Apana was born on the Big Island in 1871, and worked as a paniolo (a
cowboy) in Waimea as a young man. That's where he learned to use the
whip. He then spent 34 years at HPD before he retired in 1932.
Apana had a great record at HPD and was a natural detective. He
moved easily among Waikiki's many ethnic communities and, though
just over five feet tall, was a tough but fair officer.
The Charlie Chan books and movies blended many elements. The
mysteries were clever. The Oriental-styled settings were then new to
most of America. Chan was a trustowrthy, sagacious and very likeable
man, whose children sometimes interferred too much in his work.
Chan was entertainment and widely popular, though few people ever
knew that Charlie Chan was based on a real Waikiki detective. At the
time, America only stretched from "sea to shining sea," and not many
had heard of much about Hawaii, much less Waikiki.
Chang Apana (1871-1933)
A Honolulu Police Department log records the 1904 arrest of a man
for gamblingevidence included $5.60 and "dices." But wait: 12 more
names follow, arrested at the same time by the same officer. A slow
day, perhaps, for Chang Apana, who "holds the record for most
arrests70 peopleat one time," says officer Eddie Croom, the
curator of HPD's museum.
The Waipi'o-born Apana had an early stint as a paniolo, picking up
the whip skills he'd later use to tame opium smugglers, gamblers and
children out past curfew. A wiry, slight man a little over five feet
tall, Apana took a lot of hits while doggedly pursuing his suspects:
The deep scar above his eyebrow was from an ax handle, and he was
also thrown out of a second-floor window, run over by a horse-and-
buggy and stabbed.
While his derring-do was enough to catch anybody's attention, a
Chinese detective was in itself unusual in the era. Captivated,
author Earl Derr Biggers based six novels' worth of the Charlie Chan
character on Apana. "Apana's the epitome of law enforcement in
Hawai'i: unique, dedicated," says Croom. "Law enforcement was his
life for 34 years. He's the ultimate cop."
Honolulu Hawaii is a very nice place to visit it has a large long
history of polynesian culture history,but one of the most famous
resident of Honolulu is a chinese resident named Chang Apana
he was born on 12-26,1871 and died 12-08,1933 he was a excellent
cowboy in the chinese community but he's not known for horse riding,
officer Apana Join the Honolulu Police department
in August 1898 ,he did such a good job his friend Earl Derr Biggers
decided to write stories and novel about him,you see Detective Chang
Apana was better known as...."Detective Charlie Chan" made famous
Chang Apana, from whom the idea of the character Detective Charlie
Chan was created, is the uncle of Charlotte Chang Kop. Chang Apana
was born in Waipio on the Big Island. His family moved back to China
(I assume to Oo Syak) when he was three, but he moved back to Hawaii
when he was 10. Visit Honolulu Chinatown's Charlie Chan web site.
HISTORY OF OO SYAK GEE LU SOCIETY
Oo Syak Gee Lu Society was founded in December 1897 by Yick Leong
Chang and Dim Sing Chang. Yick Leong Chang was a merchant and Dim
Sing Chang was his assistant. According to records in the book, "The
Sandalwood Mountains," Oo Syak has the distinction of being the
oldest remaining "Chinese village club" in Hawaii. The society was
formed mainly to help the people who came from Oo Syak to work in
the Hawaiian Islands, promoting friendship and harmony among them.
The village of Oo Syak is within the Gook Doo district of Chung Shan
county, which is part of Kwangtung Province.
In 1955, Oo Syak was incorporated under the laws of the Territory of
Hawaii. In its charter, the objects and purposes of the corporation
include "developing, promoting and maintaining harmony among members
of the Oo Syak village of Canton, China who are now living in this
Territory, and their descendants; and to do all things which may be
deemed charitable, benevolent, educational and scientific to
The society headquarters was at 312/318 Kamakela Lane near North
Kukui Street. This property was donated by Yick Leong Chang when he
decided to return to China for his retirement years. The property
was listed at 5645 sq. ft. on the property tax bill. On it was a 2-
story boarding & rooming house in which about 14 rooms were rented
for $10 to $17 a month in 1955. The tenants included Chinese and non-
Chinese boarders. Unfortunately in 1960 the city decided to condemn
the property and surrounding properties for its redevelopment
For a brief period in 1963-1964 when the Society was looking for
roots, the society owned a property in Waimanalo. This was a large
beach front property approximately half an acre adjacent to
Waimanalo Beach Park. This property is on Laumilo street near the
present Seven-11 store. Apparently many town members did not like
the drive to Waimanalo. Oo Syak members seeing a decent investment
in this property, formed a hui and bought the property from the Oo
Member Mrs. Eunice Chang Lum Chun was one of the tenants of the old
Kamakela headquarters/rooming house. She recalls much of the history
of the Kamakela property. In her 80's, Mrs. Chun has helped Oo Syak
to know its history. She has provided various stories and
translations about Oo Syak Gee Lu Society. Some of these works are
attached at the end. She has generously donated the beautiful silk
Oo Syak banquet banner that is shown on our web page. Mrs. Chun has
also generously willed to the Chinese Palolo Home her assets so that
the home may continue to help the elderly. Mrs. Chun continues as
the Principal of the Tai Koong Chinese language school.
Don't go by the cinematic
versions of Inspector Chan
By RON MILLER of TheColumnists.com
Ask most mystery fans to describe Charlie Chan and they'll probably
say he's a tall, rather stout Chinese sleuth who wears a Homburg
hat, speaks English haltingly, and quotes so many Chinese proverbs
that you think he's an advance man for Confucius. Most fans probably
also will tell you Charlie works for the federal government, aided
by his reckless "No. 1 son" and a black valet named Birmingham
Brown, who seems to be afraid of virtually everything.
And if the mystery fan you're asking also happens to be Asian, you
may hear an added line of description: "He's also an insult to our
These familiar Charlie Chan cliches surely were responsible for
making him one of the most popular fictional detectives of the 20th
century. And they're probably also the reason for the decline in
public interest in him over the past quarter century.
There hasn't been a new Charlie Chan movie since "Charlie Chan and
the Curse of the Dragon Queen" in 1981--a box office disaster that
drew hordes of Asian pickets for the casting of Englishman Peter
Ustinov as Charlie, if not for the film's general incompetence.
All the Chan mystery novels are currently out of print and TV has
shown little interest since J. Carrol Naish, the star of
radio's "Life with Luigi," played Chan in a forgettable syndicated
series of the 1950s and the enitre "Chan Clan" turned up in a kids'
cartoon series. To even suggest a revival of interest in Charlie
Chan now seems absolutely futile in this era of rampant political
Which is kind of sad, in my opinion, since most of those
objectionable characteristics were added to the Chan legacy by the
movies--and do not appear in the six Charlie Chan novels published
by his creator, Earl Derr Biggers, between 1925-30.
Biggers was a Harvard-educated Ohio native, a former newspaperman
whose greatest success before Chan was "Seven Keys to Baldpate," a
1913 mystery novel that George M. Cohan turned into a rousing
Broadway success. (It also has been filmed several times.) While
vacationing in the Hawaiian islands in 1919, Biggers concocted
Charlie Chan after reading an account in a Honolulu newspaper of the
exploits of Chang Apana, a real-life Asian detective with the
Honolulu P.D. He introduced Chan in "The House Without A Key" in
1925 and he was an immediate success.
In the mid-1920s, it probably seemed a fresh and original idea to
create a fictional Chinese-American detective to serve as the hero
in a series of traditional "cozy" mysteries in the tradition of
Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, the Belgian-born
sleuth from Agatha Christie, then a newcomer on the mystery scene.
I'm guessing it also seemed like a very positive thing to create a
Chinese detective hero at a time when Sax Rohmer's insidious Chinese
master criminal, Dr. Fu Manchu, was painting a very nasty picture of
Asians in book after book and America's pulp magazines so frequently
featured lurid covers showing Asian villains torturing pretty white
women, who usually were wearing very little clothing.
The movies took immediate interest in Charlie Chan and he came to
the screen in 1926 with a Pathe serial version of "The House Without
A Key." That film no longer exists. Five of Biggers' six Chan novels
were filmed as quickly as the books were published and the final
book, "Keeper of the Keys," became a Broadway play in 1933--the year
Biggers died of heart disease at age 48.
It's a common mistake to believe Charlie Chan never was played on
screen by Asian actors. That's not true: The first screen Chan was
Japanese actor George Kuwa, followed by another Japanese, Sojin, who
played Chan in a silent version of "The Chinese Parrot." E.L. Park
played Chan in the first talking picture version of a Chan novel--
Fox's "Behind That Curtain," a 1929 film that occasionally turns up
on Fox's cable network in the wee hours of the morning.
In "The House Without A Key," Chan is not the leading detective on
the case, but is actually the bright assistant to Detective Captain
Hallett, his superior on the Honolulu P.D. Though his English isn't
exactly perfect, he certainly doesn't talk like a guy who just got
off the boat. He expresses a few phrases of Oriental philosophy, but
not as heavy-handedly as he did in the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Here's how Biggers described him in his first appearance in that
novel: "He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty
step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin
ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanted."
In effect, the Chan we first meet is not tall, though overweight.
His style is very Sherlockian because he observes things closely and
notices details others miss. He has none of the arrogance of either
Holmes nor Poirot, however, and, in fact, is constantly reminding
those around him how "humble" he is, in both talent and attitudes.
In all six novels, Chan continues to work for the Honolulu P.D.,
though he's occasionally "loaned out" to other departments. He rises
to the rank of Inspector midway through the six-novel canon. In none
of the original Biggers mysteries is he aided by any of his many
children--I think the count finally reaches at least a dozen
children--nor does he ever have anyone faintly resembling Birmingham
Brown working for him.
However, he works in close tandem with Inspector Duff of Scotland
Yard in one novel and after Duff is murdered in "Charlie Chan
Carries On," Chan takes over Duff's case (more than halfway through
the novel) and solves it with the help of a most interesting
assistant of his own--Officer Kashimo of the Honolulu P.D., an
agressive young Japanese who idolizes Chan. The idea of a Chinese
having a Japanese sidekick must have knocked readers of both races
for a loop, considering the long-established friction between those
two ethnic groups. Kashimo is portrayed as astute and resourceful,
albeit a big impulsive. His over-enthusiasm for helping Chan even
inspires him to stow away on a cruise ship to follow Chan, in
defiance of his orders from their superiors in Honolulu. He may have
been the inspiration for the many ambitious "No. 1 son" characters
in the long series of movies about Chan.
Biggers' Chan is very much a family man and constantly longs for his
home on Punchbowl Hill in Honolulu, especially when he's away,
helping solve a mainland case and his wife is about to deliver their
latest child. There are references to his older children, who are
attending university classes, but no suggestion any of them will
ever head for careers as detectives.
Though I'm not Asian, it seems to me there is little to complain
about in terms of racist depictions in the Biggers novels. To be
sure, some Caucasian characters display racism toward Chan, but,
after all, this was common reality in the 1920s and it seems clear
to me that Biggers was trying to underscore this racism while also
showing us how well respected Chan is by most of the Caucasian
Because Charlie is older and doesn't especially cut a very romantic
figure, he doesn't figure in any romantic nonsense. No white femme
fatales try to seduce him and, in fact, he seems oblivious to their
charms. Biggers presents him as an asexual figure, leaving the
romance to the young Caucasian men and women who often appear as
Chan's clients or trusted allies in the books.
In "Behind That Curtain," Chan works with a female assistant
district attorney who has to deal with sexist attitudes from some of
the men around her. She also suspects Chan doesn't approve of a
woman doing that kind of work and she may be right, based on the
clues Biggers gives us. However, when she openly says she doubts if
Mr. Chan approves of her, Chan answers in typically inscrutable
fashion: "Does the elephant disapprove of the butterfly? And who
Reading between the lines, Chan seems to be poking fun at his own
obesity (the "elephant" reference) while paying tribute to the
woman's beauty (the "butterfly" reference), yet the gist of his
comment is that he considers her irrelevant--not exactly high praise.
In "The Chinese Parrot" (1926), we learn that Charlie used to work
as "number one boy" for a wealthy Caucasian woman at her mansion on
the beach before choosing to pursue a law enforcement career. Yet he
bears no resentment to his former employer and, in fact, seems
steadfastly loyal to her. In "Keeper of the Keys," Chan has to deal
with a much older Chinese servant who kowtows to his white master in
embarrassing fashion. Chan frequently reminds us how old-fashioned
Ah-Sing, the servant, has remained while so many other Chinese who
live in the states are now much more "American."
On the whole, the Charlie Chan of the six Biggers novels is a man
worthy of respect for his solid ethics, his clean and decent
lifestyle and his brilliance as a detective. Because he's a fat guy
who seldom gets "physical" with crooks, he may not be the ideal
heroic figure some mystery fans have come to expect, but he's
certainly a little more macho than Poirot, the fussy Belgian, or
Nero Wolfe, the American couch potato sleuth.
Chan began to evolve in a less favorable direction after the movies
began to grind out films about him in the early 1930s, starting
with "Charlie Chan Carries On," starring Swedish-born Warner Oland
as Chan. That film and three more of the earliest Oland films are
now considered lost, but "The Black Camel" (1931), based on one of
Biggers' better Chan novels, still survives. In that film, set in
Honolulu, Chan is trying to solve a murder on the set of a movie
filming on location in Hawaii. Chan is astute and still resembles
the Charlie of the novels.
But Fox began to dream up its own stories after Biggers' death and
in "Charlie Chan in Paris" (1935), the first "No. 1 son" character
was added in the person of Chinese-American actor Keye Luke. The
character became very popular and helped push the Chan films toward
developing a strong humor element that almost never let up.
Before he died, Keye Luke told me he was aware many Asians didn't
like the idea of a Swede playing the Chinese detective, especially
since all his children were played by authentic Asians. However,
Luke didn't resent the casting nor did he feel the films were
racist. He felt they may have been a bit naive, but were worthy
films that presented a Chinese-American hero at a time when there
were no others on screen--and gave lots of Asian-American actors
like himself careers in Hollywood.
(Luke had one special claim to fame in that regard: When Boris
Karloff left his starring role in the Monogram "Mr.Wong" detective
series, Luke stepped in and played the Chinese detective in "Phantom
of Chinatown" (1941), the final film in the series.)
Warner Oland died in 1937 and the part passed to another Caucasian,
Sidney Toler, in 1938. When Fox dropped the series and it was picked
up by lolw-budget Monogram, Toler continued to play Chan, but bug-
eyed black comic Mantan Moreland ("Feet, don't fail me now!) was
added as valet Birmingham Brown. The films that followed were not
very racially sensitive and probably created most of the negative
vibes about the Chan films that finally began to surface in the
1950s. Another Caucasian, Roland Winters, took over the role in 1947
and finished out the original series with "The Sky Dragon" in 1949.
By that time, Charlie Chan had become nearly a stooge for broad
comedy players, hardly ever spent any time in his home port of
Honolulu and had succumbed to an avalanche of cliches, including
the "roundup" of suspects for Chan's disclosure of the real killer
in the final reel.
I don't miss those threadbare Chan films, but I do think mystery
fans are being deprived of the presence of one of the past century's
greatest detective characters. A smart producer would find a
charismatic Chinese actor to play a politically correct Charlie
Chan, who might go back to the basics that originally appealed to
Earl Derr Biggers when he read about Chang Apana.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to rise to prominence as
a Chinese police detective of great renown in 1920s Honolulu, that
melting pot of the Pacific? What an exciting story that might be in
the right hands! What an amazing turnaround that might be for the
now sadly diminished reputation of the immortal Charlie Chan.
EARL DERR BIGGERS
Earl Derr Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio on August 24, 1884. Years
later, while attending Harvard University, Biggers showed little
passion for the classics, preferring instead writers such as Rudyard
Kipling and Richard Harding Davis.
Following his graduation from Harvard in 1907, he worked briefly for
the 'Cleveland Plain Dealer' and at Bobbs-Merrill publishers. By
1908, Biggers was hired at the 'Boston Traveler' to write a daily
humor column. Soon, however, he became that paper's drama critic.
It was at this time that he met Elanor Ladd, who would later become
his wife and who would have a marked influence in his writing.
Biggers' blunt drama reviews offended many, and when the 'Boston
Traveler' was purchased by new owners his days at the publication
were numbered, and by 1912, he was fired. This apparent setback
afforded Biggers the opportunity to write his first novel, "Seven
Keys to Baldpate" which was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1913. The
book was very well received, resulting in his gaining a national
recognition as a writer.
The inevitable financial rewards of his success allowed he and
Elanor to marry. George M. Cohan bought the dramatic rights to the
book and produced a Broadway play that enjoyed a lengthy run. The
popularity of Biggers' first novel was to continue through five
different film versions spanning thirty years. His next books, "Love
Insurance" (1914) and "The Agony Column" (1916) continued his
success as a novelist. "Love Insurance" led to another popular
It was during this time that Biggers became increasingly involved
with stage productions. However, the workload demanded of a
successful playwright began to drain the author physically. In need
of an escape to a more temperate climate Biggers and Elanor visited
Hawaii in 1919 for sun and relaxation. It was while on vacation in
Honolulu that the seeds were planted in the mind of Earl Derr
Biggers for a new kind of hero.
A Honolulu newspaper article about Chinese detectives Chang Apana
and Lee Fook would later inspire Biggers to pen the adventures of a
character that was very unique to American mystery readers in the
1920s: a Chinese detective. The idea of a Chinese character that
would be portrayed in a very positive light was a major departure
from the prevailing attitude of the time.
Biggers later stated, "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." On January
24, 1925, 'The Saturday Evening Post' carried the first installment
of "The House Without a Key," a story that was soon published by
Bobbs-Merrill as a hard cover novel.
In this book, detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police
Department works to solve a murder committed at a beach house in
Honolulu. In this novel, John Quincy Winterslip, a young Bostonian
(recalling, no doubt, Biggers' earlier years in that city) provides
the romantic interest for the daughter of a prime suspect, as well
as investigative assistance to Mr. Chan.
The enthusiastic public reception of Charlie Chan led Biggers to
move with his wife to Pasadena, California to enjoy the warm
climate and to write the next Charlie Chan story, "The Chinese
Parrot." The eager reception of this novel by the public
prompted 'The Saturday Evening Post' to pay Biggers $25,000 for a
serialized version of his third Charlie Chan story, "Behind That
The first two stories had been made into silent movies, and in 1929,
Fox Film Corporation paid the writer a handsome sum for the rights
to the third Chan novel. Biggers became fearful that the immense
popularity of the Chinese detective would make it virtually
impossible for him to write any other types of stories.
In 1929, as Biggers was contemplating a non-Chan novel, the stock
market crashed. The uncertainties of the economy dictated that he go
with a proven product. The result was "The Black Camel," his fourth
Charlie Chan story. After the publication of this book, Biggers
returned to Honolulu where he met Chang Apana, presenting him with
an autographed copy.
In 1930, Bobs-Merrill released Biggers' fifth Chan novel, "Charlie
Chan Carries On." As they had with "Behind That Curtain," Fox bought
the rights to this story as well. Unlike the previous movie, this
film would prominently feature the Chinese detective, casting Warner
Oland in the role. The film, released in 1931, was an immediate
success, prompting Fox to purchase the rights to "The Black Camel"
which opened only four months later, continuing the on-screen
success of Charlie Chan.
"The Keeper of the Keys" (1932), the sixth Charlie Chan story, would
be Biggers' final novel. Oddly, although this story was to make it
to the stage, it would not be made into a movie. The play opened on
October 18, 1933, closing early the next month. While the rather
short run of this stage version of Biggers' book may have been a
reason that Fox did not buy the rights, Biggers did see the studio
make "Charlie Chan's Chance" (1932), which was loosely based
on "Behind That Curtain."
Earl Derr Biggers died of a heart attack on April 5, 1933. Warner
Oland, who, interestingly, had never met Biggers, expressed his
sincere regret at the passing of the writer who brought Charlie
Chan to life. Biggers' six Charlie Chan novels have continued to
hold their own amongst mystery lore for several generations, and the
exploits Earl Derr Biggers' famous Chinese detective will doubtless
continue to grip the imaginations of mystery movie enthusiasts for
many years to come.
Honolulu arrests were `cheap' back in 1904
Sheriffs could jail you for being 'supposed insane' or for being
a 'gross cheat'
By Jaymes K. Song
If you ever drank beer on Sunday, were "supposed insane" or were
a "gross cheat," you would have been sent to jail in 1904.
Those are among the thousands of arrests Honolulu "sheriffs" made
that year, according to an arrest book recently discovered in the
Other offenses include "highway robbery, peddling fish, straggling,
deserter, violating the Sabbath and disturbing the quiet of night."
"Imagine what we could do today," said officer Eddie Croom, the
Honolulu Police Department's museum curator. "It would be nice and
peaceful, but the jails would be definitely crowded."
The book, about 2 feet tall and wide, 300 pages thick, bound by a
rotting wooden cover, was given to the HPD museum this month. It is
the oldest arrest record the department owns. The next oldest book
was dated 1927.
Some recorded offenses also listed the bail. For $25 you could get
bailed out for assault and battery; $10 for gambling; $6 for
drunkenness, $5 for "supposed insane." For murder, you were
just "sent to jail."
A lot less information was recorded then. No age, address,
identifying number or arrest location were needed. Neither were
fingerprints or mug shots.
Croom described the time as "very straightforward, with no rules and
regulations and no reports to write."
In some entries, there wasn't even a name.
On July 23, 1904, a man was arrested for being "supposed insane."
His name was listed as "an insane Japanese from South Hilo." His
disposition: "sent to an asylum."
"People didn't carry ID cards," Croom said. "They would say, 'My
name is John,' and they would say, 'OK, John.' "
"No drivers license, no ID card. The immigrants might have
passports, but it was nothing like today."
One thing that was always listed next to each arrest was
nationality. Some of the ethnicities were Chinese, Hawaiian,
Portuguese, German, English, Colored, Irish, Puerto Rican,
"There were a cross-section of law breakers here," Croom
said. "Interesting to see 'American' was a foreigner here."
The book may not be the most eye-catching, but it is one of Croom's
favorites for its history.
The book also confirms the casework of HPD's most famous officer:
Officer Apana, whose life was the basis for the character "Charlie
Chan," made hundreds of arrests, including 40 men in one day for
More incredibly, Apana made the arrests without a gun. He is the
only authorized officer in HPD history to carry a whip instead of a
"He didn't like guns," Croom said. "He preferred the whip because he
was a paniolo before becoming a police officer. That's what he was
According to Croom, Apana specialized in vice-type crimes such as
The book also shows one suspect, Kuwataro Kuwahara, arrested on Aug.
9, 1904, for assaulting Apana.
That might confirm the stories about Apana getting into fights
regardless of his small stature, Croom said. He was stabbed and
faced guys who were bigger, but he always seemed to get them in the
"There was quite a bit of info we had on Chang Apana," he
added. "But we had no documented information he was involved in
cases. The arrest log showed cases he worked on."
story by Deborah Gushman
art by Alex Preiss
Six months ago, everything I knew about Charlie Chan could have fit
on a Post-It, with plenty of room left over. Chinese super-detective
from Honolulu ... featured in numerous books and films ... given to
spouting cryptic Confucian proverbs ... assisted by various sons,
who were identified not by name but by number ... wore a black
bowler hat (or was I confusing him with Oddjob in Goldfinger?). At
any rate, that was the full extent of my knowledge of Chanology:
random snippets gleaned by cultural osmosis.
And then one day recently I happened to turn over the menu at the
Halekulani Hotel's lovely, historic alfresco restaurant, House
Without a Key, and was fascinated to read that the famous fictional
detective had been inspired by the larger-than-life heroics of an
actual Honolulu police officer. According to the mini-history on the
back of the menu, Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers (a Harvard
graduate and former Boston newspaperman), came up with the idea for
the series while staying in a nearby Halekulani cottage in 1919. His
first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key (1925), was the
source of the restaurant's name, which conjures up visions of
Waikiki back in the halcyon days of unlocked doors, luxury steamers
and a skyline dominated by palm trees.
"Many believe the character [of Charlie Chan] was based on Chang
Apana, a real-life Chinese detective on the Honolulu police force in
the '20s," the menu went on. Intrigued, I paid a visit the following
day to the Honolulu Law Enforcement Museum at HPD headquarters on
Beretania Street. Luckily for me, the museum's erudite founder and
curator, retired officer Eddie Croom, was on hand, and he turned out
to be the man who wrote the book, so to speak, on Chang Apana. (It's
actually an article, full of information, which can be read on the
Internet at honolulupd.org/ museum/apana.htm.)
"There's absolutely no doubt that Chang Apana was the model for
Charlie Chan," Croom told me. "Everything matchesbirthdates and so
onand Biggers sent Apana a copy of every Charlie Chan novel that
was published. He also tried to persuade Apana to make an appearance
in some Charlie Chan movies, but Apana didn't want to leave the
Although the parallels seemed obvious, it wasn't until the end of
his life that Biggers finally acknowledged that Chang Apana had
indeed been the model for Charlie Chan. Not the exact model, by any
means; Apana was 5'3" and weighed 145 pounds, with a thin, austere-
looking face, while his fictional counterpart was portly and chubby-
One of the most dramatic exhibits in the Police Museum is the actual
weapon that Chang Apana used in his exploits, including one
Chinatown raid in which he single-handedly arrested seventy gamblers
when his backup failed to appear in time. That weapon wasn't a gun
or a billy-club, but a braided leather horsewhipa legacy of Apana's
days as a Big Island paniolo (cowboy). "Chang hated guns and refused
to carry one," Croom explained. "So the Police Department wrote a
new directive allowing him to carry any weapon he chose."
According to Croom, Apana was smart (though probably not as cerebral
as the philosophical Charlie Chan) but also very physical. To wit:
In the course of duty Apana was stabbed six times, thrown out a
second-story window, run over by a horse-and-buggy, attacked with
sickles and hit with an ax handle. In every one of those cases, the
wounded Apana still managed to make the arrests.
Born in 1871, Chang Apana died in 1933, and was buried in the Manoa
Chinese Cemetery. I went looking for the grave late one windy
afternoon, with offerings of a mooncake and some day-old poi in
hand, but it's a vast cemetery, and I wasn't able to find Officer
Apana's resting place before darkness fell. One of these days, I
plan to try again.
In the meantime, I am systematically reading my way through the
entire Charlie Chan collection, and have discovered that the novels,
despite their decidedly dated political incorrectness, are
ingeniously plotted, humorously written, and filled with nostalgic
details that will delight anyone who loves the Islands. Charlie Chan
lives, as the graffiti-writers say. And so does Chang Apana.
`Charlie Chan' isle's
toughest crime fighter
By Jaymes K. Song
Detective Chang Apana was the island's most-feared crime fighter for
more than 30 years.
From 1898 to 1932, he made hundreds of arrests on Oahu and busted
several drug and gambling circles. His work and life was the basis
for the character "Charlie Chan."
Apana sometimes made 40 arrests in one day without a firearm,
according to police records.
The detective stood 5 feet and carried a whip instead of a gun. He
didn't like firearms and was handy with the whip, a skill he learned
from his days as a paniolo, said police museum curator Eddie Croom.
The fast-walking, cigarette-smoking, Panama hat-wearing sleuth spoke
fluent Cantonese, Hawaiian and pidgin English. But he could only
read and write Hawaiian.
According to news reports, he was born in Waipio to a Chinese
immigrant family. They all moved back to China three years after he
was born, but Apana returned to Oahu when he was 10. He was raised
by his uncle and became skilled at tending horses.
Apana joined the Honolulu Police Department in 1898 and quickly
became its most prolific officer. His Chinese ancestry, undercover
skills and determination to complete an unsolved case allowed him to
crack into Oahu's most notorious opium-smuggling and gambling
He died in 1933, one year after retiring from the force, and was
buried at Manoa Chinese Cemetery. Apana had 10 children and married
Author Earl Derr Biggers met Apana while vacationing in Waikiki and
created the character Charlie Chan in 1925. Biggers was so impressed
by Apana that he wrote several novels, including "House Without a
Key," which eventually led to Charlie Chan movies acted by Warner
Oland and Sidney Polar.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Chang Apana (December 26, 1871-1933) was a Chinese-Hawaiian police
officer in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the officially-
acknowledged 'inspiration' for the fictional Asian detective
character, 'Charlie Chan', first introduced in 1925 in the mystery
novel, "House without a Key".
Ah Ping Chang was born in Waipio, Oahu, Hawaii. Ah Ping Chang's
family moved back to China when he was only three, but Chang
returned at the age of ten to live with his uncle in Waipio. As an
adult, Chang was literate in Hawaiian, and knew 'Pidgin' English and
Chinese as well. In his youth, he worked as a 'cowboy', starting in
1891. Three years later, Chang started working for the Hawaii Humane
Society, founded by Helen K. Wilder, the owner of the horses that
Chang handled professionally.
In 1898, Chang joined the Honolulu Police Department. Instead of a
gun, Apana carried a horsewhip, (like 'Indiana Jones'). In his early
years as a detective, beginning in 1916, Chang worked against opium-
smuggling and illegal gambling. Due in part to his 'fluency' in
several languages, his 'wide network of informants' and because of
his 'shrewd and meticulous' detective style, Chang was successful in
solving many cases. Over the years, he received a number of scars to
his face, fighting with criminals. He also became famous for his
whip, Panama hat and cigars. He was married three times.
Chang's Chinese 'Connection' with Charlie Chan
The writer, Earl Derr Biggers, 1884-1933, was vacationing in Hawaii
when he read about the exploits of 'Chang Apana' in the local
newspapers (Apana is the Hawaiianized version of his Chinese name Ah
Ping). 'Inspiration' came to the writer, and the impetus for the
popular mystery detective, 'Charlie Chan', had been brought to life.
In 1925, the first Charlie Chan novel was published. The character
quickly became popular. After five more novels, Earl Der Biggers
publicly acknowledged that Chang had been the 'inspiration' for his
character, in a letter to the 'Honolulu Advertiser', dated June 28,
Items in Common Between 'Chang Apana' and 'Charlie Chan'
both Chang and Charlie Chan had a daughter named 'Rose'
both were about the same age
both Chang and Charlie Chan had lived in the 'Punchbowl' (Punchbowl
Crater) area of Honolulu
both were of Chinese descent
Chang's Retirement and Death
After 34 years of service, 'Apana' had to retire in May 1932 as a
detective when he was injured in a car accident. He briefly worked
as a watchman for the Hawaiian Trust building. He died the next year
(the same year as the 'Charlie Chan' author) in December 8, after a
long illness. 'Chang Apana' is buried at the Manoa Chinese cemetery
The 'Real Life' Charlie Chan
The prototype of the fictional Charlie Chan was Chang Apana,
Honolulu detective who died in December, 1933.
Mr. Apana's own interesting real life career was added to by
legend. Most published sources say he was born in China and came to
Hawaii with an uncle at the age of 7. His uncle died soon after and
Mr. Apana was taken into a Hawaiian home in Waipio, Oahu.
When he was 27, he came to make his home with the Wilder family at
Eskbank as their hostler, then went to Waimea, Hawaii, returning to
Honolulu to become a humane officer, under jurisdiction of the
Police Department. He worked his way up to the rank of Detective
and was pensioned in May, 1932 after 35 years of service.
A FADING clipping from a newspaper of 1932 says that Chang Apana
never did go to the school - "with the result that he neither reads
nor writes the English or Chinese language. But he is smart and
that handicap did not keep him from being one of the best known men
on the police force." (He did read the Hawaiian language and spoke
both Chinese and Hawaiian fluently.)
Old files do not fully confirm the widely accepted premise that
he "inspired" Earl Derr Biggers in creating a fictitional Honolulu
A letter from Helen K. Wilder, published in 1936, said that Apana
told her that Biggers had "promised to give him a check for $500 for
the use of his name in The House Without a Key, the best known (and
earliest) Chan mystery story."
A letter from Chester A. Doyle contends that Biggers once asked him
about the book character and Doyle told him it was "the bunk,"
saying that no Chinese, unless he was a well educated mandarin,
would use the language attributed to Chan.
He continues: "Biggers said, 'You are right. I made a great
mistake.' And he was embarrassed and chagrined and from then on
denied that Apana was Charlie Chan."
A news article about Mr. Apana, published in 1932, asserted that the
Honolulan "was offered four years ago $500 a week to act in motion
pictures in Hollywood...at the recommendation of Earl Derr
Biggers." He became ill when he "was about to accept the offer,
THE EVIDENCE seems to support those who say that Mr. Apana was the
prototype for Charlie Chan.
Ripley Allen, editor of the Star-Bulletin, has direct testimony to
this effect. Says he:
"Earl Derr Biggers came out here about 25 years ago and was
perfectly frank about the origin of Charlie chan. Mr. Biggers told
me that he had been out here a good many years earlier and spent
several weeks on vacation. He lived at Waikiki at what was then
Gray's boarding house, or a cottage nearby - he could not be exactly
"He had read and scooped up a lot of Hawaiian atmosphere and,
already a fiction writer, must have stored in his lively fertile
brain much material, perhaps quite unconsciously, that was to serve
him later very well.
"Three years or so after that, he was on the Mainland, picked up a
copy of The Star-Bulletin and read a nes story describing some feat
of detective work that Chang Apana had achieved.
"Then and there, Biggers frankly told me, was born the idea
of 'Charlie Chan.'
"He said also that when he told of The House Without a Key, he had
no particular house at Waikiki in mind. At that time - that long
ago and relatively innocent time, most houses at Waikiki were
unlocked all the time. In fact it was a job to find a door key.
"So I think it quite fair to say that Chang Apana - a chap I knew
well - was the prototype for Chan."
As far as the movies are concerned, all Chan films from 1932 on to
their demise in 1949 were original screen plays, written in
Hollywood, simply using the basic character created by Earl Derr
If you saw some of the latter [sic] low-budget films and thought
they were mediocre (and several were), don't blame it on Earl Derr
Biggers - or Charlie Chan - or Chang Apana!
Black Camel Kneels At Home of Chang Apana
Chang Apana, former Honolulu detective and prototype of the
character "Charlie Chan" in the mystery novels of the late Earl Derr
Biggers, died in the Queen's hospital at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Mr. Chang was seriously ill for about a month and was admitted to
the hospital on December 2. His left leg was amputated Thursday and
two members of the Honolulu police department, Capt. En You Kau of
the patrol division and Detective Thomas Quinn, gave their blood for
transfusions. Officer Roger Whitmarsh also offered his blood and
was prepared to undergo a transfusion.
Serving longer than anyone else on the local police force, Mr. Chang
was one of the most picturesque and best known characters in the
city. His achievements reached the attention of Earl Derr Biggers
before the novelist visited the islands and some of them were worked
into "The House Without a Key." Later, when Mr. Biggers came here
for a visit, he and Mr. Chang became friends and the writer created
the detective character "Charlie Chan" as a result.
Mr. Chang joined the police department when the city and county was
incorporated 35 years ago and was one of its most popular members
until he was pensioned in May, 1932, after he had been seriously
injured in an automobile accident. After that, he was employed as a
watchman for the Hawaiian Trust building until his illness.
"He was the greatest person I have ever known," was the tribute of
Capt. En You Kau when he learned of his friend's death. They had
worked together for about 29 years. Other veteran officers tell
stories of his feats of daring, especially relating to the early
days of Chinese immigration to the islands when there was much opium
smuggling. They say he never lost his courage, although knifed and
beaten many times.
Born at Waipio, Oahu, Mr. Chang was 64 years of age. He is survived
by his widow, Mrs. Annie Lee Kwai Apana; eight children, Annie,
Rose, Margaret, Cecelia and Alexander, and, by a former marriage,
Mrs. Helen Meheula, Victoria Apana and Samuel Apana; 10
grandchildren, and a brother, Chang Kwock.
Arrangements for the funeral, which will be at the Nuuanu mortuary,
had not been completed this morning.