Sunday, May 18, 2014
Charlie Chan was a fictional character created by Earl DerrBigger based on real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana, who was a larger than life person. His story truly needs to be told and what better time than in May, which is Asian-Pacific Month.
The Charlie Chan stories were written by author Earl Bigger to offset the terrible Yellow Peril stories denigrating Asians. Biggers wanted to showcase a non-European detective who was more than a match for criminals. Although to our modern eyes, the Charlie Chan character seems to be a shuffling stereotype, such is not the case when viewed nearly 90 years ago when the first Charlie Chan story was published. But let me get back to the inspiration first.
Chang Apana really broke all the expectations of late Victorians and Edwardians about Chinese immigrants in Hawaii. First of all he didn’t dress or act like an ethic Chinese transplant from Guangzhou. Actually, he was born in Hawaii either in 1864 or 1871, (sources disagree) and went to China with his parents soon after his birth. He later returned to Hawaii when he was 10 years old. But Chang Apana (Chang Ah Ping) wasn’t going to be like any other Chinese person Victorians would have expected and just placed into a niche.
He wore his hair short, eschewing the traditional queue and wore a cowboy hat. In fact he was a Hawaiian cowboy and his first job was with the Hawaiian Humane Society in 1897, working with the maltreatment of horses. He was actually a Hawaiian cowboy, an expert horseman and carried a bullwhip, but more on that later. His wiry 5’3” frame was agile and tough. While with the Humane Society he rescued many horses from maltreatment, primarily in the Honolulu area.
Chang spoke Chinese as well as Hawaiian along with English* (although not perfectly), which made him an outstanding prospect for the Honolulu Police Department. Hawaii was a crossroads for the Pacific trade and many diverse cultures and people passed through or settled down in Hawaii. Many visitors however were not of the best character, but his didn’t deter Chang. According to biographical evidence he was almost acrobatic in physical feats and was never afraid to tackle armed opponent(s) even when grossly outnumbered. He often went undercover and dressed as a coolie to infiltrate dangerous gangs and gambling dens. Chang was shot at a number of times as well as being beaten and knifed. He had a scar over his right eye from a scythe wielding attacker that slashed his face. His was not a face that could be ignored.
Author Earl Biggers was visiting Honolulu, Hawaii in 1924 when he ran across a newspaper article about Chang of the Honolulu police and immediately was intrigued. Biggers wrote the story The House Without a Key, which was published in 1925 and the fictional Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan was born. Several more stories followed with great success (see below for a list). The first Charlie Chan film was released in 1926 as a serial and many more full-length features followed (see below for list). Chang took it all in stride.
Physically, he was not much like the slightly chubby, proverb quoting fictional detective of book and film, but the thing that most modern readers (or viewers) forget was that he was accepted as on par with European born detectives and was considered absolutely trustworthy. In Charlie Chan, the old stereotype was broken. We don’t really understand in this day and age, how far up Charlie Chan was from the poor expectations of that previous society he was born into, but both Charlie Chan and Chang were fully equals to westerners.
The films may be out of step with present modern practices, but at the time, Bigger’s portrayal was very modern, even revolutionary. The fictional character Charlie Chan was considered a thorough professional equal to everybody he encountered and often showed himself superior in patience, observation, and just plain brain work. His understated character allowed him to be underestimated by crooks or overlooked by spies and enemy agents.
Moreover, consider Chang never carried a gun, he just had his cowboy bullwhip and with consummate skill, employed it on Hawaii’s bad guys. He was so personally feared, that he captured 40 illegal gamblers single-handed – just him and his bullwhip. So much like the latter day Indiana Jones, he used this whip with authority.
Chang was injured in an accident in 1932, badly mauling his legs. Eventually one leg became infected and had to be amputated. He retired from the Honolulu Police with 34 years of service, long than anybody else. The Honolulu Police Department has a museum section entirely dedicated to Chang Apana with a number of mementos along with his famous bullwhip.
I can’t begin to say how impressed I am with Chang Apana’s story when I ran across it recently and just wanted to share with you a truly impressive person who lived a remarkable life. I would really would have liked to see a period 20s movie about Chang.
I wish that George Taki (known to some of you as Sulu) was young enough to portray Sergeant Apana in a period film set in Hawaii. It would love to see him swinging a bullwhip and backing down Honolulu criminals in the Roaring 20s. He would really put a spin on “book ‘em Dano, murder one”. Charlie Chan was not the last fictional Honolulu detective by a long shot.
Let’s take a look at the varied actors who played Charlie Chan over the decades on the screen:
First, there was in a 10 part serialization of House Without a Key in 1926 which starred George Kuwa a Japanese. Oddly, the viewers did not connect with an Asian playing an Asian character and the move toward western Charlie Chans began, but there would a few more attempts to have an Asian Charlie Chan.
Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin (whose career spanned from Thief of Baghdad 1924, to Seven Samurai 1954) in the Chan film, The Chinese Parrot in 1927.
Edward. L. Park who was Korean, portrayed Chan in Behind that Curtain, in 1929, the first feature length Charlie Chan movie. Actor Boris Karloff had a small part in this film.
Warner Oland, one of the best known of Chan actors, who was a Swedish actor who played Chan in 16 movies from 1931 to 1937. Oland also played Dr. Fu Manchu in film – what a contrast.
Sidney Toler is another of the better known actors who played Chan in 22 movies from 1938 to 1946.
Roland Winters, is less known than the previous two actors, but still racked up 6 movies from 1947 to 1949.
An odd inclusion is Charlie Chan at the Ringside, which was filmed but not released under that name. Because Warner Oland became ill during the filming, Peter Lorre was sent in to play Charlie Chan. To avoid viewer confusion as Lorre played Mr. Moto instead, so the film was renamed Mr. Moto’s Gamble and it was no longer a Charlie Chan film in the end. So I guess that makes Lorre as an almost Chan. Click for a list of Mr Moto films. As an aside, there was also a Mr. Moto radio series (see below).
On television J. Carroll Naish starred in The New AdventuresCharlie Chan on the small screen for 39 episodes in 1957-1958. Interestingly Naish often villians, including the Japanese mad scientist bad guy in the 1943 Batman serial.
Ross Martin (better known as Artemus Gordon of The Wild Wild West) was Chan in a TV movie in 1971 with The Return of Charlie Chan.
Keye Luke (finally an actual Chinese, but better know to you TV viewers as Master Po of Kung Fu) voiced Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan and the Chan Gang cartoon series of 1972. The less said of that cartoon series, the better. Luke played Number One Son in some Chan films, so I guess it was fitting that he had his shot.
There was also a popular Charlie Chan Radio Show (1932 to 1948). See down below for some surviving radio episodes.
I’ve really run on about Chang Apana and Charlie Chan, probably because Chang was so important to the development of Charlie Chan and the slow removal of stereotypes. Again, understand how far we have all come in the past 90 years and take some understanding about the context in which these films were made. Chang Apana was an original American hero who served his community well and Charlie Chan fought crooks and stereotypes.
In role playing games, you see characters played rather to type, so kick it up a bit and consider the history of Chang Apana as a new spin on the detective character for Call of Cthulhu and other RPGs. I would certainly like to have him at my side while playing Masks of Nyarlathotep or exploring some ruins.
*A little note: Pigeon English is often seen as a degenerate sub-language of illiterates, but in fact it was an important bridge language, with economic aims, agreed upon limited, delineated meanings between two complex and often highly nuanced languages. In essence it is a trade language between two cultures that are so differentiated socially and culturally, that there is initially little common ground in customs or in common use words. By avoiding confusing abstract and conditional language, simple concrete terms can be mutually communicated with agreed upon meanings understood by both. We have forgotten how important a bridge these created languages were in communications between strangers. Languages such as Swahili, Pigeon English, Lingua Franca, and Pidgin Hawaiian would be in this language grouping.
History of the Honolulu police: http://www.honolulupd.org/department/index.php?page=history
The Films of Charlie Chan http://charliechanfamily.tripod.com/id73.html
Or get a book on the subject: The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia by Howard M. Berlin
Charlie Chan had a big family and that figures into the films. Find out Who’s Who in the Charlie Chan film family: http://www.drberlin.com/chan_family/story.htm
Project Gutenberg Australia has some of Bigger’s Charlie Chan stories that are downloadable but not on the US Project Gutenberg:
Charlie Chan Carries On http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700761h.html
The Chinese Parrot (1926) http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200681.txt
Charlie Chan Radio Show Episodes Free Downloads: 24 episodes available at http://www.myoldradio.com/old-radio-shows/charlie-chan and https://archive.org/details/CharlieChan_956 and http://matineeclassics.com/radio/1932/charlie_chan/