Yes, There Really Was a Charlie Chan

Like many who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I enjoyed the adventures of the fictional detective known as Charlie Chan.  I did not know, however, that there really was a policeman whose adventures in law enforcement in Honolulu at the beginning of the twentieth century served as inspiration for great fictional detective.  His name was Chang Apana (1871-1933).  He stood only five feet tall, but at times carried a bull whip with him as he patrolled Honolulu’s Chinatown. 

The story of how Chang Apana became the inspiration for author Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional character, Charlie Chan, is the subject of Yunte Huang’s CHARLIE CHAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE HONORABLE DETECTIVE AND HIS RENDEZVOUS WITH AMERICAN HISTORY (New York: W. H. Norton & Company, 2010).  Yunte Huang is a distinguished scholar and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is the author of a number of books praised for their scholarship and readability.

Professor Huang used both archival materials and extensive reading in secondary sources to tell the story of both Chang Apana and Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan.  He documents how Biggers’ creation became one the most popular icons in American popular culture through novels, and even more through movies.  The book includes an extensive bibliography, which, together with the chapter notes and index, makes the book both enjoyable to read as well and a good source for one interested in a serious study of American popular culture during the first half of the twenty-first century. 

Readers who have seen many of the Charlie Chan movies will no doubt enjoy “A List of Charlie Chanisms” in Appendix I.  There are 56 of these gems including:

“Every maybe has a wife called Maybe-Not.”

“The fool questions others, the wise man questions himself.”

“Learn from hen—never boast about egg until after egg’s birthday.”

“Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.”

Appendix II contains a list of 47 Charlie Chan films produced between 1926 and 1949.  Charlie Chan was played by 5 different actors over the years:  George Kuwa (1926), Kamiyama Sojin (1927), E. L. Park (1929), Warner Oland (1931-1937), Sidney Toler (1938-1946) and Roland Winters (1947-2949). 

In conclusion, I agree with Jonathan Spence’s (author of The Search for Modern China and Return to Dragon Mountain) assessment of Huang’s Charlie Chan: “An ingenious and absorbing book that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through Chinese and Western eyes.  It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled gripping story.”

One response to “Yes, There Really Was a Charlie Chan

  1. This is fabulous! I never knew there was a real Charlie Chan. Thanks for all the details here. When school is over for the summer (more or less; you know how that isn’t actually the case for teachers), I’d like to dive in and follow some of your leads.

    Like

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