Who was Charlie Chan?
A master detective who was born in China and immigrated to Hawaii with his honorable parents as he knocked at the door of manhood?
A faithful husband and proud patriarch of a “multitudinous family” of fourteen children?
A courteous, dignified gentleman, who always had appropriate words of wisdom poised at the tip of his tongue?
A world traveler, who solved crimes not only in Hawaii, but on the mainland and in Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, and China?
An apparent teetotaler, who would, when in a bar, order sarsaparilla?
In truth, Charlie Chan was all of these and more…
Charlie Chan was born in the Canton province of China in the early part of the year 1875.* In the waning years of his youth, Charlie and his parents moved to Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At this time, he began to learn the English language, but, as he took it up just before adolescence, Charlie never completely mastered the language of his adopted land, although his vocabulary was quite extensive.
In his early years as an adult, Charlie worked as a houseboy for Sally Jordan, a woman of considerable means who took the young man under her wing. “Memories of her kindness will survive while life hangs out,” said Mr. Chan years later.
Following his employment in the Jordan home, Charlie Chan joined the Honolulu Police Department, walking a beat, probably through the streets of that city’s Chinatown. Eventually, the observant and resourceful young police officer was brought into the detective bureau of the HPD. Detective Chan rapidly rose through the ranks and soon attained the level of Detective-Sergeant, and, finally, Inspector.
Perhaps early in the year 1912, Charlie Chan married the woman who would eventually be the loving mother of the “multitudinous” Chan family. The young Mrs. Chan was probably barely out of her teens when the newlywed couple moved into their humble home beneath algaroba trees on the slopes of Punchbowl Hill. Late that year, Mr. and Mrs. Chan had their first baby, a son, whom they named Henry Oswald Lee Chan, and who would later gain a measure of notoriety as Charlie’s Number One Son, Lee. Thirteen more children would follow over the course of the next twenty-five years.
Charlie Chan’s great skills as a detective assured that his fame would inevitably spread beyond the sparkling shores of Oahu. His renown arrived on the mainland, through the Golden Gate of San Francisco, which was linked to Honolulu through the ships of the famous Matson and American Presidents Lines. In that city, Mr. Chan became involved in a murder case that had him teaming with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. Both gentlemen, each appreciating the other’s skills at detection, became good friends. Two years later, in 1930, Charlie Chan again worked with Duff, carrying on for his fallen friend who was badly wounded by a bullet in Chan’s Honolulu office fired by the murderer whom he eventually captured on the deck of the liner ‘President Arthur’ in San Francisco harbor.
Through high-profile cases such as these, Charlie Chan’s vast skills as a master detective began to take him around the globe. Chan was not a stranger to overseas service, as he had served his country in France as a member of the Intelligence Service during the First World War. Obviously realizing his great value to the rest of the world, the Honolulu Police Department allowed Inspector Chan the unique opportunity and great latitude to venture to far-off places to speak, handle special assignments, and visit other police forces, often becoming involved in difficult murder cases. As with the case mentioned above involving Inspector Duff, Chan might find himself beginning a case in Honolulu, only to find the trail leading, as it did in 1936, all the way to the Olympic Games in Berlin!
By 1942, with his country now at war once again, Charlie Chan’s work as a detective with the Honolulu Police Department came to an end. By 1944, now in his mid-60s, he was working as an agent for the United States Secret Service in Washington, D.C. Chan’s work for the government took him around the United States where, as had happened so often throughout his distinguished career, he found himself facing a number of unusual murder cases.
Following the war, Charlie Chan continued to work for the United States government until 1947. His government work had caused him to be away from his wife and family in Honolulu, sometimes for more than a year. At about this time, not only did his beloved wife evidently pass away, but it seems that Chan’s Number Three Son, Tommy, was also gathered to his venerable ancestors. Perhaps it was too difficult for Charlie to return to a home that, in spite of a number of younger children who were now probably in the care of his older daughters and his wife’s sister, Ling, somehow would have felt so empty.
In semi-retirement, Charlie Chan moved to San Francisco, a city where he had had major triumphs in the past. While there, he often worked on cases with Lieutenant Mike Ruark of the San Francisco Police. At this time, he developed an even closer relationship with his Number Two Son, Jimmy, who had changed his own name to Tommy possibly as both a comfort to his heartbroken Pop and as a remembrance of his deceased brother.
By 1949, Charlie Chan was nearly seventy years old. He had, it is said, plans to travel to England and work there for a while, but this was not to be – yet. The time had come, perhaps, for the famous sleuth to retire. Perhaps the two busy years that he had spent in San Francisco had eased much of the pain by this time. Longing again for his family and his home, he returned to Honolulu. This time, it was not a Matson ship or the China Clipper that carried him back to the tropical city, but a modern airliner that made the trip in about ten hours. The world around the Great Detective had changed much over the years.
But change was to call once again for Charlie Chan nearly a decade later, beckoning the retired detective to a series of new adventures. In an Indian summer’s burst of activity during the late 1950s, having just surpassed his eightieth summer, Mr. Chan, still quite fit, traveled the world with one of his younger sons, Barry, referring to him as his “Number One Son,” perhaps in a nostalgic gesture recalling the happier years of his long career, bringing it all to a nice, neat, full circle. During the course of what had been planned as a lengthy vacation in England and Europe, Chan and Barry worked together on a large number of quickly solved cases, involving, as they had in the past, murder and intrigue. It was like older times in many ways. Times were certainly changing. As the world around him headed into the Space Age, an older, much less rotund Charlie Chan seemed to fit them surprisingly well during his advancing years. This brief plunge into the Fountain of Youth was to be the grand finale to the legendary career of one of the world’s most renowned detectives. It was time for the curtain to rise on the final act of a storied life.
Charlie Chan probably spent the remaining years of his life at the venerable house on Punchbowl Hill, above the city of Honolulu. His beloved Hawaii had just become the fiftieth state, and a flood of tourists now jetted over from the mainland to enjoy her tropical charms. Yet, some things had not changed so drastically with the passage of time. Chan still had most of his vast family around him, including a growing number of grandchildren by this time. As Charlie Chan had said decades earlier, as his thoughts of home had drifted across an ocean, “The bluest hills are those farthest away. Bluest of all is Punchbowl Hill, where my little family is gathered, waiting for me.”
* In the film Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan, indicating himself, states, “Sixty summers young, sixty winters old…” Years later, in Episode 7 (The Death of a Don) of The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Barry Chan notes to his father: “Next week is your birthday.” Based on the probable date of this adventure, this would place Charlie Chan’s birthday at either the end of the month of February or at the very beginning of March.