Charlie Chan is the rotund Chinese detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Beginning in 1925 with The House Without a Key, Biggers modeled Chan after Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese detective who lived with his large family in Honolulu on Punchbowl Hill. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan is the most prolific detective on film—a filmography that includes an initial 10-part serial in 1926 followed by 46 films through 1949. During this span, six actors played the inscrutable detective: George Kuwa (1925), Kamiyama Sojin (1927), E.L. Park (1929), Warner Oland (1931-1938), Sidney Toler (1938-1947), and Roland Winters (1947-1949).
There are two things that I enjoy the most that set the Charlie Chan film series apart from the other B-detective films of the 1930s and 1940s. One is Chan’s frequent use of pithy, but wise sayings. The other is the scenarists’ inclusion of Chan’s children in many of the films who are often found to be on the receiving end of many of Charlie’s well-placed verbal shots—”Better a father lose his son than a detective his memory” in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940). Also mentioned are a few members of the extended family—”Man without relatives is man without troubles.”
Because of Chan’s large family, it is not uncommon for questions to arise concerning his family, relatives, and the names of his children. Although the family members are characters of fiction, one however has to carefully distinguish between the novels and the films, as there were only rare cases where the film faithfully followed the novel it was based on. In the six novels Biggers wrote, Charlie Chan and his honorable wife are parents to 11 children, a brood large enough for the Chans to field their own family baseball or football team if they wanted to. Charlie candidly declares in The Chinese Cat (1944), “Once you have large family, all other troubles mean nothing.”
More than 40 films allowed for the development of the Chan family and the many scenarists introduced changes in the family along with perhaps unintended occasional errors in continuity over the duration of the series. Of the very early Chan talkies with Warner Oland, sadly four films are considered “lost” but thankfully their scripts and some stills survive. Like Chan, we can try to deduce certain facts allowing us to gather further information about some members of the Chan family.
The Chan Children: The Changing Numbers
Throughout the film series the size of the Chan family changes. The script of one of the lost films, Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), gives the first glimpse of the scope of Charlie’s family and his role as a family man. In one scene, Chan has just sent his friend Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard a letter along with a family photograph of himself, his wife, and their 11 children, whom Chan occasionally calls his “multitudinous blessings.” One can only suppose that this family photo is similar to the one in Charlie Chan’s Courage (1934), another lost film, or the one seen in available films like Charlie Chan in London (1934) and Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935). Such photos which, from left to right, show the 11 children in a single line in descending order, possibly by age. From the photo one can readily identify five sons and five daughters, but the gender of the youngest child is uncertain. However, in The Black Camel (1931), which followed Charlie Chan Carries On by only two months, only ten children are seen. One film later in Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932), child Number 11 is born.
As a devoted family man, Charlie always has a picture of his family in a large wallet placed near his bed in his travels around the world. In Charlie Chan in London, Chan, his wife, and 10 children are shown in one photograph and a separate photograph shows a young baby—probably child Number 11 from Charlie Chan’s Chance. However this is at odds with the end of the movie when Charlie says that at home, he has 12 children and one wife.
Four films later in Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936), Charlie has a picture of himself, his wife, and 11 children. In Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), the entire Chan family consisting of Charlie, his wife, and 12 children (five sons and seven daughters) are shown together entering a circus tent in the order of increasing height (and probably age) with Charlie last, holding the baby which he calls their “latest blessed event.” One can only wonder how Charlie and his wife manage to have such a large family when he is frequently solving mysteries in places other than Honolulu.
The 1938 entry, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, is notable in many respects. First, the role of Charlie Chan is now played by Sidney Toler following the death of Warner Oland. Secondly, the departure of Keye Luke as Number One son from the series now introduces Number Two son Jimmy for the first time. Thirdly, Charlie and his wife confirm that they now have 13 children and a grandchild is born at the film’s end.
However one scene at the beginning of the film shows 11 children at the family dining table—now seven boys and four girls—with Number Two son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung, then credited as Sen Yung) seated at the head of the table next to Charlie. The discrepancy of two fewer children is easily resolved when Jimmy explains Lee’s absence, now attending art school in New York, and Number One daughter Ling is in the hospital about to give birth to the Chans’ first grandchild. With 13 children, there are now eight sons and five daughters accounted for. Apparently somewhere between the “Circus” and “Honolulu” films, the Chans despite adding one child, have gained three sons and lost two daughters!
In “Honolulu,” a freighter captain has already met two of Charlie’s sons (Jimmy and Willie) under annoying circumstances aboard his ship while Chan is also aboard investigating a murder. He then tersely inquires of Charlie there are any more. To the captain’s astonishment, Charlie admits to having nine more at home, corroborating the total of 11 children present in an earlier scene at the crowded dinner table.
In Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939), an old friend praises Chan’s wife as an “institution,” having given birth to 13 children. In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940), Charlie responds to his chief superior that he likes to use the element of surprise and not to be its victim. When the police chief then inquires if Chan was ever surprised, Charlie with a smile admits the only time was “When honorable wife announced arrival of 13th offspring.”
When the production of the Charlie Chan films changed studios from 20th Century-Fox to Monogram, viewers were informed of another increase in the family’s size. In Monogram’s first entry, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), a long-time friend who hasn’t seen Charlie in ten years asks him about his wife and seven children. Charlie retorts that they have seven more and that “Everything grow rapidly in Hawaii.” Two films later (Black Magic, 1944), Charlie remarks, “I have 14 children; they all try to boss me.” Thankfully for Charlie, there are no further additions to the family for the rest of the series.
No matter how many children the Chans have, all cast members having roles of the various Chan children were ethnic Asians. This was unlike the standard Hollywood practice at that time of casting non-Asian actors, such as Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, in the major roles depicting Oriental characters like Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong.
The Black Camel is another significant film for me. Although ten children are seen in one scene, none are ever referred to by name, nor are they listed in the film’s credits—leaving the viewer to guess which ones might be the future Number One son or Number Two daughter of the later films. Secondly, The Black Camel has one of the series’ funniest dialogues between Charlie and two of his children. Although Chan in many ways honors tradition having been born in China, his children are fully Americanized in their behavior and speech, unlike his own stilted delivery, and he finds it difficult to understand their new ways and language.
A scene at the dinner table concerns a discussion about a less than flattering report card from school, a topic that occurs again in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940), but apparently with a different son. One son presents his report card to Charlie, initiating the following exchange between Chan, the son, and a daughter:
Teacher say you are always at bottom of class. Can’t you find better place?
Besides this comedic conversation, we are treated to the cultural differences between the two generations. In this film much of Charlie’s acerbic barbs are directed for Kashimo, his overzealous but inept Japanese police assistant “Spend more time hunting for nothing to do!” Charlie admonishes.
Henry Chan: The First Number One Son
The start of any discussion about any one of Charlie Chan’s children must start with Henry Chan. He is first mentioned in Biggers’ 1929 novel, The Black Camel, as the Chans’ eldest son but he is absent from the 1931 movie with the same title. Based on the movie’s final shooting script, Henry appears about halfway though the film in a brief, uncredited role in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). From the script, we find that Henry, in his sole line of the film, initiates the established practice of all the children of addressing their father as “Pop.”
The second child to have an appearance in the Charlie Chan series is Oswald. Like Henry, Oswald Chan appears only once, as an uncredited role in Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933). Based on the film’s revised final shooting script, the viewer first encounters Oswald about three-quarters into the film in the typical Chan family setting—the entire family eating in the dining room.
The following exchange between Charlie and Oswald in one scene shows that Charlie’s grasp of American slang has not improved:
You have carefully gone over instructions?
For such a long-running series, fans often like to point out continuity errors, inconsistencies of facts that occur. There are many, as we shall see. The question here that begs asking, if Henry is the Number One son, is then Oswald the Number Two son?
Lee Chan: The Second Number One Son
Even though Fox Film Corporation had already made six previous Charlie Chan films with Warner Oland, Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) is the series’ first film that features one of Chan’s children in a major role. Also, the viewer is introduced to two more innovations that would be standard fare throughout the rest of the series. One is the custom of Charlie’s often referring to his various children by number, such as “Number One son” Lee, played by the affable Keye Luke. A second innovation is that of one or more of the children acting as Charlie’s uninvited and often troublesome assistant when their detective father is assigned a case—”Father who depend on son is happy or foolish according to son.”
Of all the Chan offspring in the series, Lee is probably the best remembered, and often pops up unexpectedly in various parts of the globe wherever his father comes to town. Because of his travels with his father, Lee develops the strange hobby of appropriating towels as mementos from the hotels he has stayed in and ships he has sailed on.
In some of the films, Lee actually has a job, often employed as some kind of purchasing agent or trade representative. Coincidentally, he is often sent on business to the same location as is his honorable father. In Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) Lee meets his father, telling him that his firm sent him to Shanghai to look into the trade situation. Charlie then ribs Lee by asking, “Selling oil for lamps in China?” Ironically, it was Luke who had a bit part as a Chinese soldier in the film, Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), which was released about a month before “Shanghai” went into production.
In Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937), Lee is shown to be an accomplished athlete when, as a member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he swims in the 100 meter freestyle race. In Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), Lee, as Luke was in real life, portrays an artist. He and Charlie are both passing through Monte Carlo on their way to a Paris art show where one of Lee’s paintings is being displayed. In the last film of the series, Sky Dragon (1949), Lee is studying to be an airplane pilot.
As the Number One son, Lee Chan is a definite asset to the films’ plots. Often, the exchanges between the inscrutable father and his clean-cut son highlight Charlie’s paternal qualities and Lee is usually around to provide the necessary physical action which Oland’s portrayal lacks. Lee even receives a black eye for his trouble in Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937).
None of Lee’s shortcomings however diminish his strong devotion to and concern for his father’s welfare. Always appreciative of Lee’s help, Charlie remarks, “Confucius say, no man is poor who have worthy son.”
Keye Luke was born June 18, 1904 in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), China. At an early age he and his family immigrated to the U.S. where he grew up in Seattle. After graduation from high school, Luke then went to the University of Southern California. Drafted into military service during World War II, he went back to college to learn Mandarin Chinese for the Marines, but it wasn’t until 1944 when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Luke was a talented artist. He entered the film industry as a billboard designer and caricaturist, and in 1933 was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild. Ironically, he did publicity artwork for the Fox studio in connection with several of the early Charlie Chan films.
Luke tells the story that his becoming an actor was mainly the result of being in the right place at the right time. When he did his first picture in an uncredited supporting role with Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil (1934), Luke got the role because his former boss at MGM called him to his office one day. As Luke fondly reminisced with actress Beulah Quo during a 1977 dinner of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California:
“I took samples of my art work with me. He said, ‘What the hell do you have those things for?’ I said, ‘I thought you wanted to see my art work.’ He replied, ‘No! Read page 35,’ handing me the script for The Painted Veil. After I read it, he asked, ‘How do you like it?’ I said, ‘But, I’m an artist,’ I insisted. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ he answered, and took me downstairs to the casting department.”
Coincidentally, this film also featured Charlie Chan’s Warner Oland, with whom Luke would join one year later in the increasingly popular Charlie Chan series.
From his first appearance as Number One son Lee Chan in Charlie Chan in Paris, Luke continued the role seven more times with Oland. While filming Charlie Chan at the Ringside in 1938, Oland unexpectedly left the set and eventually went to Sweden where he died of bronchial pneumonia. Twentieth Century-Fox salvaged much of this uncompleted project and reworked it as the 1938 movie, Mr. Moto’s Gamble with Luke again playing the part of Lee Chan, but now as an assistant to Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective played by Peter Lorre.
With Oland’s death, Sidney Toler was picked to continue the Charlie Chan role and Keye Luke’s pay was cut by the studio. Jon Tuska writes in his book, The Detective in Hollywood, that producer Sol Wurtzel once commented to Luke, “With this team, there’s one smart one and one dumb one. You’re the dumb one.” This verbal slap and resenting the cut in pay caused Luke to quit the series. His role was then replaced with a new character—Jimmy Chan as the Chans’ Number Two son. Ten years later, Luke would reprise his Lee Chan role for the last two movies of the series at Monogram with Roland Winters. Although he was never in a Charlie Chan film with Toler, Luke and Toler did appear together in Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1943).
By 1940, there now were three Oriental detectives in films—Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong. Unfortunately, each series continued the industry practice of casting a non-Asian actor as the lead detective. After Boris Karloff had appeared as James Lee Wong in five Mr. Wong films at Monogram, Keye Luke was chosen for the Mr. Wong role in Phantom of Chinatown (1940). This marked the first time an Asian actor was cast in the main role of an Oriental detective. Unfortunately, Luke was mismatched in the lead role and the Mr. Wong series quickly ended.
Luke made more than 100 films over his career of more than 60 years. As a contract player in the big-studio era, Keye Luke had to appear in many minor movies, but he also had supporting roles in major films such as The Good Earth (1937) and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). Luke was involved in other series besides the Charlie Chan films. He played the loyal Kato in The Green Hornet films and the dedicated intern, Dr. Lee Wong How, in five Dr. Kildare films of the 1940s. Luke also played Wang Chi-Yang, the patriarch of a Chinese-American family in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song. Incidentally, Luke’s role would be played by Benson Fong, another “Chan son,” in the 1961 movie adaptation of the Broadway show.
Besides films and the Broadway stage, Luke found work in many television episodes such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The A-Team, Miami Vice, MacGyver, Harry-O, Night Court, Cannon, Remington Steele, Magnum P.I., It Takes a Thief, I Spy, and Star Trek. He was also the voice of Charlie Chan on the Saturday morning cartoon show, Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan in the early 1970s. However, Luke was probably the most popular in his post-Charlie Chan years as Master Po, a blind Shaolin monk in the Kung Fu television show (1972-1975), which Luke considers his best role.
Besides acting, Luke often served as a technical adviser on films with Chinese themes. In 1986, he won the first Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists, and he was honored with a sidewalk star in the Hollywood Hall of Fame in December 1990. A month later though, Keye Luke died from a stroke at the age of 86 on January 12, 1991 at the Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, California. He was survived by a daughter, Ethel Longenecker, whom he adopted in 1942 when he married Ethel Davis.
Jimmy Chan: The First Number Two Son?
With the death of Warner Oland and the departure of Keye Luke from the series, 20th Century-Fox writers introduced a new character—Jimmy Chan, a.k.a. “Number Two son” to replace older brother Lee along with the introduction of Sidney Toler as the Number Two Chan. Starting with Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), Jimmy, who was also credited as James Chan in several of the films, was portrayed by Victor Sen Yung (then credited as simply Sen Yung). The character was written into 13 films, all of which were alongside Toler.
At the scene at the dinner table mentioned earlier in which Jimmy mentions older brother Lee’s attending art school in New York, Charlie refers to Jimmy as “Number Two son,” which would appear to eliminate Oswald from this distinction. However, in the later films churned out by Monogram, the “Number Two son” moniker is mysteriously reassigned to Tommy Chan. More about this change later. Although Jimmy is portrayed as a college student much of the time, there are some inconsistencies and revelations about his college days. In Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), Jimmy is a chemistry student at the University of Southern California and one film later in Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940), is in New York attending law school. Then in the following picture, Murder Over New York (1940), Jimmy is again a chemistry student with occasional classes in biology and art. In Charlie Chan in Rio (1941), Jimmy confesses under hypnosis that he didn’t do well in math because the class is at 8:00 a.m. and he is too lazy to get out of bed.
With all this education it is not surprising that Charlie often refers to Jimmy as “expensively educated offspring,” but also concedes that “One scholar in family better than two detectives.” Besides his college studies, Jimmy also finds time to be a pitcher on the school’s baseball team. He also shows that he can play the violin when he breaks out with impromptu boogie-woogie music, called “chop suey boogie,” with Chan chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) on the piano in Docks of New Orleans (1948).
Jimmy sometimes is hired on with temporary jobs onboard freighters during college vacations but he often lands in jail because of some kind of misunderstanding with the police who doesn’t believe that his father is the famous Charlie Chan. The incarceration generally serves to justify Jimmy’s “just happen to be in the neighborhood” presence when his father arrives on a case in Charlie Chan in Reno (1939) and Charlie Chan in Panama (1940).
In his initial appearance, Jimmy already has an appetite for detective work. “I could be the best detective on the island with your help,” he tells his father. Charlie however is a little less optimistic— “I’m afraid you overestimate abilities of parent.” Jimmy is always eager to assist his honorable detective father, most of the time without permission, and Charlie often has his doubts about Jimmy’s usefulness—”Father who depend on son is happy or foolish according to son.” Despite his good intentions though, Jimmy often gullible, providing more than occasional comic relief—”Young squirt merely chip masquerading as block.”
Jimmy’s uninvited assistance is also the butt of Charlie’s jokes—”Number Two son very promising detective; promise very much, produce very little.” In Murder Over New York (1940), Charlie with a little sarcasm introduces Jimmy to an old friend saying, “This is favorite offspring Jimmy, without whose assistance many cases would have been solved much sooner.” After Jimmy invites himself with assisting his father on the case, Charlie enlightens his son, “Will inform honorable mother that aid from Number Two son like interest on mortgage. Impossible to escape.” Even with such well-placed quips, exchanges between father and his “favorite offspring” son continue to highlight Charlie’s human qualities despite Toler’s slightly more acerbic interpretation of the Charlie Chan character.
After helping his father solve a murder case in Charlie Chan in Rio, Charlie breaks the news to Jimmy that a cablegram from his honorable mother informs them that Jimmy has just been drafted into the Army. Jimmy’s nonchalant response is, “Well how do you like that? Now I’ve got a war on my hands!” When Charlie questions if Jimmy doesn’t want to go, Number Two son boasts, “Sure. With me in it Pop, the war’s in the bag. It’s a cinch!”
In the following film, Castle in the Desert (1942), Jimmy is now in the army. He then joins his father on a case while on leave from army training and complains about why they have to do so much marching. Charlie, who never is at a loss for a few words of wisdom, replies, “Excellent training for brains of young sprouts. Man who walk have both feet on ground.” Jimmy is then absent from the series for the next six films, presumably due to his being in the army during World War II. This was not far from the truth as Yung was actually a captain in intelligence for the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
Victor Sen Yung, whose original name was Sen Yew Cheung, was born October 18, 1915 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When he was 12, he took a job as a houseboy for a family on Nob Hill to help finance his future education. He later graduated from the University of California with a degree in economics and did some graduate work at UCLA and USC.
As did Keye Luke, Yung got into acting by shear happenstance. He was employed as a salesman for a chemical company and came to the 20th Century-Fox studios one day with samples of a new flame retardant to sell. Instead of closing the sale, Yung was persuaded to take a screen test for the new role of Jimmy Chan. In his role as Jimmy Chan, Yung appeared in all his films with Sidney Toler. Because of his military service with the Air Force in World War II, Yung was replaced with Benson Fong as Tommy Chan, the Number Three son when Monogram took over the series in 1944.
In 1946, Yung returned to the series reprising his Jimmy Chan role in Shadows Over Chinatown. Two films later, Sidney Toler died in 1947 and Roland Winters was picked to carry on the role of Charlie Chan for Monogram’s final six films. Along with a new actor to play his honorable father, Yung was without explanation, now cast as Tommy Chan for five of the six final Monogram films and also mysteriously upgraded as Charlie’s Number Two son.
Besides changes in his character from Jimmy to Tommy and his seniority among his brothers, Yung himself also underwent several name changes and spellings. In all ten films at 20th Century-Fox, Yung was credited simply as Sen Yung. When he returned to the series following military service, he was billed as Victor Sen Young but was credited as Victor Sen Yung in his final film of the series, The Feathered Serpent (1948). As to why the different names and spellings throughout the series, no one knows for sure.
Besides his appearance in 18 Charlie Chan films, Yung had roles in more than 35 other films, many of which were stereotypical for Asian actors. In some he had key roles, such as Ong Chi Seng in Billy Wyler’s The Letter (1940) with Betty Davis, which Yung felt was his best performance, and as Frankie Wing in Flower Drum Song (1961). In addition to films, he found work in recurring roles in several television shows. He was Chuen in Kung Fu (1972), cousin Charlie Fong in Bachelor Father (1957-62), and was perhaps best recognized as Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s irascible cook and houseboy, in Bonanza (1959-73). It is ironic that Yung was cast as a cook because he actually was a talented Cantonese-style cook. In 1974 he penned the Great Wok Cookbook (as Victor Sen Yung), which was dedicated to his father, Sen Gam Yung.
Unlike some of the other actors from the Chan and Bonanza series, financial fortune did not follow Yung. Virtually penniless and alone, he died tragically November 9, 1980 in a North Hollywood tenement from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning due to a gas leak in the stove.
Tommy Chan: The Climb from Number Five to Number Two Son
The character of Tommy Chan has an interesting evolution throughout the series. He is first seen in Charlie Chan in Honolulu as the “Number Five son,” whose part is played by Layne Tom, Jr. There is a bit of sibling rivalry in this film between Tommy and his older brother Jimmy, each boasting he can do the better job of detecting and assisting their father. After “Honolulu,” Tommy is absent from the series for the next ten films until Monogram’s Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), when Tommy, now played by Benson Fong, is promoted two rungs, without explanation, to “Number Three son.”
Fong is cast with Sidney Toler as his honorable father in six Monogram entries but is dropped from the series after completing Dark Alibi (1946). Toler died on February 12, 1947 after a long illness from intestinal cancer and Roland Winters was tapped to continue the Chan role in The Chinese Ring (1947). As was the case when Oland died, there was also a shuffle among Charlie’s children. Yung continued in the series, but he did so now as Tommy Chan, who was cast as the “Number Two son.” The change in character name and number for Yung is probably due more to carelessness in the continuity of writing the screenplays than for any other reason. Of the three actors to portray Tommy Chan, Benson Fong’s characterization, intentionally or not, comes off as the one who was the real bumbler.
Lee, Jimmy, and Tommy occasionally converse in fluent Chinese in many of the films, sometimes to their humble father when excited; more often though to pretty Chinese girls, like those portrayed by Barbara Jean Wong, Shia Jung, Iris Wong, and Jean Wong, that were included in the plots to add a dash of anticipated romance. However, Tommy’s flawless conversational Spanish while in Mexico City during a scene in The Red Dragon (1945) is a big surprise when compared to Lee’s French in the earlier Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo.
As the son of a well-to-do businessman, Benson Fong was born October 10, 1916 in Sacramento, California. He went to study in China after high school but eventually returned to Sacramento to open a grocery store.
In the late 1930s he landed a few brief bit parts which included an uncredited role as a Chinese soldier extra in Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). However Fong got his real break in the early ’40s when in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant with some friends, he saw a man staring at him. This made him uneasy and Fong asked the waiter to tell the man to stop staring. The man came over and introduced himself as a director at Paramount Studios and said that he was looking for a Chinese man for a film. There was a big demand for Fong and other Asian actors at this time as Hollywood was turning out lots of war movies and the studios needed Asian actors to play the needed Japanese and Chinese characters.
Besides the Charlie Chan series, Fong appeared in nearly 45 other films. His two favorite roles were that of a servant in Keys of the Kingdom (1944) with Gregory Peck and Vincent Price, and the family patriarch Wang Chi-Yang in Flower Drum Song (1961). Like Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung, Fong also found additional work in television series such as Perry Mason, Family Affair, Kung Fu, Mission: Impossible, and It Takes a Thief.
Fong opened Ah Fong’s, a restaurant on Vine Street in Hollywood in 1946 at the suggestion of his friend Gregory Peck. In time there were to be four more—in Encino, Beverly Hills, Anaheim, and one on Sunset Boulevard, but only one remained when Fong retired in 1985. As a bit of trivia, the next to last episode of the TV show Bewitched in 1972, revealed that Darin Stephens (then played by Dick Sargent) who worked for an advertising agency, had Ah Fong’s Restaurant as one of his clients.
Benson Fong died August 1, 1987 at age 70 from complications of a stroke and was survived by his wife, five children and three grandchildren.
Three Chan Sons Together for One Time
Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, and Benson Fong never worked as a trio on any of the Chan films, although Luke and Yung once teamed up in The Feathered Serpent (1948). On November 5, 1977 the three “brothers” appeared together as honored dinner guests of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California with actress Beulah Quo serving as emcee. All three of who played Charlie’s sons were presented plaques from the Society honoring their achievements and historical contributions to the motion picture and television industry. When asked why they became actors, all three gave the identical reply—money.
Eddie Chan: Number Four Son
In order of sibling seniority, the Chans’ Number Four son is Eddie Chan. The character appears in only one film, The Jade Mask (1945), and is played by Edwin Luke, Keye Luke’s real-life younger brother. Compared to his other siblings, Eddie is the intellectual one—a “very expensively educated bookworm,” in Charlie’s words. Eddie is also sensitive about his name, as when he admonishes his parent, “Please father, call me Edward. Eddie is so juvenile.” In one scene Charlie tells Eddie, who always has something to say, “My boy, if silence is golden, you are bankrupt.”
Like many of his siblings, Eddie can’t resist the self-appointed urge to assist his father in solving the murder. There is one scene when Eddie and Birmingham Brown arrive to meet Charlie at the house where a murder had been committed earlier that evening. With unabashed conceit, Eddie asks of his father, “Now that I am here Pop, what type of murder have we got and how soon do you wish me to produce the murderer?” Charlie retorts, “Every time you open your mouth, you put in more feet than centipede.”
Unfortunately, nothing is known about Edwin Luke and whether he had other film appearances besides The Jade Mask. Older brother Keye Luke, who was interviewed and quoted by Ken Hanke in his book, Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism, was noticeably silent on any details about his younger brother. Even Keye Luke’s New York Times obituary, written by Peter Flint, made no mention of Edwin.
Charlie Junior: Another Number Two Son
Despite Jimmy’s appearance in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), there is an impish and much younger Number Two son three films earlier in Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937). Charlie Chan does not mention this second son by name but merely refers to him only as “Junior son,” which many assume his name to be Charlie Chan, Jr.
In “Olympics,” a female murder suspect is presumed to be wearing clothing made from the fur of a white fox. Every time Charlie Jr. sees a woman wearing white fox fur, he quickly points out the woman, however a different one each time, to his father—”Look, white fox fur!” Eventually the senior Chan loses his patience and orders his son to walk home as punishment.
The last of the known Chan sons is Willie Chan, who appears with older brother Jimmy as Charlie’s unauthorized assistants on, what else?—a murder case in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940). Layne Tom, Jr. plays the Number Seven son in his last of three Chan film appearances.
Willie’s only film role is rather inauspicious when at the film’s beginning, he and Jimmy sneak into their father’s office at the police station at night to see if Willie’s teacher had sent Charlie a copy of his report card in the mail. Their father suddenly enters his office and uncovers Willie’s deception for his being there, as Charlie had already received the unflattering report card in that day’s earlier mail. Charlie sternly points to Willie that, “In Honolulu schools, E not symbol for excellent.” Although he can forgive his son’s bad report card, Charlie is unforgiving with his son’s attempt at tampering with the U.S. mail. “What chance has a kid got when his father is a detective?” Willie says dejectedly.
As punishment, the younger Chan is to assume the “proper position” across his father’s knee for a spanking. Just when Charlie is about to deliver the first strike, he is unexpectedly interrupted by an old friend from Scotland Yard, who realizes that he has just stumbled upon an old fashioned spanking. Chan explains the situation as, “Sometimes quickest way to brain of young sprout is by impression on other end.” Having escaped punishment, Willie breathes a sigh of relief while rubbing his bottom and confesses to Jimmy that he’s grateful that Scotland Yard arrived just in time.
As a child actor, very little is known about Layne Tom, Jr. He was born Richard Layne Tom, Jr. in Los Angeles in the late 1920s to parents Richard Layne and Mary SooHoo Tom. When under contract to 20th Century-Fox, he attended “studio school” with other children such as Donald O’Connor and Jane Whithers.
Layne, whose given Chinese name is Tom Kay Gong, graduated from Polytechnic High School and served in the Navy aboard the battleship West Virginia in the Pacific during World War II. Afterwards, he earned a degree in architecture from USC and worked for several firms in southern California before starting a solo practice. He later formed an architectural firm with Jan Truskier that specialized in the design of libraries, civic centers, and banks. He is now retired and had served on several governmental planning commissions and architectural review boards.
Layne Tom’s first film appearance was that of sitting on Clark Gable’s shoulders in San Francisco (1936). He also had a role as the native boy Mako in The Hurricane (1937) featuring an all-star cast that included Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, Raymond Massey, and John Carradine. However, he would be best known for his roles as three different sons to the same father in the Charlie Chan films.
Tom is married to Marilynn Chow, whose aunt, Jean Wong, herself had appeared in two Charlie Chan films: The Red Dragon (1945) and The Chinese Ring (1947). They have two daughters, Laurie and Joanne, the latter now known professionally as Kiana Tom, a well-known fitness and aerobics personality on ESPN, who is just getting into films herself. When once asked about her father, Kiana mentioned that Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) and The Hurricane (1937) are his favorites. More than 60 years later after “Olympics” was made, both Kiana and her mother still tease Layne about the mysterious “lady in the white fox fur.”
Ling: Number One Daughter
In the 1929 novel, The Black Camel, the Chans’ eldest daughter is named Rose and like Henry, is absent from the 1931 movie. In Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) though, Charlie’s wife exclaims the daughter’s name—Ling, when honorable son-in-law Wing Foo (Philip Ahn) informs his in-laws that she is now in labor and has just been taken to the hospital. Only at the film’s end does Ling make a brief appearance, after having just given birth to the Chan’s first grandchild, a boy named Leung.
Incidentally, the grandchild is mentioned again in the series’ next film, Charlie Chan in Reno, where Charlie is seen in the police crime laboratory trying to create an Easter egg for his Number One grandchild. In the uncredited role with no lines, it is possible the Number One daughter was probably named after an Aunt Ling who is mentioned by Number One son Lee in a earlier film, Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), as living “at the other end of the island.”
Number One daughter Ling is portrayed by Florence Ung, who was born April 20, 1918 in Los Angeles. Besides her uncredited role in “Honolulu,” she also appeared as one of the Chans’ 12 children in Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936). Ung is also a real-life first cousin of Charlie Chan actors Layne Tom, Jr., and Barbara Jean Wong, both of whom also appear with her in “Honolulu.”
The Number Two Daughter
The Chan’s Number Two daughter is first encountered in Charlie Chan in Honolulu. In an brief, but uncredited role, she is not identified by name but rather by number, and is played by Iris Wong.
The second eldest daughter appears a second time in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), now by name as Iris Chan. Played by Marianne Quon, Iris is paired with Number Three son Tommy (Benson Fong) in the first of the 17 Chan films released by Monogram. The rivalry between sister and brother, along with the debut of Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown for comic relief, makes for too many assistants. Although Tommy and Birmingham continue as characters in the series, Iris Chan is never heard from again.
Marianne Quon’s brief acting career included two other films besides “Secret Service.” In China (1943), Quon worked with Chan actors Sen Yung, Barbara Jean Wong, Iris Wong, and Philip Ahn. In Anna and the King of Siam (1946), she had an uncredited part as one of the many wives of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison).
The last of the Chan daughters to be credited by name is Frances Chan, who appears in a single entry, Black Magic (1944), a.k.a. Meeting at Midnight. She is not referred to by a number like her brothers but she has the same yearning to help her father to solve a murder case—a family trait that viewers assume by now must be genetic. Unlike brothers Jimmy and Tommy, Frances is not the recipient of Charlie’s sharp digs disguised as words of wisdom. On the contrary, he compliments her in the presence of a police detective (Joseph Crehan), “The beauty of the Chan family also have brains. Very fine combination.”
In Black Magic, Frances is not paired up with any of her brothers, like Iris and Tommy were two films earlier in “Secret Service.” Instead, Birmingham Brown serves as her sole partner for the film’s comic relief. One interesting item of note is that Frances Chan is played by namesake Frances Chan! Nothing is known about her other than she appeared in three other films in what seems to be a brief, two-year acting career.
Other Child Actors in the Series
Although they were not household names to film goers, most of the child actors and actresses that made up the Chan family, apart from Key Luke, Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong, and Layne Tom, Jr., were nevertheless well-known to the Los Angeles Chinese community. More than 60 years later after the series ended, Virginia Kay and her mother Florence Ung, who played Ling, the Chan’s Number One daughter, have matched names with some of the faces of these uncredited “bit” actors and extras, many which siblings. Two of Florence Ung’s relatives appeared in the series: brother Richard Ung (“Circus”) and cousin Barbara Jean Wong, the latter who appeared in “Honolulu” and The Trap (1947).
Another of the uncredited Chan children was Iris Wong, once cast as the Chan’s unnamed Number Two daughter in Charlie Chan in Honolulu. She also had two credited roles, as maids, in the series: as Choy Wong in Charlie Chan in Reno (1939) and Lili Wong in Charlie Chan in Rio (1941). Iris was born in Watsonville, California September 30, 1920 and was one of the first Asian-American women to land featured roles in U.S. films. In addition to about ten films, Wong also appeared in the brief TV series, Mysteries Of Chinatown, which ran from 1949 to 1950.
She then moved to Honolulu and became a reservations manager for Pan American Airways. She also was an artist and had written a Chinese cookbook. On September 2, 1989 she died at age 68, being survived by a daughter, two stepchildren, her mother, sister, and brother.
Other child actors who are known to have appeared in the series are brothers Frank, David, and Allan Dong; Lily and Stanton Mui; Frances and Mabel Hoo; Richard, Margie, and Faye Lee; and Mae Jean Quon.
The matriarch of the Chan family, although rarely seen on screen, appears always to be a an important asset to her detective husband. Charlie obviously appreciates his “honorable wife” when he declares philosophically in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), “Good wife best household furniture.” It may be hard to think of a wife as household furniture, such as a sofa, but one friend once praised Mrs. Chan as “an institution,” then referring to the 13 children she bore.
Charlie often mentions his wife throughout the series at 20th Century-Fox but there is virtually no mention of her in the 17 Monogram entries, a time when Charlie is either working for the Government during World War II or is based in San Francisco as a private detective. One might conclude that she either passed away or the unthinkable has happened—a divorce!
Mrs. Chan is first encountered in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). In her only scene, she sees her husband off as he is about to board a ship bound for San Francisco and is concerned that Charlie will not have enough clothes for the voyage—”You must wait and get big trunk.” Three films later at the conclusion of Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933), Mrs. Chan notices a man and woman in an embrace. “Two lovers in moonlight cast only one shadow,” she notes. Charlie looks at his wife and his many children and adds, “Yes. One shadow now; many shadows later.” In Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Mrs. Chan acts as the judge at her husband’s request, ruling that their vacation should be interrupted so that her husband is free to solve a murder which would otherwise cause a circus to shut down bankrupted.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) is the final film featuring the family matriarch. She is just told that her “little Ling” is at the maternity hospital about to give birth. Charlie tries to calm her down in the following dialog:
Look, Mama. You have same experience 13 times. There is no cause to worry.
Several Chinese actresses portray Charlie’s honorable wife throughout the series. Although none were ever credited as such, it has now been determined that Annie Mar portrays Mrs. Chan in “Circus” while Grace Key has the role in “Honolulu.”
The author wishes to acknowledge Rob Metz, Rush Glick, and Gary Crawford for providing some of the needed stills. Also greatly appreciated is the assistance of Virginia Quin Kay, the daughter of Florence Ung who played the Chans’ Number One daughter. Howard M. Berlin is the author of The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia (McFarland, 2000) and Charlie Chan’s Words of Wisdom (Wildside Press, 2001).
Charlie Chan Filmography
The House Without a Key (1925)†*, The Chinese Parrot (1927)†*, Behind That Curtain (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1931)*, The Black Camel (1931), Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932)*, Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933)*, Charlie Chan’s Courage (1934)*, Charlie Chan in London (1934), Charlie Chan in Paris (1935), Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936), Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937), Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937), Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939), City in Darkness (1939), Charlie Chan in Panama (1940), Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940), Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940), Murder Over New York (1940), Dead Men Tell (1941), Charlie Chan in Rio (1941), Castle in the Desert (1942), Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), The Chinese Cat (1944), Black Magic (1944), The Jade Mask (1945), The Scarlet Clue (1945), The Shanghai Cobra (1945), The Red Dragon (1945), Dark Alibi (1946), Shadows Over Chinatown (1946), Dangerous Money (1946), The Trap (1947), The Chinese Ring (1947), Docks of New Orleans (1948), The Shanghai Chest (1948), The Golden Eye (1948), The Feathered Serpent (1948), Sky Dragon (1949).
†Silent film *No copies currently known