(Written and contributed by Steve Fredrick)
Chang Apana: The Real Life Charlie Chan
A review of the presentation by Steve Fredrick
To the fans of Chang Apana and Charlie Chan, this review is for you.
On the evening of Thursday, April 26, 2007, Charlie Chan returned to his hometown of Honolulu. Well, sort of. He was there in spirit, and so were a lot of other people.
A lecture about Chang Apana, the real-life Charlie Chan, was a presentation hosted by the Hawaiian Historical Society of Honolulu. It was held at the (open-air) auditorium of the Kamakaküokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
|Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies|
At 7:30 p.m., the evening began with the society’s annual business meeting. A few words of farewell from the outgoing president, and the election of a new president. Shortly thereafter, the fun began.
The title of the lecture program was “Chang Apana: The Real Life Charlie Chan,” and was presented by Nanette Napoleon and Police Officer Eddie Croom of the Honolulu Police Department. Nanette Napoleon, of Kailua, a free-lance researcher, was hired by 20th Century-Fox to collect information about Apana from local archival resources and was one of those interviewed in a recent DVD documentary about Chang Apana. I met Nanette Last year and assisted her with her research on Apana. At the Kailua Public Library, I have researched many areas of movies in Hawaii, including Charlie Chan.
At the start of the evening, Nanette asked the audience, “How many of you have seen a Charlie Chan movie?” Just about every hand of the about 130 people in attendance for this event went up. Then she asked the audience, “How many people saw Charlie Chan at a movie theater?” To our surprise and delight, two-thirds of the audience, made up of 99% seniors, raised their hands.
Nanette began by speaking about the “creation” of Charlie Chan. In 1920, Earl Derr Biggers, a Boston mystery writer, was vacationing in Waikïkï at Gray’s By-the-Sea. He contemplated setting the scene of a future novel in tropical Honolulu. Four years later, while looking through Honolulu newspapers for story ideas, he found several articles about a Honolulu Police Department detective named Chang Apana. An idea was born. Biggers would create a “good-guy” Chinese detective, in a mystery novel, set in Honolulu. And the rest, as we say, is history.
Now it was my turn to speak about Charlie Chan in the movies. Just a quick note about how I got involved with this presentation. It was Monday, April 23rd, around noon, when Nanette invited me to join the panel and speak about the films of Charlie Chan. Kind of a short notice, but why not? For 13 years, I have been presenting historical film lectures about the Hawaiian image in Hollywood films. Talking about Charlie Chan was something new for me. I have always been a fan of the movies, but how much did I really know about Chan? All I had to do was talk for about ten minutes and not show any films. It sounded easy. A piece of cake. Ha-ha, the joke was on me!
As I do with all my film research, I threw myself whole heartily into this presentation. I re-discovered information about Chan in the movies. With the support of Rush Glick, and the wonderful material available on the Charlie Chan Family Home website, I put together several pages of research notes regarding Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, et al.
I began my speech by talking about the first three Chan films and the Asian actors who portrayed the detective in these films. I spoke about how Charlie Chan exploded on the movie scene when Swedish born Warner Oland starred in Charlie Chan Carries On. I mentioned Oland’s Mongolian bloodline, which gave him, and his siblings, and Oriental look. I spoke about Oland and his wife visiting Honolulu and touring China in the 1930s.
The sidekicks of Charlie Chan were also an area of my speech. I mentioned Otto Yamaoka, Stepin Fetchit, Keye Luke, and Victor Sen Yung.
The biggest laugh of my speech came when I mentioned locations. I was speaking about the exotic locations that Charlie Chan visited during his many adventures. Places like London, Paris, Egypt, and Shanghai. “Chan visited all these wonderful places without ever leaving the back-lot of 20th Century Fox.” [Cue the laugh track here.]
I spoke about each Chan actor’s portrayal of the detective character and of the change in studios, from 20th Century Fox to Monogram studios. I concluded my speech with a brief mention of the two later Chan films. Talking about the six Chan actors, and the 49 films, took me about 15 minutes.
Nanette returned to the podium and spoke about the wide variety of Charlie Chan spin-offs: comic strip, the radio programs, ornaments, tours, etc. and told a few brief stories.
The presentation continued with a showing of the 20-minute video documentary entitled, The Real Charlie Chan. It is part of a 4-movie DVD set of newly re-mastered Charlie Chan movies released by 20th Century-Fox in the summer of 2006.
After the documentary, Officer Eddie Croom, curator of the Honolulu Police Department Museum, spoke about the influence of Chang Apana still has on the new recruits at the Honolulu Police Department.
One of the highlights of the evening was an unexpected guest in the audience. It was during the Q&A section that a man in the audience identified himself as the grandson of Chang Apana. His mother was the daughter of Apana’s third marriage. [This not the young man who appears in the Apana documentary.] He spoke about the location of the family house, which has since been torn down.
At the end of the evening, Officer Croom and I handed out large fortune cookies to members of the audience. Inside each cookie was a Charlie Chan aphorism.
A great time was had by one and all who attended this event. The house was packed, and, as I mentioned, about 130 people attended, mostly seniors and the educational staff from the University of Hawaii. I feel so lucky to have been a part of an exciting evening such as this. As the old entertainers used to say, “What a night! What a crowd!” I wish all fans of the Charlie Chan movies could have been there.
I hope that this summary of the Chang Apana event has added to your interest in both him and Charlie Chan. Mahalo, and I bid you a fond Aloha.