Study: Chang Apana (CA004)

Honolulu Star-Bulletin: Hawaiian Life Weekend Magazine, March 19, 1955

The ‘Real Life’ Charlie Chan

The prototype of the fictional Charlie Chan was Chang Apana, Honolulu detective who died in December, 1933.

Mr. Apana’s own interesting real life career was added to by legend.  Most published sources say he was born in China and came to Hawaii with an uncle at the age of 7.  His uncle died soon after and Mr. Apana was taken into a Hawaiian home in Waipio, Oahu.

When he was 27, he came to make his home with the Wilder family at Eskbank as their hostler, then went to Waimea, Hawaii, returning to Honolulu to become a humane officer, under jurisdiction of the Police Department.  He worked his way up to the rank of Detective and was pensioned in May, 1932 after 35 years of service.

A FADING clipping from a newspaper of 1932 says that Chang Apana never did go to the school – “with the result that he neither reads nor writes the English or Chinese language.  But he is smart and that handicap did not keep him from being one of the best known men on the police force.”  (He did read the Hawaiian language and spoke both Chinese and Hawaiian fluently.)Old files do not fully confirm the widely accepted premise that he “inspired” Earl Derr Biggers in creating a fictitional Honolulu detective.

A letter from Helen K. Wilder, published in 1936, said that Apana told her that Biggers had “promised to give him a check for $500 for the use of his name in The House Without a Key, the best known (and earliest) Chan mystery story.”

A letter from Chester A. Doyle contends that Biggers once asked him about the book character and Doyle told him it was “the bunk,” saying that no Chinese, unless he was a well educated mandarin, would use the language attributed to Chan.

He continues: “Biggers said, ‘You are right.  I made a great mistake.’  And he was embarrassed and chagrined and from then on denied that Apana was Charlie Chan.”A news article about Mr. Apana, published in 1932, asserted that the Honolulan “was offered four years ago $500 a week to act in motion pictures in Hollywood…at the recommendation of Earl Derr Biggers.”  He became ill when he “was about to accept the offer, however.” THE EVIDENCE seems to support those who say that Mr. Apana was the prototype for Charlie Chan.

Ripley Allen, editor of the Star-Bulletin, has direct testimony to this effect.  Says he: “Earl Derr Biggers came out here about 25 years ago and was perfectly frank about the origin of Charlie chan.  Mr. Biggers told me that he had been out here a good many years earlier and spent several weeks on vacation.  He lived at Waikiki at what was then Gray’s boarding house, or a cottage nearby – he could not be exactly sure which.”He had read and scooped up a lot of Hawaiian atmosphere and, already a fiction writer, must have stored in his lively fertile brain much material, perhaps quite unconsciously, that was to serve him later very well.”Three years or so after that, he was on the Mainland, picked up a copy of The Star-Bulletin and read a news story describing some feat of detective work that Chang Apana had achieved.”Then and there, Biggers frankly told me, was born the idea of ‘Charlie Chan.'”He said also that when he told of The House Without a Key, he had no particular house at Waikiki in mind.  At that time – that long ago and relatively innocent time, most houses at Waikiki were unlocked all the time.  In fact it was a job to find a door key.”

So I think it quite fair to say that Chang Apana – a chap I knew well – was the prototype for Chan.”As far as the movies are concerned, all Chan films from 1932 on to their demise in 1949 were original screen plays, written in Hollywood, simply using the basic character created by Earl Derr Biggers.

If you saw some of the latter [sic] low-budget films and thought they were mediocre (and several were), don’t blame it on Earl Derr Biggers – or Charlie Chan – or Chang Apana!

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