Study: Chang Apana (CA005), April 25, 2000

Charlie Chan and the Case of the Cop Who Inspired Him

The Nearly Forgotten Chinese Detective Turns 75

By Patrick Williams

Honolulu policeman Chang Apana
(Photo: Honolulu Police Dept.)

HONOLULU ( — They are an unlikely pair, these two Chinese lawmen from faraway times and an exotic place.

One was tubby with a patter of broken English, the other was as lean as a knife and spoke Chinese and Hawaiian.

Both knew fame. The rotund detective was a pop culture blockbuster, starring in six novels and over 40 films in his heyday. The slender constable struck fear in the hearts of Honolulu smugglers and gamblers, once busting 40 lawbreakers in a single night.

The former was gentle, rarely lifting a hand as he sagely cracked case after case. The latter, standing barely 5 feet tall, walked a dark, dangerous beat with a coiled whip in his hand.

They knew each other well and were linked by a mystery writer. They were separated by one important point: Charlie Chan is fiction, while Chang Apana was fact.

Something new

Chan, who celebrates his 75th anniversary this year, first took form with a pinch of unknowing inspiration from Apana, a Honolulu police officer.

In 1924, Earl Derr Biggers, a Boston playwright and author, was contemplating a mystery set in tropical Honolulu, where he had vacationed four years earlier. Leafing through a stack of Honolulu newspapers to refresh his memory, the writer came across a small story about Apana and an opium arrest.

Immediately, Biggers hit on the idea of a good-guy Chinese character for his mystery.

“Sinister and wicked Chinese were old stuff in mystery stories, but an amiable Chinese acting on the side of law and order had never been used up to that time,” Bigger [sic]recounted in a 1931 Honolulu newspaper article.

That mystery became “The House Without a Key,” first published in 1925. Chan had a minor turn in that tale, but within a few years he grabbed the spotlight with his own best-selling series of mystery books.

Movie sets the tone

Chan truly became a phenomenon thanks to the silver screen. Several failed movies were made — including two with Japanese actors playing Chan — before veteran performer Warner Oland hit box office gold as the proverb-prone detective in 1931’s “Charlie Chan Carries On.”

Many of the signature Charlie Chan cues were established in that movie, including the Panama hat, the natty suits and the always eager, always bumbling “No. 1 son,” a distinct departure from the books. In Biggers’ novels an inept junior detective tried Chan’s patience while his family remained largely in the background.

Ironically, Oland had previously played Fu Manchu on screen, one of the evil Asian characters that Biggers was reacting to when he thought up Chan.

The film franchise boomed. Oland starred in 16 Chan movies before his death in 1938. Actor Sidney Toler and then Roland Winters took over the role, and the Chan movie franchise rolled on until 1949.

Author denies any connection

Apana, who unwittingly sparked the Chan dynasty, met Oland in 1931 during the making of “The Black Camel,” an adaptation of the fourth Chan novel and the only movie filmed on Oahu.

Apana, front row, far right, and a group
of Honolulu policemen in an undated photo
(Photo: Honolulu Police Dept.)

By then Apana was frequently cited as the prototype for Chan. Often jokingly called Charlie by friends, Apana delighted in signing autographs as “Charlie Chan,” according to local newspaper accounts.

But Biggers had promptly forgotten about Apana after reading that news brief. Chan was based entirely on the concept of a Chinese policeman and the writer’s imagination, according to a 1931 newspaper clip.

“I’m sorry to disillusion anyone, but that ‘real persons’ notion is a myth,” he said.

Nonetheless, the release of “House Without a Key” had set Honolulu abuzz, with locals trying to pin fictional characters to well-known residents. And no police officer was better known than Apana.

Cast a long shadow

He had achieved local fame as the toughest police officer walking the toughest beat in turn-of-the-century Honolulu. In those distant days before ocean-crossing airplane flights, the remote city was truly a port town. Journeying to Honolulu from California involved a five-day steamer voyage, not a five-hour jet trip.

The city’s commerce, and naturally its crime, depended on the docks and the nearby downtown area. And while Apana stood just a bit over 5 feet tall, he cast a long shadow on the waterfront, said Officer Eddie Croom, curator of the Honolulu Police Department’s museum.

And, of course, he had the whip.

Apana detested guns, Croom said, and was expert enough with his 6-foot rawhide bullwhip that his police superiors granted him a remarkable boon: He was the first and only Honolulu police officer allowed to swap his gun for another weapon.

The detective’s prowess with the lash came while working as a rough-and-tumble “paniolo” — a cowboy — in rural Waimea on the island of Hawaii in the early 1890s.

After roping and riding for several years, he left the Big Island for Honolulu and worked as the Hawaiian Humane Society’s first enforcement officer before joining the sheriff’s office in 1898. The sheriff’s office was the city’s entire police force; technically, its men were constables, but they acted as police officers, Croom said.

Headline-grabbing raids

A street officer at first, Apana soon found his specialty busting opium smugglers and gambling rings from the inside as one of the force’s first undercover officers. A 1904 newspaper account, headlined “Disguised Apana Caught Gamblers,” says he nabbed 40 gamblers in a single case.

“Apana wore a native hat, a pair of black glasses and a Chinese coat,” reads the story. “Then he blacked his upper lip and started raiding. He passed four doors of the entrance to the Smith street resort and when in the gaming room watched the progress of the game for a moment or two before being recognized.”

And he had other ways to surprise crooks. Tales abound of Apana scaling the two- and three-story downtown buildings barehanded and bursting in on suspects through open windows.

This bravado exacted a price. Later news accounts mention his many scars from knifings and beatings, but he kept at the job, undeterred. “He was one of those guys who really loved police work. It wasn’t just a job to him, it was a way of life,” Croom said.

While he spoke limited English, preferring Chinese and Hawaiian dialects, and never learned to write, Apana eventually worked his way up to detective in 1916, Croom said, and served as an able assistant to several sheriffs. He was the longest-serving officer when a car accident forced him into retirement in 1932.

Still has his fans

Apana had become friends with Biggers four years earlier when the author visited Honolulu, and after the accident Biggers arranged for a small part for Apana in a Chan movie filmed on the mainland. The part was to pay $500, but by that time the retired constable was too ill to travel. He died in early December 1933 at the age of 68.

Biggers, 48, had passed away in August of that year. And while Chan is as immortal as any make-believe character, he has become shabby over the years. He hasn’t had a new movie in decades. His older movies are hard to come by on video, and the original prints to several early Oland films are rumored to be lost. His books are out of print, and worst of all, he is out of fashion. Modern audiences usually regard him as a caricature from a more naive time.

Still, he has his fans. Thanks to the Honolulu police museum exhibit and a modest Web site devoted to Apana and Chan, Croom fields hundreds of letters, phone calls and e-mails each year about the two.

And there’s a monument of sorts in Chan’s old beat, Waikiki. Biggers and Apana knew it as Gray’s-by-the-Sea, a small seaside hotel where the writer stayed during that first vacation. Now in honor of the writer and his creation, the restaurant inside the Halekulani Hotel is known as The House Without a Key.

The restaurant is best around dusk, with a chilled mai tai in hand, a radiant Hawaiian sunset playing out before the eyes, and nostalgic memories of the Honolulu of old, the city of Chang Apana and Charlie Chan.

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