Study: Chang Apana (CA008)

Honolulu Advertiser, April 25, 2007 (Courtesy of Steven Fredrick Collection)

Let the truth be told about the real-life Charlie Chan

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Who was the real Charlie Chan?  Hawai’i’s history detective Nanette Napoleon was asked last summer to answer that question when 20th Century Fox prepared to release a remastered set of Charlie Chan flicks.

While six books and nearly 50 classic movies expound on the fantastic crime-fighting adventures of Charlie Chan, Napoleon says the real-life exploits of the character’s inspiration — Honolulu detective Chang Apana — were just as fascinating.

“There are more differences than there are similarities,” said Napoleon, who was a source for a featurette with the DVD release.  “Most people assume that Charlie Chan was like Chang Apana, but the author just used him as a basic figure.”

Tomorrow night, during the Hawaiian Historical Society’s Lecture Program, Napoleon and Honolulu police officer Eddie Croom, curator of the Honolulu Police Department Museum, will talk about detective Apana.

Q. How did Chang Apana become the inspiration for several books and then dozens of 1930s and ’40s films?

A. “Author Earl Derr Biggers came out to Honolulu in the 1920s on a vacation.  … A germ started and he thought he should write a mystery story set in Honolulu.  That’s all he thought about. He didn’t think about a character yet.  … Then he went back to New York and he was doing research … he came across Honolulu newspaper clippings, and that’s what got him interested.  He wanted to base his character roughly on Chang Apana.”

Q: What was it that fascinated Biggers about this Honolulu detective?

A: “He was Chinese, a Chinese detective.  Earl Derr Biggers thought that would be interesting to his audience.  Chang Apana was also very unconventional.  He carried a bull whip instead of a gun and he used to get into brawls and fights with the bad guys.  That’s one of the things he was well known for.  He would go into situations like gambling dens and opium dens by himself and be outnumbered by a lot of guys, and he’d round up all of them single-handedly.”Q. What’s a major misconception about who Chang Apana was?

A. “A lot of people want to call him a paniolo, but he wasn’t really a paniolo.  Before he became a policeman, he worked for the Wilders in Nu’uanu.  They had a stable and he became the stable master and that’s where he learned to tend horses.  Later on, I guess people wanted to romanticize him and they began calling him a paniolo.”

Q. In the films and books, Charlie Chan had many children.  Was this true of Apana?

A. “The number of children Charlie Chan had is very nebulous.  Different books say different things about how many children he had.  … In real life, Chang Apana had a big family.  He married three times … and had 10 children altogether.  So, Biggers must have liked that idea.”

Q. What’s one example of Apana’s larger-than-life reputation in Honolulu?

A. When he died in 1933, his funeral procession rivaled many of the great ali’i processions of the era, Napoleon said.  “Because of his reputation, when he died he had a major, major funeral with his own procession that went from the old Honolulu Police Department on Merchant and Bethel (Streets) up to the Manoa Chinese cemetery.”

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