Issue 6.4: August/September 2003

Number-One Detective

story by Deborah Gushman
art by Alex Preiss

Six months ago, everything I knew about Charlie Chan could have fit on a Post-It, with plenty of room left over. Chinese super-detective from Honolulu ... featured in numerous books and films ... given to spouting cryptic Confucian proverbs ... assisted by various sons, who were identified not by name but by number ... wore a black bowler hat (or was I confusing him with Oddjob in Goldfinger?). At any rate, that was the full extent of my knowledge of Chanology: random snippets gleaned by cultural osmosis.

And then one day recently I happened to turn over the menu at the Halekulani Hotel’s lovely, historic alfresco restaurant, House Without a Key, and was fascinated to read that the famous fictional detective had been inspired by the larger-than-life heroics of an actual Honolulu police officer. According to the mini-history on the back of the menu, Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers (a Harvard graduate and former Boston newspaperman), came up with the idea for the series while staying in a nearby Halekulani cottage in 1919. His first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key (1925), was the source of the restaurant’s name, which conjures up visions of Waikiki back in the halcyon days of unlocked doors, luxury steamers and a skyline dominated by palm trees.

“Many believe the character [of Charlie Chan] was based on Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese detective on the Honolulu police force in the ’20s,” the menu went on. Intrigued, I paid a visit the following day to the Honolulu Law Enforcement Museum at HPD headquarters on Beretania Street. Luckily for me, the museum’s erudite founder and curator, retired officer Eddie Croom, was on hand, and he turned out to be the man who wrote the book, so to speak, on Chang Apana. (It’s actually an article, full of information, which can be read on the Internet at museum/apana.htm.)

  “There’s absolutely no doubt that Chang Apana was the model for Charlie Chan,” Croom told me. “Everything matches—birthdates and so on—and Biggers sent Apana a copy of every Charlie Chan novel that was published. He also tried to persuade Apana to make an appearance in some Charlie Chan movies, but Apana didn’t want to leave the Islands.”

Although the parallels seemed obvious, it wasn’t until the end of his life that Biggers finally acknowledged that Chang Apana had indeed been the model for Charlie Chan. Not the exact model, by any means; Apana was 5’3” and weighed 145 pounds, with a thin, austere-looking face, while his fictional counterpart was portly and chubby-cheeked.

One of the most dramatic exhibits in the Police Museum is the actual weapon that Chang Apana used in his exploits, including one Chinatown raid in which he single-handedly arrested seventy gamblers when his backup failed to appear in time. That weapon wasn’t a gun or a billy-club, but a braided leather horsewhip—a legacy of Apana’s days as a Big Island paniolo (cowboy). “Chang hated guns and refused to carry one,” Croom explained. “So the Police Department wrote a new directive allowing him to carry any weapon he chose.”

According to Croom, Apana was smart (though probably not as cerebral as the philosophical Charlie Chan) but also very physical. To wit: In the course of duty Apana was stabbed six times, thrown out a second-story window, run over by a horse-and-buggy, attacked with sickles and hit with an ax handle. In every one of those cases, the wounded Apana still managed to make the arrests.

Born in 1871, Chang Apana died in 1933, and was buried in the Manoa Chinese Cemetery. I went looking for the grave late one windy afternoon, with offerings of a mooncake and some day-old poi in hand, but it’s a vast cemetery, and I wasn’t able to find Officer Apana’s resting place before darkness fell. One of these days, I plan to try again.

In the meantime, I am systematically reading my way through the entire Charlie Chan collection, and have discovered that the novels, despite their decidedly dated political incorrectness, are ingeniously plotted, humorously written, and filled with nostalgic details that will delight anyone who loves the Islands. Charlie Chan lives, as the graffiti-writers say. And so does Chang Apana.