The real Charlie Chan TIM CARMODY · AUG 11 2010
Early proto-film-noir-hero/Chinese-American stereotype Charlie Chan was based on a real detective in Honolulu:
Biggers read about him in the newspaper. His real name was Chang Apana. He was born, around 1871, in Waipio, a village outside Honolulu. His mother, Chun Shee, was also born in Hawaii. People from China had settled in what were then called the Sandwich Islands, beginning in the late seventeen-seventies. Sugarcane had been cultivated in China for centuries, and the first person to grow it for sugar processing in the Sandwich Islands was a man named Wong Tze-chun, who arrived from China in 1802. Chang Jong Tong, Chang Apana's father, probably travelled from China to Hawaii in the eighteen-sixties. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some forty-six thousand Chinese laborers made that journey. In 1866, when the sugarcane trade was booming, Mark Twain went to Hawaii to report for the Sacramento Union. "The Government sends to China for coolies and farms them out at $5 a month each for five years," Twain wrote. When Chang Jong Tong's five years were up, he took his wife and children and headed home, to the tiny village of Oo Sack, south of Canton...In 1881, when Chang was about ten years old, his parents sent him to Oahu, with an uncle; he never returned to China...
In the nineteen-tens, he was part of a crime-busting squad. His escapades were the stuff of legend. He was said to be as agile as a cat. Thrown from a second-floor window by a gang of dope fiends, he landed on his feet. He leaped from one rooftop to the next, like a "human fly." When he reached for his whip, thugs scattered and miscreants wept. He once arrested forty gamblers in their lair, single-handed. He was a master of disguises. Once, patrolling a pier at dawn, disguised as a poor merchant--wearing a straw hat and stained clothes and carrying baskets of coconuts, tied to a bamboo shoulder pole--he raised the alarm on a shipment of contraband even while he was being run over by a horse and buggy, and breaking his legs. He once solved a robbery by noticing a strange thread of silk on a bedroom floor. He discovered a murderer by observing that one of the suspects, a Filipino man, had changed his muddy shoes, asking him, "Why you wear new shoes this morning?"
Warner Oland, who played Chan in most of the films, was Swedish. In yellowface, he also played Fu Manchu and other east Asian characters. In 25 years as an actor, he made 96 films, including playing lead in as many as 4 Charlie Chan films a year in the 1930s. Here, Kartina Richardson talks about his performance as the half-Chinese warlord Mr Henry Chang in Shanghai Express:
Awesome detail only for me (and literary nerds like me): Yunte Huang, a UC-Santa Barbara professor who wrote the new history of Charlie Chan, also wrote a terrific book about transpacific American literature (for some reason, everyone forgets that almost all of Moby Dick is set in the Pacific) and translated Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos into Chinese.