An interesting documentary about the presumed inspiration for Earl Derr Biggers' character of Charlie Chan. It's about twenty minutes long and consists of several apparently knowledgeable talking heads with some interpolated period photos and a bit of movie footage.
Chang Apana, a tough, wiry guy, joined the Honolulu Police Department some years before Biggers happened to vacation there in 1919. Hawaii at the time was a territorial possession, of course, and not a favorite vacation spot or retirement community as it is now.
Biggers stayed in a small hotel on Waikiki. Yes, they were still small. When he asked for his key, the manager told him there were no keys, that all the rooms were left unlocked. This evidently started Biggers ruminating. What a neat and exotic place to set detective stories. On returning to the states Biggers read the Honolulu newspapers about their most prominent police officer, Chang Apana, who had been born in China, spent time in Hawaii, sent back to China for a while, then returned to Hawaii permanently.
The first story appeared in the mid 1920s and into the 1930s, a period of florescence for pulp mysteries. It gave us Sam Spade in addition to Charlie Chan.
The Chan of the stories was nothing like Chang Apana. Apana was stern, scarred, sometimes pitiless, and he investigated opium smuggling and illegal gambling. In at least one instance he rounded up a married couple suspected of suffering from leprosy. He carried around a bull whip. And he never investigated a case of murder. Apana, like Charlie, had many children but then so did everyone else, and Apana was not suave and wise. He hated school, was unlettered, and didn't drive.
In fact, the characters of Charlie Chan and Chang Apana are so different from one another that it's a bit of a surprise to hear claims that the real detective provided the inspiration for the fictional. As far as it's possible to judge from this documentary, Biggers never made any such statement. One wonders whether that identification is a kind of "factoid" -- a belief that resembles an interesting fact but lacks substantiation. Did you know that Australians grind kangaroo road kill into their McDonald's hamburgers? They don't, but it's interesting, isn't it?
The interviewees seem to know what they're talking about, though, at least as far as Chang Apana is concerned. I trusted most the guy from the Bishop Museum, a repository of Hawaiian history and culture, and I found Apana's granddaughter, Sheri Kagimoto, to be the cutest.
As a fictional character, Chan has always been less than enchanting. He's easy enough to parody but he lacks the human foibles necessary to turn a character into an icon. Sherlock Holmes had his cocaine, Hercule Poirot had his vanity, but what has Charlie Chan got? Enumerated sons and a penchant for fortune-cookie apothegms. "Hurricane like ex wife -- always get house." I've never read any of the stories but the entertainment value of the movies generally comes, not only from the shuffling Charlie Chan, but from his sidekicks or from subsidiary characters. Of these, Mantan Moreland was probably the best.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?