Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Charlie Chan - Hawaiian Super Cop Part III

Charlie Chan - Hawaiian Super Cop Part III
by Alan C. Elliott

Earl Biggers readily admitted the association between the real detective Chang Apana and the fictional Charlie Chan. In fact, Apana was invited to attend the filming of the Black Camel in 1931. Apana, already a respected detective in Honolulu, became even more of a local celebrity. Biggers had long discussions with Apana, and gleaned many ideas for future stories.
"Charlie Chan's Grave" (Chang Apana)-- Honolulu

Apana was, in fact, the perfect inspiration for Chan. Born of Chinese parents in Hawaii, he grew up in China, and returned to Hawaii as a teenager. A physically small but feisty individual, he first made his living as a cowboy and later tending horse stables on the Big Island of Hawaii. After moving to Oahu, he worked in the stables of a wealthy Hawaiian family. They used their influence to get him appointed as the first officer to oversee the humane treatment of animals in Honolulu. Apana’s reputation as a diligent, fair, and meticulous enforcer of the law led him to an appointment to the Honolulu Police Department in 1898. Disliking guns, he carried a leather bullwhip instead. Some Chan historians believe the whip-carrying, cowboy hat-wearing Apana influenced the creation of the Indiana Jones movie character. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spent time in Hawaii, would have seen Chan movies, known about the writings of Earl Derr Biggers, and likely heard of the legendary Apana.
Once the Apana-Chan connection was public, Apana enjoyed autographing books (as Charlie Chan) for admirers. Although he managed an exemplary 30-year career with the police force, a growing hysteria against the “heathen” Chinese forced him into retirement. Because his retirement pay would be substantially lower than his salary, several prominent Honolulu citizens made up the difference. When he died in 1933, his funeral procession rivaled those of Hawaiian dignitaries. Chang is buried in the Manoa Chinese Cemetery where a sign points visitors to the grave of “Detective Charlie Chan (Chan (sp) Apana.)”
Today, you can watch a number of the full-length Chan movies on YouTube or late night TV. Movies are also available through Netflix and Blockbuster and on DVD.  Most of the original Chan novels by Biggers are still in print. A movie about the real Hawaiian Super Cop, Chang Apana, is in the works by producer John Brekke, and a clip from “The Legend of Chang Apana” was recently shown at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Hawaiian historian Gilbert Martines has been researching Apana since 1982 and keeps fans abreast of the latest Chan news at the website.

Continues... see part IV -- coming soon

May your days be full of good words.

For information on my latest story "Takeover" please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Charlie Chan - Hawaiian Super Cop Part II

Charlie Chan - Hawaiian Super Cop Part II
by Alan C. Elliott

Continued from part I
Thirty years later, a Swedish actor who played a Chinese Honolulu detective in American Hollywood movies was received in Shanghai in a great series of celebrations and events. The actor was Warner Orland and the character he played was Charlie Chan. At that time in American history, people of Chinese descent were banned by law from becoming American citizens, and a series of other state and national racially discriminatory laws forbid immigration and association of Chinese people with the majority white population. In movies of the era, Asian characters were almost always depicted as evil and degenerate. The fact that a Chinese detective (even one played by an actor who was only of partial-Asian descent) was portrayed on the screen as being an “equal” to other white police officers was remarkable. Because of this, Charlie Chan became a movie hero in China, and the actor who portrayed Chan was welcomed with excitement and enthusiasm. The Chinese government, which banned many American movies for demeaning portrayals of the Chinese, approved all of the American Charlie Chan movies. The Chinese movie industry even produced its own Charlie Chan films using an actor that looked and spoke like Orland (in Chinese.)

The last of the classic Chan movies and novels are now more than fifty years old. However, recent books, articles and websites about the Chan character have engendered renewed interest in the character. Some historians suggest that even with our more modern racially sensitive views, we should continue to celebrate the courage of author Biggers who broke through the racial bigotry of the time to create a positive image for this Chinese character. Chinese Actor Keye Luke (who appeared in several of the Chan movies as the “Number One Son”) said, “They think it (the Chan character) demeans the race… Demeans! My God, you’ve got a Chinese hero!” As Charlie Chan might observe, “Mind like parachute – only work when open.”

The story behind the creation of Charlie Chan by author Earl Derr Biggers, and the subsequent bestselling novels and 40+ films, is also remarkable. In 1919, Biggers had already established himself as a popular author when he decided to take a trip to Honolulu to celebrate his success. Biggers took a room at a small Halekulani cottage (at that time called “Gray’s-by-the-Beach”) near Waikiki Beach. When he arrived to check in, he asked for the key to the cottage and was told there were no keys. At that time, Waikiki was so laid-back that few people bothered with locks. During his stay in the shadow of Diamond Head, the plot of a murder mystery formed in his mind one night as he observed a cruise ship sitting in the ocean waiting to dock the next morning. He named the novel House Without a Key. (I won’t spoil the plot for you.) Today, at the luxury Halekulani Hotel, on the site of that same cottage (and where the murder took place in the novel), is a delightful alfresco restaurant named for the novel.

It took Biggers several years to finish his Hawaiian murder mystery, and late in the writing process (back in New York), he found an article in a Hawaiian newspaper about a Chinese detective named Chang Apana who served with the Honolulu police force and had been responsible for remarkable detective work. The name “Chang” reminded Biggers of a Chinese merchant in his hometown named “Charlie Chan,” and he combined the two to create his own Chinese Honolulu detective to appear in his House Without a Key novel. He originally intended the Chan character to add a little local flavor to the novel, but when Charlie appeared in the novel (more than half-way through the story), his character took center stage. The story, which originally appeared in serial-style in the Saturday Evening Post, resulted in a swarm of fan mail for the new detective with requests for more Charlie Chan stories.

In retrospect, Charlie Chan’s personality is an amalgamation of other popular fictional detectives. He murders the English language with witty Confucius-like sayings similar to how Agatha Christie’s Belgium detective Hercule Poirot uses slightly miss-quoted English idioms. He deduces the meaning of obscure clues like Sherlock Holmes. His humble and self-effacing personality is reminiscent of Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as well as G. K. Chesterton's unassuming cleric-detective Father Brown. All of these characters would have been familiar to the well-read Biggers.

The popularity of the first Chan novel led to other novels and movies. Several early movies (silent films starting with House Without a Key in 1926 and featuring several different actors as Chan) are lost to posterity. In 1931, Warner Orland was selected to portray Chan in the movie Charlie Chan Carries On (no known copies now exist.) Orland was selected because he had played Asian characters in other movies. Although he was Swedish, he claimed some Mongolian heritage that gave him a slight Asian look. (In light of the rampant discrimination against the Chinese in that era, Hollywood had no Chinese actors to portray Chan.) Although considered “B” movies, the Chan movies were money-makers for the studios, and Orland appeared in 16 Chan movies between 1931 and 1937. When Orland died, like the replacement of James Bond, a new actor was selected for the role. Sidney Toler appeared in 22 Chan movies from 1937 to 1946. In 1947, the role went to Roland Winters, who appeared in 6 movies (through 1949). In the 1976 movie Murder by Death, Chan is characterized (by Peter Sellers) as one of the five most memorable (fictional) detectives of all time.

May your days be full of good words.
For information on my latest story "Takeover" please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Charlie Chan -- Mystery Superstar Part I

Charlie Chan - Hawaiian Super Cop
In 1904, the soft steps of policeman Chang Apana approached a multi-story building in the most dangerous part of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Along the beach houses of Waikiki, the sweet smell of plumeria floated in the ocean breeze. In this part of the city, the unsavory smells of fish, opium, and washing soap hung in the air. From his informants, Apana knew that in a hidden upstairs room, a group of men operated an illegal gambling den.
Alone and in disguise, he slipped by guards stationed around the building. In quietness, he climbed the stairs and slipped past another guard. At the top of the stairs he reached for the coiled bull whip that hung on his belt. He’d used the same whip to subdue cattle as a teenage paniolo cowboy on the Big Island. Standing barely over five-foot tall, he threw open the door to the gambling hall, and stepped into the smoke-filled room.
Forty rough and hardened men turned their eyes toward the open door, and saw Apana. They gasped. Several jumped up to escape. All forty men knew Chang’s reputation as a tough and fair cop. They had only one option. To escape the kiss of his leather whip, all forty surrendered without incident to that single Honolulu policeman.
Not all incidents ended so smoothly. In thirty years of service, this first ever Chinese Hawaiian policeman survived gunshots, knifings, and beatings. His fellow officers reported that after every such incident, he got back on his feet, and got his man. When historians looked back on the century, they named Chang Apana as one of the 100 most influential people in Hawaiian history.
Chang Apana (left) and Charlie Chan (Warner Oland)

May your days be full of good words.

For information on Alan Elliott's latest estory "Takeover" go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Friday, December 14, 2012

2013 Mystery & Crime Writers Conferences

2013 Mystery Writers Conferences

Okay, all you mysterious writers out there. Now is the time to plan which conferences or events you'll be attending in 2013. If you know of any events not listed here, please let me know.

February 1-3, Chicago, Love is Murder
March 21-24, Colorado Springs, CO, LeftCoast Crime
April, Minneapolis, MN, Write of Spring
May 1, New York,  2013 Edgar Symposium
May 3-5, Bethesda, MD, Malice Domestic
May 29, Toronto, Canada, Bony Blithe
June 22-23, Pasadena, CA, California Crime Conference
July 10-13, New York, NY, Thrillerfest
July 25-28, 2013 - Corte Madera, CA, Book Passage
August 22-25, Nashville, TN, Killer Nashville
August, Wolfe Island, ON, Canada, Scene of the Crime
September 19-22, Albany, NY, Bouchercon
November, Irvine, CA, Men of Mystery
November, Santa Fe, NM, Tony Hillermen Writers Conference

May your day be full of good words.

For information on my latest estory "Takeover" go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sacrifice, Persistence, and Struggle

Struggle or fail. Pick any discipline, any profession, any artistic endeavor, or any career.  Without struggle there is no progress, no excellence, and no prize.  

Wilma Rudolph knew struggle.  Suffering with infantile paralysis at age four she wore a brace on her left leg and foot until she was nine. One day she decided to become a basketball player like her sister. She took off the brace in private, and struggled to walk across her room. Day after day she stood, and fell, and stood up again. One day she took the brace off for good. Not only did she walk, she ran. She joined her school’s basketball team, and then the track team. At age 20, she won three gold medals for track in the 1960 Olympics. She achieved her goal through sacrifice, persistence, and struggle.

Abraham Lincoln experienced another type of struggle:  to lead a country torn by war and prejudice. He once said, “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” He did not win every political fight, but his struggle did lead to a new era of freedom for millions of Americans.

The beloved children’s writer and illustrator Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel ) couldn’t convince publishers to accept his story And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. He submitted it 27 times and got 27 rejections. But he kept trying until he did get it published.  He struggled. He succeeded.

In today’s world, society works hard to remove every struggle in people’s lives. (Perhaps we’ve gone too far?) Like a butterfly that gains strength in its struggle to free itself from its cocoon, stories of high achievers often start with overcoming poverty, prejudice, tragedy, or physical problems.

Writers can learn (at least) two lessons from struggle. First, like in the case of Dr. Seuss’s unstoppable struggle to get published, persistence must be an artists’ closest friend. Every artist must struggle to perfect his (or her) craft, dedicate concentrated amounts of time and energy in the creative process,  and relentlessly build a platform that will enable him to bring his creation to the public. Second, since struggle is so important, it makes sense that every person reacts to its power and emotion.  Because of its power, the depiction of struggle in art, whether in music, visual arts, or writing is a key element in connecting with your audience. (Without conflict, there is no story.)

Creativity is a lonely craft. It does not achieve excellence without great effort, nor does it reward its creator without relentless sacrifice and struggle.  For those who are brave enough to throw off the leg braces that hold them back; who are willing to stand up, fall and stand up again; who are willing to learn to walk in baby steps before they can run; they are the ones who will rise above the noise of seven billion people, and be heard.

May your day be full of good words.

For information on my latest story "Takeover" please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Underlying Hope – A Key to Lasting Commercial Success

Underlying Hope – A Key to Lasting Commercial Success

As an observer of entertainment, I’m always interested in why some books or shows become classics and some do not – particularly if they started out with a similar initial playing field (hype or marketing.) For example, (recently) why did “The Avengers” do so much better than “John Carter?” Why did the first “Matrix” movie do so well and the others not so well? In fact, why do most sequels stink? For a long time I thought it was because the original movie told a wonderful or interesting story and the sequel didn’t – the first Matrix told a great story and the second Matrix was all about the special effects. This happens all the time – I think the powers pick up on the wrong reason for the original movie’s/books success.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think a key to success is the creation of an engaging story, but not for the reasons I previously believed. For example, consider the Star War or Raiders movies – they are often used to illustrate the kinds of story components elaborated in the book “The Hero’s Journey.” Using these components help a story make sense and “speak to the audience.”  I agree to some extent, but this blog is going to add another element to those components that I think is not usually in the list – underlying hope. When you look at many examples of entertainment that have stood the test of time –The Lord of The Rings (Hobbit), C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, Gone with the Wind, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird (all that are in the 50 best selling fiction stories or movies of all time – they have stood the test of time and are top commercial successes. Is there something about them that makes the so special? I think it is that they all contain an underlying component of hope. That is, they are set in a world where there is an understanding with the audience that there is an ultimate good – that there are some values, people, God, or morality that is solid and dependable. And even though times may be tough and unfair for some, there is still an ultimate good that will overcome the bad. Often there are good people who, although flawed, we can count on to come through for us in the end. They are the heroes. Compare that to many other stories where the good guy (the preacher, the policeman, the judge, the congressman, the trusted friend, turn out to be the bad guys and the bad guys turn out to be the good guys. These shape shifter characters are good for drama. They give a story surprise and unpredictability. Using such characters works well in some stories. But what if there is no ultimate good person? What if there are no constant morals? What if there is no hope of salvation/redemption? What if all of life is flawed? In this case the story eats away at our innate human desire for this world to make some sense. And without that, the story (although it may bring temporal entertainment) does not satisfy and we don’t care to visit that world again and again. It stands no chance at long life. I will not become a classic.

So there you have it – an untested and partially thought out observation about story-telling. Stories with an underlying hope of a world that is ultimately good and fair speak to the human audience at a deeper and longer lasting level than those whose world is an ambiguous quagmire.

May your day be full of good words.

For information on my latest story "Takeover" please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Friday, August 31, 2012

How to Break Through Writer’s Block Every Time

How to Break Through Writer’s Block Every Time

Most writers experience a moment when they sit at the computer and can’t find the creative spark.  I was one of those writers, sitting and staring at the screen, making no progress. However, out of a distraction, I found a solution.  During one of these non-writing episodes, I was distracted by people talking in another room. To mask the distant yammer, I discovered a technique that not only worked then; it continues to help me jump into the writing mood at any time. I believe this idea could help you in your writing.

The technique is to find some environmental condition that instantly puts you into writing mode. You may be familiar with the famous experiment performed by Ivan Pavlov (circa 1901) where he conditioned dogs to expect food at the ringing of a bell. Once conditioned, they would salivate at the sound of the bell whether or not food was around.

Biographies of other writers often contain an indication that they use a similar technique.  It is sometimes a place and sometimes a sound.  Popular stories (with at least some spark of truth in them) claim that Stephen King had a familiar and favorite desk and J.K. Rowling wrote at a busy coffee shop in Edinburg. At a conference, a writer once described his high-rise office as a single desk facing a blank wall (even though he had a fantastic view from a window.)  Sitting at that desk (often with a Post-it note on the wall stating the intent of the chapter he was working on) is how he focused on his writing task.

In the same way, I’ve found that a familiar noise can coax my brain to move into writing mode. I chose a white noise app on my phone (and a similar on from the web). Whenever I turn on that app and hear the noise (in my case the sound of an old fashioned fan) it makes my brain glands salivate with creative thought.
As an antithesis of this theory, I remember another story of a successful writer that decided he’d go to Hawaii, rent a bungalow overlooking the ocean, and write his next novel. It turns out that the atmosphere was so distracting that he couldn’t even get started.

Each writer has to discover his or her own “writing place” where the elements of creativity and work can coalesce into words on the page.  I’d encourage to experiment with your own place, noise, or atmosphere – who knows, it might be a busy bus, dictating your story while taking a walk, or confining yourself in a closet.  If you can find such a situation, you may be able to make more use of your time and get into the writing mode quickly and consistently.

May your day be full of good words.

For information on my latest story please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Writers Must Learn About Publishers

I appreciate the insights that industry folk like Susan Hawk ( share with writers. (See Trends in the Market – What Matters?) It’s helpful to us authors who toil on our word processors out in the hinterland. We typically write stories that taste and smell of our part of the world, that have people who talk like the people we know, and that deal with the concerns, horrors, and comedy within the lives of people we see. Yes, we also blend our local flavor with scenes we imagine from worlds we’ve never seen, but somehow we retain a smidgen of our local voice no matter how high we reach. That’s okay, I think. Where we have to watch ourselves is as Susan mentioned—we must strive to write stories with the kind of spice, conflict, and mystery that keeps our readers begging for more. If there were a formula for that, everyone would follow it. No, I think, and hope that the successful writer should not try to write only toward the current market trends. Instead, our stories must be enticing enough to grab an audience no matter what the topic. They must be a good, sound, engaging story—a story that would be appealing no matter if Vampires or Angels are the current “in thing” and whether they are about the macabre or the divine. In a recent course I took with Donald Maass, he emphasized how we should look at each scene and ask ourselves, “What if the opposite happened?” What if he shot and missed instead of shooting the intruder through the heart. What it she said no to the proposal instead of yes? This is the type of element, when used with skill, that gives the reader a surprise, the story more texture, and the author more options. Thanks again Susan for your insight – I hope to see more in the future–and to my fellow writers—latch onto the tweets and blogs of those people inside the business. Learn what makes publishing tick, and you and your writing will benefit.

For information on my latest story please go to This short story, Takeover: A Writer’s Nightmare, is a romp through the messed-up brain of a creative writer that takes you on a bumpy joy ride with a twisted ending.