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 www.alanelliott.com. 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.