Chang Apana, Charlie Chan's Inspiration

In New York Public Library's reading room, when former police reporter Earl Derr Biggers was flipping through The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, a story caught his attention: Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook from the Honolulu Police Department arrested an opium-loving Chinese.

As Derr Biggers was working on his book The House Without a Key, he decided to model its main character after Chang. The main character, Charlie Chan, was a fictional Chinese-American detective who travels around the world to solve crimes. Chan would star as the main character in a series of books, television shows, films, and radio programs.

As for the real-life Charlie Chan, Chang joined the police department in 1898, and The Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported his adventures until his retirement in May 1932. The wiry, five-foot-tall Chinese-American man caught criminals, told a boy to stop swearing, endured beatings and attempted stabbings, and prevented planned riots.

Biggers and Warner Oland (who portrayed Charlie Chan in films) did meet Chang Apana years later, realizing he and Charlie Chan's personalities had little in common. While Chang inspired Chan, the character was actually based on Biggers' physical appearance and personality, overweight and a dainty character. In contrast, Chang had a slender build and a quick temper.

As Hawaiian officers and White chiefs dominated the police force, Chang was the only Chinese police in Hawaii. Police chief William Gabrielson said Chang used his fluency in Chinese, Hawaiian, and Pidgin (Hawaii Creole English), his large network of informants, and his "shrewd and meticulous" detective style to solve crimes. The Chinese-Amercan focused on opium smuggling and illegal gambling, especially in Chinatown.

On a Tuesday night in a building on Smith Street, Chang dressed in a disguise as a regular Chinese man, wearing "a native hat, a pair of black glasses, and a Chinese coat." Even with the watchmen on alert for police officers, Chang passed through four guarded doors to an upstairs room. After he watched forty men gamble for a few moment, gamblers recognized him. Wielding only a bullwhip and without a backup officer, the skinny, five-foot-tall former paniolo (cowboy) arrested all forty men.

The Evening Bulletin praises Chang:

"Apana is the star gambler-catcher of the force. Whenever he feels the need of a little exercise, he goes out and collects a few Chinese and breaks up a fan tan or pai kau game."

But the newspapers didn't always reported good news about Chang. He faced a lawsuit for alleged assault and battery in a gambling bust, but paid only nominal damages. The police department fired Chang because he was "protecting" certain gambling groups. But Chang said he did report them and had to wait for approval to raid them. Eventually Chang returned to the police department and continued fighting crime until retiring in 1932. 

- Alice Kim

Articles from Chronicling America

"A Policeman and an Iceman Clash"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 03, 1900, Image 2

"Up an Orange Tree" (fourth column)
Evening bulletin., December 04, 1900, Image 1

"Caught a Burglar: Good Work of the Chinese Police Officer Apana"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., December 05, 1900, Page 13, Image 13

"Police Officers Have a Tussle: Japanese Gamblers Resist Arrest..."
The Pacific commercial advertiser., June 13, 1901, Page 6, Image 6

"Pockets Contained Stolen Matches: Portuguese Youths Pursued by Officer Apana and Put in Jail"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., July 09, 1902, Page 9, Image 9

"Hoodlumism on Increase in City: Two Chinamen on Liliha Street Beaten by Toughs"
Evening bulletin., July 12, 1902, Image 1

"Adventure on the Gale Swept Pali"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., November 20, 1902, Page 2, Image 2

"Negress Tries to Commit Suicide: Mrs. G. Bennett Begins Day by Raising a Disturbance"
Evening bulletin., June 15, 1903, Image 1

"Can Not Reach Awning Men"
The Hawaiian star., July 30, 1903, Page FIVE, Image 5

"Chicken Thief Killed Policeman: Notorious Chinese Jail Bird Charged with Taking Life of Police Officer"
The Hawaiian star., November 20, 1903, Page EIGHT, Image 8

"Claim Police Insulted Them"
The Hawaiian star., April 27, 1904, SECOND EDITION, Image 1

"Disguised Apana Caught Gamblers"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., July 13, 1904, Page 8, Image 8

"U.S. Grand Jury Makes Final Report"
The Hawaiian gazette., May 02, 1905, Page 5, Image 5

"Nominal Damages: Former Officer Apana Stuck for Assault and Battery"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., April 06, 1906, Page 8, Image 8

"The Usual Byplay with Gamblers"
The Hawaiian gazette., October 30, 1906, Image 1

"Apana Gets Bunch of Chink Gamblers"
Evening bulletin., December 05, 1906, 3:30 O'CLOCK EDITION, Page 2, Image 2

"Armed Men Turned Away from Chinese Meeting"
The Hawaiian gazette., January 03, 1908, Image 1

"Knifed Three Police Officers"
The Hawaiian gazette., January 28, 1908, Page 5, Image 5

"Gambling and Graft Charges: Sheriff Fires Apana Who Says That He Is the Victim of a Job"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., July 31, 1908, Page 2, Image 2

"The Police Station 'Touch' System Described: Officer Apana, Raider of Gamblers, Says He Also Used to Borrow..."
The Hawaiian star., August 10, 1908, SECOND EDITION, Image 1

"Gentle Art of Subpoenaing: Witnesses in Chinese Assault Case Have Peculiar Experiences"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., January 27, 1909, Page 6, Image 6

"Akwai Joint Again Raided: Police Find Various Devices for Warning the Players"
The Hawaiian gazette., May 18, 1909, Page 2, Image 2

"Smashed Detective in Face with a Bottle"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., May 31, 1909, Image 1

"Started to Knock Out Apana" (second column, bottom half)
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 25, 1909, Page 4, Image 4

"Little Tin Can Upsets Nice Plan: Also Upsets Apana and Leal and Celestial Makes Escape"
Evening bulletin., October 07, 1909, 3:30 EDITION, Image 1

"A Very Busy Thief Lands in a Cell: Yee Dong You Proves Very Industrious in His Calling"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., June 09, 1910, Page 8, Image 8

"Clubs and Rocks Used in Mix-Up: Marines and Hoodlums Clash and Police Are Mauled..."
The Hawaiian gazette., December 08, 1911, Page 2, Image 2

"Fleeing Filipino Shot by Officer: Police Refuse Information of Affair..."
The Hawaiian gazette., October 27, 1916, Page 3, Image 3