In April 1920, suffering from overwork, the author, playwright and former journalist Earl Derr Biggars obeyed his doctor’s orders and arrived in Waikiki, Hawaii for an extended holiday. When checking in to the beachfront cottage, he asked for the key, only to be told, “What key?” He had just discovered that in 1920s Waikiki no one locked their doors – quite a culture shock to a man who was at that time living and working in Boston, Mass. A couple of years later and ‘The House without a Key’ would become the title of Biggars’ next best-selling novel, the storyline revolving opium trafficking on the Hawaiian Islands, opium trafficking being all over the local news as he lay back on the beach sunning himself and dreaming up the plot.
The plot forming in his mind, and unable to relax, the workaholic Biggars rented a room in a dingy hotel and began to type. However, because of his general exhaustion or because of the hot weather, he failed to finish the novel in Hawaii. It would not be completed until the summer of 1924 when, en route to another vacation, Biggars stopped off at the reading room of the New York Public Library and – as Biggars would later claim – while browsing through a pile of Hawaiian newspapers he happened upon an article describing the arrest of an opium addict by Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook of the Honolulu Police Department.
And so the character of Sergeant Charlie Chan was born.
It seems that no Lee Fook had ever been employed by the Honolulu Police Department and in 1924 the New York Public Library did not subscribe to Hawaiian newspapers.
Nevertheless, whatever the truth, ‘The House without a Key’ featuring the warm, intelligent and tenacious Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan became a tremendous success, and soon enough Charlie Chan would become famous the world over, immortalised not just in five further detective novels but also in over four dozen films.
As Biggars would later say, “I had seen movies depicting and read stories about Chinatown and wicked Chinese villains and it struck me that a Chinese hero, trustworthy, benevolent, and philosophical, would come nearer to presenting a correct portrayal of the race.”
Not only did Biggars’ Charlie Chan novels usher in the Golden Age of detective fiction, but they stood in stark contrast to the usual racist depictions of Asian Americans in the literature and film of the time. However, in the following decades, the character of Charlie Chan would become problematic for many Asian Americans, a yellow Uncle Tom if you will, ultimately passive when dealing with white people, and always speaking in broken English. It did not help that Charlie Chan was always played by white actors in film representations.
Whatever your views on the stereotyping of the Charlie Chan character, there is no denying how quickly the American public came to love him, and also the brilliance of the novels.
They remain in print:
The House without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1926)
Behind that Curtain (1928)
The Black Camel (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
Keeper of the Keys (1932)
It’s my contention that if you are a connoisseur of classic detective fiction and you haven’t read them, then you haven’t lived.
Earl Derr Biggars returned to Hawaii in 1928 where he actually met the veteran detective Chang Apana, who not only did exist, but whom the Hawaiian people took to be the inspiration for the character of Charlie Chan. Though Biggars always publicly denied that any one man was the inspiration for Charlie Chan, Biggars was so impressed with Chang Apana that he sent him an autographed copy of The Black Camel.
After 34 years of service as a detective in Honolulu’s Police Department, Chang Apana retired in 1932 and died in December the following year after a serious illness at the age of 61. Chang Apana had been saddened by the news of Earl Derr Biggars’ death from a massive stroke – the author’s health once more undermined by overwork – in the April of 1933 at the relatively youthful age of 48.
Recommended Further Reading:
Charlie Chan – The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton and Company, 2010)