August 3, 2010


Chan, the Man: On the trail of the honorable detective (Jill Lepore, 8/02/10, The New Yorker)

Earl Derr Biggers did not invent Charlie Chan. “How can I write of Chinese?” he asked Chan, in that fictional conversation with his fictional detective. “I could not distinguish Chinese man from Wall Street broker.” (Chan had an answer for that. Chan had an answer for everything. “Chinese would be the one who sold you the honest securities.”) A great delight of Huang’s quirky, smart, and entertaining book is his sleuthing out the real story behind Charlie Chan. It turns out that Chan was an actual detective with the Honolulu Police Department; Biggers read about him in the newspaper. His real name was Chang Apana. He was born, around 1871, in Waipio, a village outside Honolulu. His mother, Chun Shee, was also born in Hawaii. People from China had settled in what were then called the Sandwich Islands, beginning in the late seventeen-seventies. Sugarcane had been cultivated in China for centuries, and the first person to grow it for sugar processing in the Sandwich Islands was a man named Wong Tze-chun, who arrived from China in 1802. Chang Jong Tong, Chang Apana’s father, probably travelled from China to Hawaii in the eighteen-sixties. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some forty-six thousand Chinese laborers made that journey. In 1866, when the sugarcane trade was booming, Mark Twain went to Hawaii to report for the Sacramento Union. “The Government sends to China for coolies and farms them out at $5 a month each for five years,” Twain wrote. When Chang Jong Tong’s five years were up, he took his wife and children and headed home, to the tiny village of Oo Sack, south of Canton.

Yunte Huang himself grew up during “the waning days of Mao’s China,” he writes, in a village in southeastern China not much different from Oo Sack. Between the lines, “Charlie Chan” is as much Huang’s story as Charlie Chan’s or Chang Apana’s. Huang writes of a boyhood spent working, and playing with insects—ants, fireflies, grasshoppers—for toys, and imagines that Chang might have done the same. Imagining Chang’s life is what Huang is often reduced to, though, because Chang never learned to read or to write either Chinese or English (later in life, he taught himself to read Hawaiian), which partly accounts for his scant appearances in the historical record.

In Oo Sack, a part of the world devastated by famine and the Opium Wars, the boy and his family were starving. In 1881, when Chang was about ten years old, his parents sent him to Oahu, with an uncle; he never returned to China. Somehow—here, too, the trail vanishes—he became a cowboy, a paniolo, because, ten years later, he was a stableman for a wealthy family, the Wilders, at their horse ranch in Honolulu. When Samuel Wilder, later a steamship magnate, was married in Hawaii, in 1866, to Elizabeth Judd, the daughter of a missionary (and said to be the first white girl born in Hawaii), both Mark Twain and King Kamehameha attended the wedding. In 1897, the Wilders’ youngest daughter, Helen, hired Chang Apana as the first officer for a local chapter of the Humane Society. It was his job to stop people from beating their horses. He was very good at this. He was, for one thing, different from most of the people who lived in Honolulu’s Chinatown, the district where he mostly patrolled, making arrests and issuing fines. He was nicknamed Kanaka Pung, because he looked more Hawaiian than Chinese. “I was the only one without my queue in the ’80s and ’90s,” he later recalled. He was neither chubby like a baby nor dainty like a woman. He was five feet tall and wiry and had a nasty scar on his brow. He wore a cowboy hat and carried a bullwhip.

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain, a war waged mainly in the Pacific, and Hawaii became a territory of the United States. Chang Apana was recruited by the Honolulu Police Department, which was growing, because of those two developments. In a force of more than two hundred men—the officers mainly Hawaiian and the chiefs mostly white—he was the only Chinese. He excelled, and was promoted to detective. In the nineteen-tens, he was part of a crime-busting squad. His escapades were the stuff of legend. He was said to be as agile as a cat. Thrown from a second-floor window by a gang of dope fiends, he landed on his feet. He leaped from one rooftop to the next, like a “human fly.” When he reached for his whip, thugs scattered and miscreants wept. He once arrested forty gamblers in their lair, single-handed. He was a master of disguises. Once, patrolling a pier at dawn, disguised as a poor merchant—wearing a straw hat and stained clothes and carrying baskets of coconuts, tied to a bamboo shoulder pole—he raised the alarm on a shipment of contraband even while he was being run over by a horse and buggy, and breaking his legs. He once solved a robbery by noticing a strange thread of silk on a bedroom floor. He discovered a murderer by observing that one of the suspects, a Filipino man, had changed his muddy shoes, asking him, “Why you wear new shoes this morning?”

At times, Huang gets a little carried away by the legend, caught up in the perfumed, tropical romance of it all. “Apana once climbed up walls like a pre-Spiderman sleuth and slipped into an opium dive,” he writes. But, more often, Huang’s history is bracing and expansive, moving from Chang’s exploits to chronicle the squalor of Honolulu’s Chinatown and the miseries endured by each wave of immigrant workers—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino—in a world of brutal and unbending racial hierarchy. (Between 1917 and 1957, the year Hawaii outlawed the death penalty, twenty out of the twenty-six civilians executed on the islands were Filipino, two were Korean, two Japanese, one Puerto Rican, and one Hawaiian; as Huang observes, “not a single white man was among them.”) One of Chang’s jobs was to capture lepers, for forced transport to a leper colony on the island of Molokai, to die. Hawaiians called leprosy mai pake, “Chinese sickness,” because it came to the islands in the eighteen-thirties, and appeared to have arrived with the Chinese. Chang got that scar above his right eye while trying to capture a Japanese man who had contracted leprosy and who, armed with a sickle, refused to be sent to Molokai, on a journey over what came to be called the Bridge of Sighs.

Biggers started out as a police reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He published a lot of doggerel, many short stories, and some plays. He produced his first novel in 1913. He sailed to Hawaii seven years later. He always said, though, that he came across Chang Apana, in 1924, only back in the States, while paging through a Hawaiian newspaper in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library: “In an obscure corner of an inside page, I found an item to the effect that a certain hapless Chinese, being too fond of opium, had been arrested by Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook, of the Honolulu Police. So Sergeant Charlie Chan entered the story of The House Without a Key.”

The year Biggers decided to write about Chan, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which, among other restrictions, excluded from American citizenship foreign-born “Asiatics” (a new racial category, invented by eugenicists in the nineteen-tens and codified, in 1923, by the United States Supreme Court). is we missionary families.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2010 6:12 AM
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