Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Man Behind Chan

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a splendid piece in this week’s edition of The New Yorker about Chang Apana, the real-life turn-of-the-last-century Honolulu police detective on whom author-playwright Earl Derr Biggers based his famous aphorism-spouting sleuth, Charlie Chan. As writer Jill Lepore recalls, Apana “was born, around 1871, in Waipio, a village outside Honolulu,” to a Chinese immigrant father and Sandwich Islands-born mother.
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?”
Lepore’s piece is linked to the coming publication of a biography titled Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History (Norton), by Yunte Huang. And while she seems generally approving of the book, she cautions:
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.
Regardless, Huang’s book sounds delightful. You can read all of Lepore’s New Yorker article about it here.

No comments: