Remembering Apana Chang, legendary detective and the first Chinese policeman in Hawaii

Remembering Hawaii

On December 26th, 1871, larger-than-life detective Apana Chang was born. Chang was the first Chinese police officer in Hawaii, and the inspiration for the fictional detective Charlie Chan who appeared in dozens of bestselling novels and films throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s. 

Chang was born in Waipio under the given name Ah Ping, which was later changed to Apana. His mother was born in Hawaii, and his father is believed to have traveled to Oahu in the 1860s amid a sugarcane boom that saw over 46,000 Chinese laborers immigrate to Hawaii. When Chang was 3, he and his parents moved back to China, but famine caused by the Opium Wars pushed Chang’s parents to send him back to live with an uncle in Waipio when he was 10.

His childhood is still unknown, but he entered the public record again in 1891 as a paniolo for the Wilder family ranch. Helen Wilder, daughter of the wealthy shipping magnate Samuel Wilder, hired Chang as a police officer for the Humane Society, then a part of the police department. Chang’s job was to stop people from beating their horses. His experience on the ranch and his skill with a bullwhip made him uniquely qualified for the job, and he excelled at it. 

In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii as a territory at the same time it waged war with Spain, a conflict which primarily took place in the pacific. These events caused the Honolulu Police Department to grow, and Chang was recruited to be an officer. At the time, most police officers were Hawaiians and most police chiefs were haoles; Chang was the only person of Chinese descent on a force of more than 200 people. He excelled as a patrolman in Chinatown and was soon promoted to detective. His career is the stuff of legends; it’s no wonder he became the basis for fictional mystery stories.

Chang was known to be a master of disguise. He once donned a hat, black glasses and a Chinese coat to infiltrate a well-guarded gang lair. Once inside, he single-handedly arrested 40 gangsters for illegal gambling. Another time, dressed up as a poor coconut merchant, he spotted a large shipment of contraband getting unloaded at a pier. He was run over by a horse and buggy, but still managed to make arrests. Perhaps most famously, he was once tossed out of a second story window by drug addicts, only to land on his feet. 

Besides being physically gifted, he was a cunning observer. He solved a robbery by noticing an errant thread of silk on the ground, and found a murderer by questioning a suspect about his shoes. To add to his larger-than-life list of accomplishments, Chang was known to prefer his trusty bullwhip instead of a gun. 

In 1924, writer Earl Derr Biggers read about Chang in a Hawaii newspaper while he was 5000 miles away in the New York Public Library. Biggers was already halfway through his novel The House Without a Key, set in Hawaii, when he decided to introduce a new character in the 7th chapter: detective Charlie Chan. Meant only to be a minor character, Chan defied racist presumptions to be the best detective on the force. Charlie Chan became an unexpected hit, and was the focus of another five books, over 50 movies, and three TV shows. Several prominent Asian-American writers openly rebuked the Charlie Chan character as racist and stereotypical, particularly his style of speech which literary scholar Elaine Kim called “fortune-cookie English.” Indeed, the fictional character often spoke in hokey philosophical aphorisms delivered in broken grammar.

Biggers met Chang in 1928. Biggers recalled Chang as “a man who can laugh even as he reaches for the whip.” Though there is no record of what Chang thought of Biggers, he reportedly enjoyed the Charlie Chan films, which Biggers publicly acknowledged were based on Apana Chang. 

In 1933, Chang was admitted to Queen’s Hospital after battling an illness for over a month. His gangrenous leg was amputated on December 7th of that year, and he died the next day. He is now buried at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery.

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