Chang Apana

Apana Chang (December 26, 1871 – December 8, 1933; traditional Chinese: 鄭阿平; simplified Chinese: 郑阿平; pinyin: Zhèng Āpíng; Jyutping: Zen6 Aa3ping4) was a Chinese-Hawaiian member of the Honolulu Police Department, first as an officer, then as a detective. He was acknowledged by Earl Derr Biggers as the inspiration for his fictional Asian detective character, Charlie Chan.

Apana Chang
Apana Chang born Ah Ping Chang
Born(1871-12-26)December 26, 1871
DiedDecember 8, 1933(1933-12-08) (aged 61)
Other namesCharlie Chan
Police career
DepartmentHonolulu Police Department
Service years34

Early life

Chang Ah Ping (鄭阿平) was born December 26, 1871 in Waipio, Oahu, Hawaii. Apana is a Hawaiianized version of the Chinese name Ah Ping. His family moved back to China when he was 3, but Chang returned at the age of 10 to live with his uncle in Waipio. As an adult, Chang was fluent in Hawaiian, Hawaiian Pidgin, and Cantonese. He never learned to read, relying on his family to read newspapers and documents for him.[1] In his youth, he worked as a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy), starting in 1891, and it was as part of this job that he first began carrying a bullwhip on a regular basis. Three years later, Chang started working for the Hawaii Humane Society, which at the time was part of the police department on the island. The Humane Society was founded by Helen Kinau Wilder, the owner of the horses that Chang had handled as a paniolo. Wilder was the daughter of shipping magnate Samuel Gardner Wilder.[2]

Police career

In 1898, Chang joined the Honolulu Police Department, where he was assigned to patrol Chinatown. In his early years as a detective, beginning in 1916, Chang worked primarily on opium-smuggling and illegal gambling cases.

Due in part to his fluency in several languages, his wide network of informants and because of his shrewd and meticulous detective style, Chang was successful in solving many cases. Many stories about Chang's career have arisen. Chang helped round up people infected with leprosy and send them to a leper colony on the island of Molokai. While performing this duty, Chang was attacked by a Japanese leper with a sickle, leaving him with a scar over his right eye.[1] Another time Chang was thrown out of a second story window by drug addicts, only to land on his feet.[3] There is an account that he raised the alarm on a shipment of contraband after being run over by a horse and buggy.[1] One night in Honolulu, with no backup and armed only with his bullwhip, Chang arrested 40 gamblers, whom he then lined up and marched back to the police station.[4]

Inspiration for Charlie Chan

Earl Derr Biggers vacationed in Hawaii in 1919 where he was inspired to begin to write the novel House Without a Key. While reading Honolulu newspapers in the New York library in 1924, he read about the exploits of Apana Chang. Biggers then created a new character based on Chang for his novel, inserting him a quarter of the way through the book. The character became popular and Biggers expanded his presence in his novels.

Chang met actor Warner Oland, who portrayed Charlie Chan, when The Black Camel was filmed in Hawaii. When Biggers met Chang in 1928 the real detective was already being called "Charlie Chan", and Chang enjoyed watching his fictional counterpart's films.[1] After five more novels, Biggers publicly acknowledged Chang as the inspiration for his character in a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser dated June 28, 1932. His widow states, though, that Chan was actually based on Biggers himself, resembling him in physique and character, whereas Chang was slight in build, quick to anger, and involved in very few actual murder cases.[5]

Chang's retirement and death

After 34 years of service, Chang retired in May 1932 as a detective when he was injured in a car accident. He briefly worked as a watchman for the Hawaiian Trust building.[6] On December 2, 1933, Chang was admitted into Queen's Hospital after a month-long period of serious illness. On December 7, 1933, his gangrenous leg was amputated and he died the following day. Chang Apana is buried at the Manoa Chinese cemetery in Honolulu.[7]


Chang's law enforcement career was an influence on other fictional works other than Charlie Chan. Max Allan Collins's 1996 novel, Damned in Paradise, fictionalizes the famous Massie case. Collins included fictionalized depictions of several historical figures, including Chang Apana, who was an active-duty detective at the time of the Massie case (though there's no official record of Chang being one of the investigating officers).

Usagi Yojimbo, a comic book series by Stan Sakai that is set in 17th century Japan and features a cast of anthropomorphic characters, includes occasional appearances of a character named Inspector Ishida who is partially based on Chang Apana. As Max Allan Collins points out in the introduction to Usagi Yojimbo Book 13: Grey Shadows, Inspector Ishida is, like the real Chang Apana, a more hardboiled character than the mild-mannered Charlie Chan.[8]

In a 2011 comic story written by Mike Curtis and illustrated by Joe Staton for the Dick Tracy newspaper strip, Tracy's friend and colleague, HPD officer Haku Kou, is depicted as being the technical advisor on a movie being filmed in Tracy's city because of the title character's facility with a blacksnake whip. Kou explains that he became proficient with that weapon (leading to his being hired as the film's technical advisor) in emulation of Chang Apana.

Chang was featured in the seventh episode of the ninth season of the remake of Hawaii Five-O,[9] entitled "Pua A'e La Ka Uwahi O Ka Moe" ("The Smoke Seen in the Dream Now Rises"), which highlighted some of Chang's stories and his successes in solving cases.


  1. Lepore, Jill (August 9, 2010). "Chan, the Man: On the trail of the honorable detective". The New Yorker. New York City, New York, USA: Condé Nast. ISSN 0028-792X. OCLC 320541675. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  2. Kim, Hyung-Chan (December 30, 1999). "Chang Apana (1864–1933): Law Enforcement Officer". Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary (illustrated ed.). Westport, Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 18–20. ISBN 978-0-313-28902-6. OCLC 39739744. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  3. Iyer, Pico (September 6, 2010). Stengel, Richard (ed.). "Watching the Detective". Time. New York City, New York, USA (August 23, 2010). ISSN 0040-781X. OCLC 1311479. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  4. Staff (July 13, 1904). "Disguised Apana Caught Gamblers". Pacific Commercial Advertiser. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA: Thurston Twigg-Smith. ISSN 1072-7191. OCLC 8807414.
  5. "The Real Charlie Chan", featurette on: Charlie Chan in Egypt (DVD), 20th Century Fox, 2006.
  6. "Chang Apana is struck by auto". Honolulu Star Bulletin. May 3, 1932.
  7. Deborah Gushman (September 2003). "Number-One Detective". Hana Hou.
  8. Collins, Max Allan; Collins, Nathan (2006). "The Case of Usagi Yojimbo". Usagi Studios. Stan Sakai. Archived from the original on April 27, 2012. Retrieved September 15, 2012.
  9. "Watch Hawaii Five-0 Season 9 Episode 7: Pua a'e la ka uwahi o ka moe - Full show on CBS All Access". CBS. November 10, 2018. Retrieved November 12, 2018.

Further reading

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