Saturday, October 2, 1999

100 Who Made A Difference

Star Chang Apana Star

Star-Bulletin file photo
Chang Apana carried a whip instead of a gun.

‘Charlie Chan’ isle’s
toughest crime fighter

By Jaymes K. Song


Detective Chang Apana was the island's most-feared crime fighter for more than 30 years.

From 1898 to 1932, he made hundreds of arrests on Oahu and busted several drug and gambling circles. His work and life was the basis for the character "Charlie Chan."

Apana sometimes made 40 arrests in one day without a firearm, according to police records.

The detective stood 5 feet and carried a whip instead of a gun. He didn't like firearms and was handy with the whip, a skill he learned from his days as a paniolo, said police museum curator Eddie Croom.

The fast-walking, cigarette-smoking, Panama hat-wearing sleuth spoke fluent Cantonese, Hawaiian and pidgin English. But he could only read and write Hawaiian.

According to news reports, he was born in Waipio to a Chinese immigrant family. They all moved back to China three years after he was born, but Apana returned to Oahu when he was 10. He was raised by his uncle and became skilled at tending horses.

Apana joined the Honolulu Police Department in 1898 and quickly became its most prolific officer. His Chinese ancestry, undercover skills and determination to complete an unsolved case allowed him to crack into Oahu's most notorious opium-smuggling and gambling circles.

He died in 1933, one year after retiring from the force, and was buried at Manoa Chinese Cemetery. Apana had 10 children and married three times.

Author Earl Derr Biggers met Apana while vacationing in Waikiki and created the character Charlie Chan in 1925. Biggers was so impressed by Apana that he wrote several novels, including "House Without a Key," which eventually led to Charlie Chan movies acted by Warner Oland and Sidney Polar.

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