In Search of Charlie Chan

coverwebThe Cruz Connection.  How a longtime Santa Cruz resident, Helen Kinau Wilder, figures prominently
Charlie Chan, the great fictional detective, was a man of mystery and intrigue—as well as a racist cultural stereotype wrapped in an enigma. For an entire generation of mainstream America he represented a skewed and constructed image of Chinese Americans, a deferential and asexual caricature, spewing out fortune-cookie clichés for mass consumption.

Beginning in the early 1920s through the end of the 1940s, Chan was a remarkably ubiquitous icon in American film and literature, comic books and television shows. Chan was the title character in no fewer than six novels by the popular mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, a rather proper Mid-Westerner and Harvard graduate who first “created” the Chan character in 1917 and brought him into the world full-bloom in 1925, in his novel “The House Without a Key,” first published serially in the Saturday Evening Post.

“He was very fat indeed,” Biggers wrote of Chan, “yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.”

Chan would also serve as the protagonist in nearly 50 feature films—starring, in proper order, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters, none of whom, of course, was Chinese or even Asian. Chan was a hero in his fictional world, the determined gumshoe who nearly always got his man. He was clever and persistent, inscrutable and charming. But his run didn’t survive the cultural revolution of the 1960s. By the following decade, he was cast as the villain in a renaissance of Asian-American culture, a demonic and demeaning figure in the eyes of younger, emerging generations of Asian-American writers and filmmakers rightfully determined to carve out identities of their own.

cover_movieChan’s chief antagonist was the Oakland-raised playwright and critic Fran Chin, whose passionate and stiletto-like prose carved up the Chan legacy into little pieces and then spat it out. Chin viewed the Chan stories as “parables of racial order” and “brewed up in the subconscious regions of the white Christian’s racial wet dream.”

A 1993 anthology of contemporary Asian-American fiction, edited by the talented Jessica Hagedorn, was dutifully entitled “Charlie Chan is Dead.” Chan, Hagedorn wrote, “is our most famous fake ‘Asian’ pop icon—known for his obsequious manner, fractured English and dainty walk.” In her preface to the book, Berkeley professor Elaine Kim put it more succinctly: “Charlie Chan is indeed dead, never to be revived.”

In 2003, when the Fox Movie Channel announced that it was going to carry a festival of restored prints of Chan films, it generated a firestorm of criticism. Several Asian-American organizations launched a letter-writing campaign directed against the festival. Fox backed down and cancelled the programs. Its executives issued a statement that they had “been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations and depictions that are sensitive to some viewers.”

Charlie Chan, for all intents and purposes, was dead in the cultural waters of America.

cover_HuangYunteBut pop icons die hard. Today Chan is celebrating a revival of sorts with the publication of a brilliant new work of cultural discovery—“Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History”—written by Yunte Huang, a relatively recent Chinese émigré to the United States who worked his way from cooking at a Chinese restaurant in Alabama to teaching in the hallowed halls of Harvard. Huang will be reading from his new book on Friday night, Feb. 4, at the Capitola Book Café (see sidebar).

In his fascinating—and provocative—account of Chan’s presence in American culture, Huang forces a fresh look at Chan, his creation by Biggers, and the racist and xenophobic cultural milieu that produced such a cultural icon. Most importantly—and this is where Santa Cruz enters the picture—Huang has blown through the stereotypes and the politically correct hyperbole surrounding Chan to examine the life of the real man, Chang Apana, a well respected Chinese-Hawaiian detective with the Honolulu Police Department, on whom the character of Charlie Chan was based. It is a joyfully told tale.

“In many ways,” argues Huang, “Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America.”

Serendipities abound in the world of Charlie Chan, and, as I was soon to discover, they abound in the historiography of Chan as well. On a rainy day last fall, my friend Michael “Seal” Riley invited me for an afternoon visit with friends of his in Corralitos who lived in a home designed in the architectural style called Hawaiian Formal Plantation. He wanted me to write a story about the structure and its current inhabitants.

When we arrived at the home—which had been purchased by the prominent Wyckoff family in 1915—I was told by a descendant of the family, Ann Wyckoff Carlos, that the home was originally built for a woman named Helen Kinau Wilder. The name struck a distant bell. I had been consumed in recent months researching, with my friend Kim cover_PacificAveStoner, the history of the three Hawaiian princes who had first brought surfing to the Pacific Coast [see Good Times, March 31, 2010] and their network of connections in Santa Cruz. I was fairly certain that I had encountered the Wilder name in research I had done on Hawaiian shipping related to the local surfing story.

Sure enough, Helen was the daughter of the Hawaiian shipping magnate, S. G. Wilder, and what’s more, her brother James “Kimo” Wilder had attended St. Mathews Hall—a military school for boys, located in San Mateo—at the same time as the three princes. Moreover, he had remained a close friend of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole (the popular “Prince Cupid”) throughout his life.

That was only the beginning of the serendipities. As I began researching the history of Helen Kinau Wilder, I discovered that she herself had led a remarkable life in the Hawaiian Islands—replete with intrigue and ill-fated romance—and one that eventually led her around the world. At the very bottom of a blog site devoted to her life, I discovered an interesting posting by one Yunte Huang:

“You may be interested in my new book ‘Charlie Chan,’ which is getting a lot of attention in the media. The book has a chapter on the Wilders and their relation to Chang Apana, the real Charlie Chan. The Wilders played an important role in giving Apana, an illiterate man, a coolie’s son, his ‘Chinaman’s chance’ in the world. Thank you!

cover_HelenWilderMedYes, it was getting a lot of attention, with splendid reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Indeed, I had just read a lengthy review essay on the book, only a few nights before, in the New Yorker. Helen Kinau Wilder, of Honolulu, was mentioned in the article. Was this the same woman who had built the lovely Hawaiian plantation home in Corralitos?  The blog site indicated that it might be. “Helen Kinau Wilder died February 4, 1954, in Santa Cruz County, California,” wrote the person who had posted the blog about her. “I was not able to locate an obituary.”

Ann Wyckoff Carlos told me that she knew little of what happened to Helen Wilder after she left Corralitos circa 1915. She had heard, perhaps, that Wilder had moved to Santa Cruz, but nothing more. No one else seemed to know anything. What had happened to the wealthy woman who had built this elaborate mansion overlooking an apple orchard on the northwest rim of the Pajaro Valley? No one seemed to know.

It was a mystery worthy of Charlie Chan or Chang Apana. But as Yunte Huang is wont to say, let us not get too far ahead of our story.

Helen Kinau Wilder’s roots in Hawaii date back to the first European-American medical missionaries to arrive in the islands in the early 1800s.  Her grandfather, Dr. Gerrit Parmele Judd, had served King Kamehameha I, not only as his physician, but also as the Prime Minister of the Hawaiian Kingdom. As a result, he was granted fine lands by Kamehameha, not only in Honolulu, but in rural Oahu as well.

Helen’s mother, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Judd, had been raised as family with both Kings Kamehameha II & III (her middle name Kinau was the name of their mother), and she grew up in an English-styled mansion that served as a meeting place, not only for Hawaiian royalty and visiting Americans, but for foreign dignitaries from around the world. She was courted, her granddaughter would later recall, “by the most eligible bachelors in the British and United States Navy.”

But a Navy life was not to be hers. It was while in San Francisco that Lizzie Judd met a young entrepreneur named Samuel Gardner Wilder, who, while ambitious to the extreme, was then operating a marginally successful lumberyard in the bustling city. Wilder bounced around the West hoping to earn his stake. He tried his luck in the Sierra goldfields, to no avail. Finally, he became an agent for a fledgling Pony Express company in Sacramento. It provided enough stability for him to ask Lizzie Judd to marry him. She accepted.

Their wedding in Honolulu, in 1866, was a widely celebrated affair, with distinguished guests that included Mark Twain,  then writing for the Sacramento Union, as were most members of the royal court, including King Kamehameha V and Queen Emma.

Wilder tried his hand in several enterprises in the islands, and finally hit pay dirt, such as it was, when he began shipping bird guano (to be used as fertilizer and in the production of gun powder) from Jarvis Island, just below the equator, to distant ports. His first voyage, to New York City, served as his and Lizzie’s honeymoon.

Wilder’s fortunes went up and down. He attempted to import contract laborers from Canton, China, an enterprise that ended in economic disaster. Eventually, however, he made his fortune. A ship named the Eskbank ran ashore near Diamond Head. A tropical storm soon threatened to destroy the vessel and all its holdings. Wilder made a gamble. He bought the wrecked vessel for $1,000, hoping that he could salvage his cargo. The impending storm held off just long enough. Wilder recouped more than $175,000, from the salvage. His family’s economic fate in Hawaii was now secure.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “The Wrecker,” is based, in part, on the story. “When [the ship] went to pieces in earnest,” Stevenson wrote, “the man who bought her had feathered his nest.” With his earnings, Wilder built a vast and successful shipping empire.cover_Waikiki

As a result, the Wilder’s youngest daughter, Helen Kinau, was born in1869 to both economic and racial privilege during Hawaii’s turbulent transition from sovereignty to annexation by the U.S. By the time she was 16, her name began appearing in the regional newspapers, noting her travels to other islands and foreign countries. By her early twenties, Wilder’s private life was often spread across the society pages.

She was engaged to be married several times and made it to the altar once, in 1899, only to desert her groom for a month-long solo honeymoon to the San Francisco Bay area. The story was carried in newspapers across the country.

San Francisco, June  5 — It has leaked out that Miss Helen Kinau Wilder, the Honolulu heiress, who has gained fame through her humane work in the Hawaiian islands and her eccentricities abroad, was secretly married on May 16 to Horace Joseph Craft, manager of the Pacific Cycle company at the Hawaiian capital. The wedding took place at midnight in the Honolulu Theological seminary … The bride went immediately to her home after the ceremony. On the following day she took passage on the steamship Australia for this city.

The San Francisco Call ran a full-page story on Wilder’s sojourn, replete with elaborate drawings of Wilder and a less-than-flattering physical description of her.

Hers is the hardened face of the typical Yankee school marm. All facts, no romance. Her chin is sharp. Her jaws close with a click. Her cheeks are follow. Her brow is stubborn. Altogether it is a face that repels, at first, only to finally attract and ultimately fascinate by the mind that shines out of a pair of clear gray eyes.

After I read that passage, I located in the Hawaiian State Archives a lovely image of her that thoroughly discounts the Call’s description. For all of her privilege, it occurred to me, that Helen Nihau Wilder was stereotyped in the same way that Charlie Chan would be two decades later.

cover_changapana1917By her mid-20s—and more importantly to the telling of our tale—Helen Kinau Wilder had embraced the cause of mistreated work animals in Hawaii, and founded the Hawaiian chapter of the Humane Society. She aggressively prosecuted those who abused animals, including a well-known preacher and politician. Once again, her activities gained her national renown.

Several newspaper accounts describe her activities, including this account from a New York paper:

Miss Wilder has the distinction of being the first woman in the Hawaiian Islands who has been appointed a humane officer. The honor was conferred upon her unsolicited by the attorney general in recognition of her frequent efforts to relieve dumb brutes and bring cruel masters to punishment. Miss Wilder is reputed to be the wealthiest heiress on the islands. She is a great favorite in society, and has a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances on the coast.

From the Daily Iowa State Press: Helen Wilder wears the star of the Hawaiian police on her breast. She is probably the only woman police officer in the world … She is simply a plain woman with plain ideas, no fuss or fizzle, believing herself on an equality with man, neither asking nor giving favors. Helen Wilder calls a spade a spade…

She doesn’t care a fig for dances teas or the dilly dallying of society. She snaps her fingers in the face of conventionality without so much as a “beg pardon.” She dons a short skirt, a shirt waist, a military hat and rides her horse with the daring of a vaquero, or she handles the reins with the dexterity of a pioneer stage driver.


Enter Charlie Chan, or more accurately Chang Apana, a native-born Hawaiian of Chinese descent, who had served as a stable hand of the Wilders. He was a tough and wiry paniolo (the Hawaiian word for cowboy), deadly with a bullwhip, and, even though he could not read or write either English or Chinese, he had a street savvy that struck everyone with whom he came in contact.

He and Helen Wilder had a special bond. In a certain sense they were both marginalized in Honolulu society—he because of his race, she because of her eccentric and “manly” ways—and as a result, they established strong bonds of loyalty with one another. She hired him to work with her in the Humane Society and offered him a badge. They both shattered glass ceilings.

Apana went from working for Wilder in the Humane Society to earning a spot on the Honolulu Police Department, then rising through the ranks to the position of “special officer,” where he was often called upon to work undercover in Honolulu’s sprawling Chinatown, then riddled with opium dens and gambling halls.


Apana, like Charlie Chan, always got his man. He became famous in his own right and a legendary figure in Hawaiian law enforcement. His exploits were frequently chronicled in Hawaii’s newspapers. “The buckle of special officer Apana’s police belt saved the gallant Chinaman from death early yesterday morning, deflecting a sharp ‘toad-stabber’ knife from a well-directed blow to his abdomen,” The Hawaiian Gazette noted,

“The blade ripped through his dark uninform coat and sweater and was broken of on the metal buckle.”

Although small and wiry, Apana’s toughness was a thing of legend throughout the islands. “A man who wished to be a ‘bouncer’ for one of the uptown saloons and who applied to Marshall Brown for a commission as a police officer,” noted the Honolulu Evening Bulletin, was taken to the police station gymnasium yesterday to have his capabilities tested in a wrestling match by Officer Apana and has made no further application for commission.” He once arrested 40 gamblers in their Chinatown hideaway by himself. On another occasion he solved a murder by observing that a suspect was wearing new shoes on the morning after the killing.

Such colorful accounts caught the attention of the young novelist, Earl Derr Biggers, who had travelled to Hawaii for reasons of health—and, over the course of the following two decades, a cultural icon was born.

Huang chronicles the life of Biggers and the various fictional and cinematic iterations of his creation.  In 1928 and again in 1931, Biggers—with three Chan books behind him—actually travelled back to Hawaii to meet with Apana in person. It was well-known by then that Chan’s character had been based, in part, on Apana. Indeed, many in Honolulu began calling him by the nickname of Charlie Chan.

Apana showed Biggers around Honolulu to the scenes of many of his most famous cases. There was talk of paying Apana $500 to play a role in one of the Chan movies, but Apana declined. While Biggers became wealthy because of his Chan novels and their film adaptations, Apana never received a penny in royalties for serving as Biggers’ inspiration.

After both Biggers and Apana had died in 1933 (Apana survived him by eight months) there remained a controversy over Apana’s influence on Biggers and how the Honolulu detective had been treated by the mystery writer.

In December of 1935, Helen Kinau Wilder came to the rescue of her late friend’s reputation. She wrote a letter to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, with a dateline from “Santa Cruz, Calif.” Although she got a few of the details of Apana’s life incorrect, she provided the basic parameters:

Officer Apana … was 27 years old he came to make his home with the Wilders at Eskbank as their hostler, remaining with us many years, after which he went to Waimea, Hawaii. In 1894, when I took up humane work in Honolulu,…I hired him to help in my work. We worked together for three years, when Arthur Brown, then marshal of the republic of Hawaii, said he wanted Apana on the police force, where he remained until his death. Apana looked upon our family as his own and when he was dying at the Queen’s hospital asked that a member of the family to come and see him.

In 1930, when I was visiting in Honolulu, Apana told me that Earl Derr Biggers had promised to give him a check of $500 for the use of his name in ‘The House Without a Key,’ but never kept his promise.

Helen K. Wilder

Although one cannot be sure of her final claim—she may have conflated or distorted the story about Apana appearing in a film—what is equally interesting about the letter is that it places Wilder in Santa Cruz in 1935.

So what of Helen Kinau Wilder, the woman who gave Chang Apana his Chinaman’s chance and by so doing served as cultural midwife to the fictional Charlie Chan?

Her marriage in 1899 lasted little more than a few months. She filed for a divorce and the right to use her maiden name. The court case dragged on for years. The notoriety from her ill-fated marriage and the subsequent publicity became too much for her to bear in Honolulu, so she moved to Corralitos and built her dream home, facing east, with a view towards Mount Madonna and the rising sun. She raised specialty apples and apricots. And she continued to travel the world.cover_CharlieChanjacket

It’s uncertain what caused her to sell her home to the Wyckoffs. In 1918, according to records filed with the U.S. State Department, Wilder went to the Russian interior, just prior to the Russian revolution, where she invested in mining ventures along the Armur River, and then served in the Red Cross, in Vladivostok, during World War I.

By 1922, she was back in Santa Cruz County, where she was to remain for the rest of her life, living quietly with her longtime companion, Hannah B. Campbell, whom she had met while serving in the Red Cross, on a four-acre estate overlooking Branciforte Creek.

Wilder kept a much lower profile during the final three decades of her life, traveling frequently and avoiding headlines. In the end, she was to live in Santa Cruz County for nearly 50 years. When she died in February of 1954, her obituary in the Santa Cruz Sentinel acknowledged her “devoted friend,” Campbell, with whom she had “resided for the past 27 years.” There was no mention of Charlie Chan.

Yunte Huang, author of the best-selling “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History,” will make a rare West Coast appearance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4 at the Capitola Book Café,1475 41st Ave., Capitola, 462-6297. A native of China, Huang earned his doctorate at SUNY Buffalo. A professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Huang is currently a visiting professor at Cornell University.

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