The House on Punchbowl Hill



















 
 

CHARLIE CHAN:

Ohio.com (Akron Beacon Journal), May 5, 2008

 
 

Mystery of Charlie Chan

Fictional detective follows trail of clues from Akron

By Mark J. Price

There is no smoking gun, crimson dagger or coiled rope. Yet there is tantalizing evidence that a fictional detective has close ties to Akron. Mystery novelist Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933), a Warren native who created Charlie Chan, seems to have left a trail of clues in Northeast Ohio.

Biggers wrote six books about the brilliant Chinese-American sleuth, an unusual protagonist for the United States in the early 20th century.

''I had seen movies depicting and read stories about Chinatown and wicked Chinese villains, and it struck me that a Chinese hero, trustworthy, benevolent and philosophical, would come nearer to presenting a correct portrayal of the race,'' Biggers once said.

''I created Charlie Chan as a minor character in a story I was writing and by the time the story, a serial, had ended, readers were writing in for more of Chan.''

He sketched out a Honolulu police inspector who spoke in pidgin English and dispensed ancient wisdoms while solving the world's greatest mysteries. When questioning suspects, Chan utters gems such as ''The wise elephant does not seek to ape the butterfly'' and ''When the dinner is ended, who values the spoon?''

For Akron-Canton readers, the 1930 novel
Charlie Chan Carries On has an extra layer of mystery. The author provides delightful details of local interest.

The plot is about a killer stalking a U.S. tour group on a globe-trotting vacation. The first victim — a Detroit automobile executive — is found strangled in a ritzy London hotel. His hand clutches a key marked ''Dietrich Safe and Lock Company, Canton, Ohio,'' obviously inspired by Diebold Safe & Lock Co.

Two prominent characters are introduced: Akron rubber baron Elmer Benbow and his socialite wife, Nettie, who seem to be an amalgamation of Seiberlings and Firestones.

''He was a plump, genial soul; the naive, unsophisticated sort the British so love to think of as a typical American,'' Biggers writes. He describes Mrs. Benbow as ''a handsome, well-dressed woman who, not being needed at the factory, had evidently had more time for the refinements of life than had her husband.''

Throughout the novel, Biggers refers to Benbow as ''the man from Akron.'' The rubber executive mentions the city every chance he gets.

''Akron,'' he says. ''You've heard of Akron, haven't you? Akron, Ohio.''

Inspecting the mysterious key, a London police officer inquires if Canton is near Akron.

''Just a few miles between 'em,'' Benbow answers. ''McKinley came from Canton, you know. Mother of presidents — that's what we call Ohio.''

Realizing that the proximity of the cities might make him a suspect, Benbow protests: ''We make too many tires in Akron to go round killing off our best customers, the automobile men.''

Throughout the tale, Benbow carries a movie camera to film his vacation adventures ''for the folks back in Akron.''

Charlie Chan persuades the rubber baron to show his films to the tour group. After spotting a valuable clue on the screen, the detective urges Benbow to lock up the film.

''It would grieve me greatly if you arrived in beloved hometown lacking important reel,'' Chan says.

Biggers apparently did his homework. One character is named Spicer, the surname of a Summit County pioneer family. Another is Everhard, the surname of a Stark County pioneer family.

Charlie Chan Carries On was such a popular novel that Fox Film Corp. turned it into a 1931 movie starring Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. It was his first appearance as Charlie Chan, a star-making role he would reprise for 15 more movies.

Beacon Journal reviewer Edward E. Gloss wrote: ''I like this Chinese detective Charlie Chan, portrayed by the hitherto sinister Warner Oland in Charlie Chan Carries On, at the Colonial.''

The Akron subplot made the transition to the silver screen. Gloss praised the comedic character of the ''big rubber and tire man from Akron, O.''

''If they haven't already been planned, we'd suggest more Chan pictures,'' Gloss wrote.

Earl Derr Biggers was 48 when he died of pneumonia in 1933. Charlie Chan's popularity soared on the big screen, but the ethnic stereotypes that the novelist tried to avoid became more prevalent. Oland wasn't Asian. Neither were Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, who later played the role.

Biggers said he got the idea for the detective during a Hawaiian vacation in 1919. Historians credit a newspaper article about veteran Honolulu detective Chang Apana as the character's inspiration.

However, Biggers said he didn't meet Apana until after the third Chan novel. ''The character of Charlie Chan is entirely fictitious,'' he insisted.

Well, the plot thickens.

There really was a man named Charlie Chan.

He operated a laundry for about 15 years at 40 N. Howard St. in downtown Akron. He was one of only two Asian men living in the city at the time.

In the early 20th century, Chan wasn't a common name in America. U.S. census records reveal only five listings for Charles Chan from 1900 to 1910. Only one man lived in Ohio: the Akron resident.

He was the only one who listed Charlie as his official name. Born in the 1860s in Canton, China, he immigrated to the United States as a teen and opened the Akron laundry in the late 1890s. The business, which was a half-block north of Market Street, doubled as his home. The 1900 census gave his age at 36.

The Beacon Journal interviewed him for a 1900 article about the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreigners in China. The unnamed reporter decided to write in dialect:

''Chan was busy, but he came out from the rear of his laundry long enough to be interviewed. He was told that there is a great war raging in China and he was asked to say something about the Boxers. 'War! War in China! Me no care. Me safe. China bad. Me no go back China.' ''

If the quote is accurate, our Charlie Chan wasn't as fluent in English as the fictional detective.

Earl Derr Biggers lived about 40 miles away in Warren. As a young man, he could have hopped the Pittsburgh, Akron & Western Railroad and made it to the ''big city'' in two hours.

There is no evidence that he met the laundryman. However, Charlie Chan's business was in a prominent location within walking distance of the train station.

If Biggers did come to town, he could have seen the sign.

Years later, while trying to think of a good name for a Chinese-American hero, he might have recalled the Akron laundry.

Could ''the man from Akron'' in Charlie Chan Carries On be the title character?

Pure speculation.

Until we have more evidence, the mystery remains unsolved.

He was the only one who listed Charlie as his official name. Born in the 1860s in Canton, China, he immigrated to the United States as a teen and opened the Akron laundry in the late 1890s. The business, which was a half-block north of Market Street, doubled as his home. The 1900 census gave his age at 36.

The Beacon Journal interviewed him for a 1900 article about the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreigners in China. The unnamed reporter decided to write in dialect:

''Chan was busy, but he came out from the rear of his laundry long enough to be interviewed. He was told that there is a great war raging in China and he was asked to say something about the Boxers. 'War! War in China! Me no care. Me safe. China bad. Me no go back China.' ''

If the quote is accurate, our Charlie Chan wasn't as fluent in English as the fictional detective.

Earl Derr Biggers lived about 40 miles away in Warren. As a young man, he could have hopped the Pittsburgh, Akron & Western Railroad and made it to the ''big city'' in two hours.

There is no evidence that he met the laundryman. However, Charlie Chan's business was in a prominent location within walking distance of the train station.

If Biggers did come to town, he could have seen the sign.

Years later, while trying to think of a good name for a Chinese-American hero, he might have recalled the Akron laundry.

Could ''the man from Akron'' in Charlie Chan Carries On be the title character?

Pure speculation.

Until we have more evidence, the mystery remains unsolved.

 
 

Return to Study.

Return to Charlie Chan Family Home ENTRANCE.