The Real “Charlie Chan” in Hawaii

Updated May 26, 2020

The fictional detective “Charlie Chan” was based on the real-life Honolulu detective Chan Apana, whose father came from Southern China to Hawaii in the 1800s to work on the sugar plantations. Towards the end of that century however, many Chinese men like Chan Apana who were raised in Hawaii, represented the social predicament they faced.

Before 1898, people from China were free to travel between Hawaii and China. Then Hawaii became a United States territory, and the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882” which was enacted sixteen years prior, came into effect in Hawaii, which forbade Chinese nationals from immigrating to the United States and thus Hawaii! Such is the power of one Act!

The Act created a peculiar situation for the Chinese men in Hawaii. They either had wives in China who were supposed to come over to Hawaii, or the single men were looking to go back to China to find a wife there, none of which happened for the most part.

Therefore, the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882” triggered Chinese men to have two wives, and interracial marriages with the local women. This Act demonstrates that laws which prohibit immigration based on race, affect people’s lives and the racial and ethnic identity of their descendants.

In present-day Hawaii, many people refer to themselves as “Hawaiian-Chinese,” which one can likely trace to the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” a United States government-sanctioned policy which was enacted over 140 years ago.


Emy Louie was born in Hong Kong, was raised in Hawaii and has native fluency in Cantonese, the language spoken in Southern China where her parents were born. They relocated to Hong Kong during the 1950s, and then to Hawaii in the 1970s.


Huang, Yunte. “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.” c2011.

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