The character of Charlie Chan was created by author Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote several mystery novels featuring the character. Biggers based Charlie Chan in part on a Honolulu police officer named Chang Apana. Both the character of Charlie Chan and the real-life Chang Apana worked in Honululu and were accomplished, respected police officers of Chinese descent, but the similarities seem to end there. The first screen appearances of Charlie Chan were in silent serials and the character also had a small role in the 1929 early talkie “Behind That Curtain.”
In 1931, Fox studios cast Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, who had previous experience playing Asian roles. For the most part, Warner Oland played Chan as a soft-spoken, polite detective, an aspect that was noticeably different from Earl Derr Biggers’ original, more assertive Charlie Chan. However, Chan’s wise proverbs and powers of deduction remained much the same in the films as they were in the novels. Warner Oland had a very successful run as Charlie Chan from 1931-37, and starred in perhaps the most acclaimed Chan film, “Charlie Chan at the Opera,” co-starring Boris Karloff. The character of Chan was unique; he had no trouble coming up with wise proverbs or sayings for any situation. An example of one of his sayings- “Politeness is the golden key that opens many doors.” He was often underestimated, even by members of the police force, and always came out ahead, no matter what people thought of him. This was a step forward for people of Chinese descent, because there had previously never been a Chinese character in movies that was not a villain or a negative stereotype. Warner Oland visited Shanghai, and was thought by many to really be Chinese, a testament to his believability in the role of Charlie Chan. One of the elements that made the series so popular was the addition of Charlie Chan’s enthusiastic Americanized sons, played mainly by Asian actors Keye Luke, Sen Yung, and Benson Fong. Their amateur detective work and comedic chemistry with their onscreen “dad” was a key addition to the films’ success.