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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Author of Charlie Chan Series Inspired by Halekūlani Hotel - Tour Tells All

Tour offers guests a look at Halekulani Hotel history 

By Allison Schaefers
Honolulu Star Advertiser, August 26, 2013

Halekulani owner Juliet Kimball posed for a photo in front of the original House Without a Key restaurant in 1948, a day before it was to be renovated. The restaurant took its name from the first Charlie Chan novel in 1925. (STAR ADVERTISER)
Many people probably don' know that Earl Derr Biggers, author of the popular Charlie Chan series, got his inspiration for the famous fictional detective from the real deal, Honolulu Police Officer Chang Apana, and the setting from the Halekulani Hotel, where he liked to stay.

Halekulani guests can learn more about Biggers and the mystery of Waikiki during a recently added Halekulani historic walking tour. During the 45-minute complimentary guided tour around the five-acre property, guests also hear about a special shrine to fishing gods, get a rare glimpse of a federally protected flower, and marvel at the royal history of the coconut grove.

Canadian visitor Pauline Clarke took the tour on Tuesday, a few days before Biggers' birthday. During the historic walk, she learned that the famous author, who was born in 1884 in Warren, Ohio, helped to put Hawaii and one of its iconic hotels on the map. Recently, author Yunte Huang brought these old legends to life again in a book, "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History."

Clarke was on her fourth visit to Hawaii; however, she said the tour helped freshen the experience and provided incentive to return.

"I like the fact that Halekulani clearly respects their history and values — who they are and how they developed," said Clarke, who first visited Hawaii in 1991.

About two decades separated Clarke's first visit to Hawaii and her second, which was three years after the Waikiki Beach Walk project transformed an aging Lewers Street into a hospitality, entertainment and shopping mecca.

"When I first came, this area was very quiet. There were only a very few restaurants, but when I came back everything had changed," she said. "I think history is very important because it sets a tone for things that follow."

Since the Halekulani itself has undergone several transformations from its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century as a small residential hotel called Hau Tree, hotel staff like to say that the story of how it came to be is in many ways like the story of Waikiki itself. During the tour, Clarke learned that Halekulani's name, which means House Befitting Heaven, dates from 1917, when Juliet and Clifford Kimball purchased the hotel and began turning the property into a luxury resort. Biggers stayed at the adjacent Gray's-By-The-Sea lodge, while writing his first Charlie Chan mystery, "House Without a Key, which was published in 1925.

It wasn't until 1984 that the Halekulani opened in its current form as one of the state's most luxurious hotels. While the lodge is long gone, Halekulani's House Without A Key restaurant is named after Biggers' novel and alludes to the former Gray's-By-the Sea, so dubbed because the 
owner never locked it.

"Biggers' doctor said take a vacation. That brought him to Waikiki, where he checked into cottages run by Mrs. Gray on Gray's Beach," Huang said. "When Biggers, who came from Boston, asked for a key, Mrs. Gray said, ‘What key?' No one locked their doors in Waikiki."

Huang, a Chinese immigrant who began researching the story of the real and fictional Chinese detectives as an assistant professor of English at Biggers' alma mater, Harvard, said it didn't take much to get him hooked on the history behind the character.

"For me to write about these books and films is to pay tribute to (Honolulu-based real-life detective) Apana to pay tribute to the real story, which embodies the richness of American history," he said.

On a recent visit to the Halekulani, Huang looked toward Gray's Beach and imagined what Biggers might have seen.

"He sees Diamond Head, Japanese fishing boats, and the outline of a ship that arrived too late for customers and is anchored offshore," Huang said. "He sees the blinking lights, and a murder plot for his novel donned on him. It's a mystery novel based in Waikiki and a passenger on that ship, a champion swimmer, is able to jump off the ship, kill someone and swim back."

Later, while Biggers sat at the lodge reading a local newspaper, Huang said, Biggers came upon a small item about Apana arresting some Chinese people for smoking opium, and the rest is history. While Chan was only a minor character in Biggers' first book, Huang said readers quickly embraced him.

"He was probably like, ‘Holy crap, I'm stuck with this Charlie Chan character like Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,'" Huang said.

Biggers continued to develop Chan's character, eventually including him in six novels. The possibility of more Chan mysteries ended with Biggers' death in 1933, which coincidentally, Huang said, was also the year that the colorful Apana died. In his book, Huang has transformed the 5-foot-tall, skinny Apana, into a bullwhip-toting legend who serves as an example of Hawaii's multicultural and multiracial past. If Huang, an English professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has his way, the tale will make it to the big screen.

"We're looking for investors to produce our screenplay," Huang said. "We'd like to do a new Charlie Chan film from a historical perspective."

In this way, Huang's mission doesn't differ much from that of Halekulani staff like Hi‘inani Papapa-Blakesley, who often leads history tours at the property and endeavors to keep its grand past relevant in an ever-changing world.

"For me as a Hawaiian, everyone who gives of their senses and spreads love and culture has contributed to the beauty and the history of this place," Papapa-Blakesley said. "It's a kakou thing, which means that everyone who comes here contributes to our DNA. That's why it's so important that we come together and celebrate the ancestry of this place."

A typical kamaaina, Papapa-Blakesley said she comes from many cultures.

"I'm not only Hawaiian," she said. "I'm French, English, Irish, Tahitian, Filipino, Tahitian, Spanish."
Like the fictional Charlie Chan, she's got a Chinese side, too.

House Without a Key today.

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