The Who's Who of Charlie Chan's Family
Howard M. Berlin
As appeared in Issue #339
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Charlie Chan is the rotund Chinese detective created by Earl
Derr Biggers. Beginning in 1925 with The House Without a Key, Biggers
modeled Chan after Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese detective who lived with
his large family in Honolulu on Punchbowl Hill. With the exception of Sherlock
Holmes, Charlie Chan is the most prolific detective on filma filmography
that includes an initial 10-part serial in 1926 followed by 46 films through
1949. During this span, six actors played the inscrutable detective: George
Kuwa (1925), Kamiyama Sojin (1927), E.L. Park (1929), Warner Oland (1931-1938),
Sidney Toler (1938-1947), and Roland Winters (1947-1949).
There are two things that I enjoy the most
that set the Charlie Chan film series apart from the other B-detective
films of the 1930s and 1940s. One is Chan's frequent use of pithy, but wise
sayings. The other is the scenarists' inclusion of Chan's children in many of
the films who are often found to be on the receiving end of many of Charlie's
well-placed verbal shots"Better a father lose his son than a
detective his memory" in Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (1940). Also
mentioned are a few members of the extended family"Man without
relatives is man without troubles."
Because of Chan's large family, it is not uncommon for questions to arise
concerning his family, relatives, and the names of his children. Although the
family members are characters of fiction, one however has to carefully
distinguish between the novels and the films, as there were only rare cases
where the film faithfully followed the novel it was based on. In the six novels
Biggers wrote, Charlie Chan and his honorable wife are parents to 11 children,
a brood large enough for the Chans to field their own family baseball or
football team if they wanted to. Charlie candidly declares in The Chinese
Cat (1944), "Once you have large family, all other troubles mean
Some of Charlie Chan's (Warner Oland) "Multitudinous
Blessings" in a publicity shot from Charlie Chan's Greatest Case
(1933). The daughter at the left is Mabel Hoo; Frances Chan is cuddled by
Oland's left hand; David Dong and Alan Dong are at the far right. Frank Dong
(with hair parted in middle) is behind Frances Chan. The son standing behind
Oland in front of the picture frame is assumed to be an uncredited actor in the
role of Oswald Chan.
More than 40 films allowed for the development of the Chan family and the
many scenarists introduced changes in the family along with perhaps unintended
occasional errors in continuity over the duration of the series. Of the very
early Chan talkies with Warner Oland, sadly four films are considered
"lost" but thankfully their scripts and some stills survive. Like
Chan, we can try to deduce certain facts allowing us to gather further
information about some members of the Chan family.
The Chan Children: The Changing Numbers
Throughout the film series the size of the Chan family changes. The script of
one of the lost films, Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), gives the first
glimpse of the scope of Charlie's family and his role as a family man. In one
scene, Chan has just sent his friend Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard a letter
along with a family photograph of himself, his wife, and their 11 children,
whom Chan occasionally calls his "multitudinous blessings." One can
only suppose that this family photo is similar to the one in Charlie Chan's
Courage (1934), another lost film, or the one seen in available films like
Charlie Chan in London (1934) and Charlie Chan in Shanghai
(1935). Such photos which, from left to right, show the 11 children in a single
line in descending order, possibly by age. From the photo one can readily
identify five sons and five daughters, but the gender of the youngest child is
uncertain. However, in The Black Camel (1931), which followed Charlie
Chan Carries On by only two months, only ten children are seen. One film
later in Charlie Chan's Chance (1932), child Number 11 is born.
The entire Chan family of 12 children in Charlie Chan at
the Circus (1936) with Warner Oland at the far left, Annie Mar (as Mrs.
Chan), Keye Luke, Florence Ung, Richard Ung, Frances Hoo, Mae Jean Quon,
unknown son, Stanton Mui, unknown daughter, Faye Lee, Richard Lee, Lily Mui,
and unknown child. Photo courtesy of Rush Glick.
As a devoted family man, Charlie always has a
picture of his family in a large wallet placed near his bed in his travels
around the world. In Charlie Chan in London, Chan, his wife, and 10
children are shown in one photograph and a separate photograph shows a young
babyprobably child Number 11 from Charlie Chan's Chance. However
this is at odds with the end of the movie when Charlie says that at home, he
has 12 children and one wife.
Four films later in Charlie Chan's Secret (1936), Charlie has a
picture of himself, his wife, and 11 children. In Charlie Chan at the
Circus (1936), the entire Chan family consisting of Charlie, his wife, and
12 children (five sons and seven daughters) are shown together entering a
circus tent in the order of increasing height (and probably age) with Charlie
last, holding the baby which he calls their "latest blessed event."
One can only wonder how Charlie and his wife manage to have such a large family
when he is frequently solving mysteries in places other than Honolulu.
The 1938 entry, Charlie Chan in
Honolulu, is notable in many respects. First, the role of Charlie Chan is
now played by Sidney Toler following the death of Warner Oland. Secondly, the
departure of Keye Luke as Number One son from the series now introduces Number
Two son Jimmy for the first time. Thirdly, Charlie and his wife confirm that
they now have 13 children and a grandchild is born at the film's end.
However one scene at the beginning of the film shows 11 children at the
family dining tablenow seven boys and four girlswith Number Two son
Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung, then credited as Sen Yung) seated at the head of the
table next to Charlie. The discrepancy of two fewer children is easily resolved
when Jimmy explains Lee's absence, now attending art school in New York, and
Number One daughter Ling is in the hospital about to give birth to the Chans'
first grandchild. With 13 children, there are now eight sons and five daughters
accounted for. Apparently somewhere between the "Circus" and
"Honolulu" films, the Chans despite adding one child, have
gained three sons and lost two daughters!
Annie Mar (as Mrs. Chan) holding the baby, Keye Luke, Lily
Mui, Richard Lee, Faye Lee, unknown daughter, Stanton Mui, unknown son, Mae
Jean Quon, Frances Hoo, Richard Ung, Florence Ung, and Warner Oland in a
publicity pose from Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936).
In "Honolulu," a freighter captain has already met two of
Charlie's sons (Jimmy and Willie) under annoying circumstances aboard his ship
while Chan is also aboard investigating a murder. He then tersely inquires of
Charlie there are any more. To the captain's astonishment, Charlie admits to
having nine more at home, corroborating the total of 11 children present in an
earlier scene at the crowded dinner table.
A publicity photo from Charlie Chan in Honolulu
(1938). Front row: David Dong, Barbara Jean Wong, Faye Lee (with the doll),
Margie Lee, unknown son, and Layne Tom, Jr. Back row: Sinclair Yip, Victor Sen
Yung (to the left of Toler), Sidney Toler holding an unknown son, Grace Key
(Mrs. Chan), and Iris Wong. Photo courtesy of Rush Glick.
In Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
(1939), an old friend praises Chan's wife as an "institution," having
given birth to 13 children. In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940),
Charlie responds to his chief superior that he likes to use the element of
surprise and not to be its victim. When the police chief then inquires if Chan
was ever surprised, Charlie with a smile admits the only time was "When
honorable wife announced arrival of 13th offspring."
When the production of the Charlie Chan films changed studios from
20th Century-Fox to Monogram, viewers were informed of another increase in the
family's size. In Monogram's first entry, Charlie Chan in the Secret
Service (1944), a long-time friend who hasn't seen Charlie in ten years
asks him about his wife and seven children. Charlie retorts that they have
seven more and that "Everything grow rapidly in Hawaii." Two films
later (Black Magic, 1944), Charlie remarks, "I have 14 children;
they all try to boss me." Thankfully for Charlie, there are no further
additions to the family for the rest of the series.
No matter how many children the Chans have,
all cast members having roles of the various Chan children were ethnic Asians.
This was unlike the standard Hollywood practice at that time of casting
non-Asian actors, such as Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter
Lorre, and Boris Karloff, in the major roles depicting Oriental characters like
Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong.
The Black Camel is another significant film for me. Although ten
children are seen in one scene, none are ever referred to by name, nor are they
listed in the film's creditsleaving the viewer to guess which ones might
be the future Number One son or Number Two daughter of the later films.
Secondly, The Black Camel has one of the series' funniest dialogues
between Charlie and two of his children. Although Chan in many ways honors
tradition having been born in China, his children are fully Americanized in
their behavior and speech, unlike his own stilted delivery, and he finds it
difficult to understand their new ways and language.
A scene at the dinner table concerns a discussion about a less than
flattering report card from school, a topic that occurs again in Charlie
Chan's Murder Cruise (1940), but apparently with a different son. One son
presents his report card to Charlie, initiating the following exchange between
Chan, the son, and a daughter:
The Chan Family with its 11 children sitting around the
crowded dining room table in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938). Sidney
Toler is at the head of the table in the background. Counterclockwise from
Toler are Victor Sen Yung, Layne Tom, Jr., David Dong, Barbara Jean Wong, and
Sinclair Yip. To the right of Toler and the one unknown son in a high chair is
Iris Wong, Faye Lee, unknown son, and Margie Lee. Seated at the other end of
the table in the foreground is Grace Key as Mrs. Chan. Photo courtesy of Rush
||Teacher say you are always at bottom of class. Can't you find
No, Pop. All the other places are taken.
That is no excuse!
Aw, that's a lot of applesauce. Come on, Pop. Spill the beans!
Baloney, applesauce, beans. One would think you all took lessons in grocery
store instead of at school!
Besides this comedic conversation, we are treated to the cultural
differences between the two generations. In this film much of Charlie's acerbic
barbs are directed for Kashimo, his overzealous but inept Japanese police
assistant "Spend more time hunting for nothing to do!" Charlie
Henry Chan: The First Number One Son
The start of any discussion about any one of Charlie Chan's children must start
with Henry Chan. He is first mentioned in Biggers' 1929 novel, The Black
Camel, as the Chans' eldest son but he is absent from the 1931 movie with
the same title. Based on the movie's final shooting script, Henry appears about
halfway though the film in a brief, uncredited role in Charlie Chan Carries
On (1931). From the script, we find that Henry, in his sole line of the
film, initiates the established practice of all the children of addressing
their father as "Pop."
The second child to have an appearance in the Charlie Chan series is Oswald.
Like Henry, Oswald Chan appears only once, as an uncredited role in Charlie
Chan's Greatest Case (1933). Based on the film's revised final shooting
script, the viewer first encounters Oswald about three-quarters into the film
in the typical Chan family settingthe entire family eating in the dining
The following exchange between Charlie and Oswald in one scene shows that
Charlie's grasp of American slang has not improved:
||You have carefully gone over instructions?
For such a long-running series, fans often like to point out continuity
errors, inconsistencies of facts that occur. There are many, as we shall see.
The question here that begs asking, if Henry is the Number One son, is then
Oswald the Number Two son?
Lee Chan: The Second Number One Son
Even though Fox Film Corporation had already made six previous Charlie
Chan films with Warner Oland, Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) is the
series' first film that features one of Chan's children in a major role. Also,
the viewer is introduced to two more innovations that would be standard fare
throughout the rest of the series. One is the custom of Charlie's often
referring to his various children by number, such as "Number One son"
Lee, played by the affable Keye Luke. A second innovation is that of one or
more of the children acting as Charlie's uninvited and often troublesome
assistant when their detective father is assigned a case"Father who
depend on son is happy or foolish according to son."
Harold Huber, Donald Woods, Keye Luke, Warner Oland in
Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937).
Warner Oland and Keye Luke look on while Harold Huber
receives a report of an attempted sale of stolen bonds in Charlie Chan at
Monte Carlo (1937).
Of all the Chan offspring in the series, Lee is probably
the best remembered, and often pops up unexpectedly in various parts of the
globe wherever his father comes to town. Because of his travels with his
father, Lee develops the strange hobby of appropriating towels as mementos from
the hotels he has stayed in and ships he has sailed on.
In some of the films, Lee actually has a job, often employed as some kind of
purchasing agent or trade representative. Coincidentally, he is often sent on
business to the same location as is his honorable father. In Charlie Chan in
Shanghai (1935) Lee meets his father, telling him that his firm sent him to
Shanghai to look into the trade situation. Charlie then ribs Lee by asking,
"Selling oil for lamps in China?" Ironically, it was Luke who had a
bit part as a Chinese soldier in the film, Oil for the Lamps of China
(1935), which was released about a month before "Shanghai"
went into production.
In Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937), Lee is shown to be an
accomplished athlete when, as a member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 1936
Berlin Olympics, he swims in the 100 meter freestyle race. In Charlie Chan
at Monte Carlo (1937), Lee, as Luke was in real life, portrays an artist.
He and Charlie are both passing through Monte Carlo on their way to a Paris art
show where one of Lee's paintings is being displayed. In the last film of the
series, Sky Dragon (1949), Lee is studying to be an airplane pilot.
As the Number One son, Lee Chan is a definite asset to the films' plots.
Often, the exchanges between the inscrutable father and his clean-cut son
highlight Charlie's paternal qualities and Lee is usually around to provide the
necessary physical action which Oland's portrayal lacks. Lee even receives a
black eye for his trouble in Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937).
Lee and many of his siblings of the later films are
bilingual, and are comfortable conversing in English or Chinese. However, it is
Lee who mangles the French language in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo. At
the film's beginning, he tries to impress Monaco's chief of police (Harold
Huber) with an introduction. With a quizzical look, the policeman responds in
English, "That is French, no?" Charlie carefully reminds Lee,
"Fortunately assassination of French language not serious
crime." A short while later in the same film, Lee doesn't remember his
father's earlier advice and, tries explains to a pair of gendarmes how he and
his detective father just discovered a dead body on a lonely road. However,
errors in Lee's French grammar and pronunciation cause the police to arrest
them both on suspicion of murder. In the jail cell Charlie tersely admonishes
Lee, "In future, remember that tongue often hang man quicker than
Keye Luke, Harold Huber, and Peter Lorre in Mr. Moto's
Gamble (1938), parts of which were salvaged from an unfinished project,
Charlie Chan at the Ringside.
Agency photo of Keye Luke, who played Warner Oland's Number
One son Lee Chan.
None of Lee's shortcomings however diminish his strong
devotion to and concern for his father's welfare. Always appreciative of Lee's
help, Charlie remarks, "Confucius say, no man is poor who have worthy
Keye Luke was born June 18, 1904 in Guangzhou (formerly
Canton), China. At an early age he and his family immigrated to the U.S. where
he grew up in Seattle. After graduation from high school, Luke then went to the
University of Southern California. Drafted into military service during World
War II, he went back to college to learn Mandarin Chinese for the Marines, but
it wasn't until 1944 when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Luke was a talented artist. He entered the film industry as a billboard
designer and caricaturist, and in 1933 was one of the founders of the Screen
Actors Guild. Ironically, he did publicity artwork for the Fox studio in
connection with several of the early Charlie Chan films.
Luke tells the story that his becoming an actor was mainly the result of
being in the right place at the right time. When he did his first picture in an
uncredited supporting role with Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil (1934),
Luke got the role because his former boss at MGM called him to his office one
day. As Luke fondly reminisced with actress Beulah Quo during a 1977 dinner of
the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California:
||"I took samples of my art work with me. He said, 'What the hell do you
have those things for?' I said, 'I thought you wanted to see my art work.' He
replied, 'No! Read page 35,' handing me the script for The Painted Veil.
After I read it, he asked, 'How do you like it?' I said, 'But, I'm an artist,'
I insisted. 'Don't worry about that,' he answered, and took me downstairs to
the casting department."
Coincidentally, this film also featured Charlie Chan's
Warner Oland, with whom Luke would join one year later in the increasingly
popular Charlie Chan series.
From his first appearance as Number One son Lee Chan in Charlie Chan in
Paris, Luke continued the role seven more times with Oland. While filming
Charlie Chan at the Ringside in 1938, Oland unexpectedly left the set
and eventually went to Sweden where he died of bronchial pneumonia. Twentieth
Century-Fox salvaged much of this uncompleted project and reworked it as the
1938 movie, Mr. Moto's Gamble with Luke again playing the part of Lee
Chan, but now as an assistant to Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective played by Peter
With Oland's death, Sidney Toler was picked to continue the Charlie Chan
role and Keye Luke's pay was cut by the studio. Jon Tuska writes in his book,
The Detective in Hollywood, that producer Sol Wurtzel once commented to
Luke, "With this team, there's one smart one and one dumb one. You're the
dumb one." This verbal slap and resenting the cut in pay caused
Luke to quit the series. His role was then replaced with a new
characterJimmy Chan as the Chans' Number Two son. Ten years later, Luke
would reprise his Lee Chan role for the last two movies of the series at
Monogram with Roland Winters. Although he was never in a Charlie Chan
film with Toler, Luke and Toler did appear together in Adventures of
Smilin' Jack (1943).
Inspired by the film, The Good Earth (1937), Keye
Luke shows off his artistic talent as he paints Oriental designs on a silk
bathing suit worn by Suzanna Kim.
By 1940, there now were three Oriental detectives in filmsCharlie
Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong. Unfortunately, each series continued the industry
practice of casting a non-Asian actor as the lead detective. After Boris
Karloff had appeared as James Lee Wong in five Mr. Wong films at
Monogram, Keye Luke was chosen for the Mr. Wong role in Phantom of
Chinatown (1940). This marked the first time an Asian actor was cast in the
main role of an Oriental detective. Unfortunately, Luke was mismatched in the
lead role and the Mr. Wong series quickly ended.
Luke made more than 100 films over his career of more than 60 years. As a
contract player in the big-studio era, Keye Luke had to appear in many minor
movies, but he also had supporting roles in major films such as The Good
Earth (1937) and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). Luke was
involved in other series besides the Charlie Chan films. He played the
loyal Kato in The Green Hornet films and the dedicated intern, Dr. Lee
Wong How, in five Dr. Kildare films of the 1940s. Luke also played Wang
Chi-Yang, the patriarch of a Chinese-American family in Rodgers and
Hammerstein's 1958 Broadway musical, Flower Drum Song. Incidentally,
Luke's role would be played by Benson Fong, another "Chan son," in
the 1961 movie adaptation of the Broadway show.
Besides films and the Broadway stage, Luke found work in many television
episodes such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The A-Team, Miami
Vice, MacGyver, Harry-O, Night Court, Cannon,
Remington Steele, Magnum P.I., It Takes a Thief, I
Spy, and Star Trek. He was also the voice of Charlie Chan on the
Saturday morning cartoon show, Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan in the
early 1970s. However, Luke was probably the most popular in his post-Charlie
Chan years as Master Po, a blind Shaolin monk in the Kung Fu
television show (1972-1975), which Luke considers his best role.
Besides acting, Luke often served as a technical adviser on films with
Chinese themes. In 1986, he won the first Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed
by the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists, and he was honored with a
sidewalk star in the Hollywood Hall of Fame in December 1990. A month later
though, Keye Luke died from a stroke at the age of 86 on January 12, 1991 at
the Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, California. He was
survived by a daughter, Ethel Longenecker, whom he adopted in 1942 when he
married Ethel Davis.