The Who's Who of Charlie Chan's Family

by

Howard M. Berlin

As appeared in Issue #339 — September 2003

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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 film—a 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 nothing."

         

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 baby—probably 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 table—now seven boys and four girls—with 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 credits—leaving 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 Glick.


Charlie:
Son:
Charlie:
Son:
Charlie:
Daughter:
Charlie:
Teacher say you are always at bottom of class. Can't you find better place?
No, Pop. All the other places are taken.
That is no excuse!
Aw, baloney!
Baloney?
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 admonishes.

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."

Oswald Chan
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 setting—the entire family eating in the dining room.

The following exchange between Charlie and Oswald in one scene shows that Charlie's grasp of American slang has not improved:

Charlie:
Oswald:
Charlie:
Oswald:
Charlie:
You have carefully gone over instructions?
Everything's Jake.
Jake?
Okay.
Oh...Okay.

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 rope."

           

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 son."

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 Lorre.

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 character—Jimmy 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 films—Charlie 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.

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©2003, Howard M. Berlin. All Rights Reserved.