The Female Charlie Chan, Ross Hart Resurrected & Suspect #1 (Part 1)

Ship records can provide fascinating information about someone from the past.   Examining passenger lists can also give you interesting information about your subject’s traveling companions — who was single and who was married, if they were traveling with spouses or children, if there were foreign diplomats or movie stars on board, who traveled first class and who was in cabin class, where did they embark and disembark etc.   While checking out Juanita Sheridan’s fellow passengers on her  first trip home from Hawaii I came up with a surprising discovery and the first Lily Wu suspect of the case.  The discovery all started with a Charlie Chan detour and the online appearance of  Juanita Sheridan’s missing son Ross Hart.

The Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies have been restored and are available at Amazon and Netflix

When Rue Morgue Press owner and Juanita Sheridan publisher Tom Schantz found out about my desire to turn my search into some kind of documentary film.  He suggested that I could think of Lily Wu as a kind of female Charlie Chan (although Lily was a much more realistic portrait of an Asian American than Charlie was).  Some of the old Chan movies had just been restored and were available on Netflix.  They seemed to be getting some buzz by reviewers on-line.  I had never read a Chan book and had only a vague recollection of the Hollywood Chan’s portly bowing figure  and sly smile (neither one seemed to suggest good reading to me in my youth).  I picked up a copy of THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY and THE CHINESE PARROT.  I found them to be surprisingly entertaining with evocative settings and fully formed female characters.

Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan Novels

Tom also let me know he’d been able to track down the once-thought-possibly-dead Ross Hart, Juanita Sheridan’s son by her first husband — none other than Ross Hart Sr.  After some prodding, Ross answered a few of my email queries and provided some great memories of living in Hawaii, including walking barefoot down to the beach at Waikiki  to go surfing, and making money delivering papers and shining shoes for tourists coming off the cruise ships (all things my father reported doing as a kid too).  Ross also reported seeing long lines of sailors outside one of the “cat houses” by the Chinatown waterfront called the Rex Room (something my father may have also seen but never told me about).  Apparently long lines of men calmly waiting out in the open for their turn to go in to one of Honolulu’s many houses of prostitution was a common sight before and during WWII.  For a great first-hand account of the “legalized” prostitution brought in by the US military to Hawaii, see Ted Chernin’s wonderful article “My Experiences in Honolulu Chinatown Red-Light District” from the Hawaii Journal of History.  Another great account comes from the fiction book THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER by William Bradford Huie.

A souvenir photo from a Honolulu "cat house" compliments of Ted Chernin

Huie’s fictional prostitute Mamie may have been based on the infamous Jean O’Hara who exposed the graft connected with Honolulu’s red light district in her slim book HONOLULU HARLOT.

Cover of Jean O'Hara's expose

Another thing Ross revealed was that Juanita had visited Hawaii long before she moved there in 1935.  Juanita first came to the islands in 1928 on a rather grim mission.  She was trying to chase down the husband who had left her with a 2-month old baby in California. Ross Sr. had fled to Hawaii presumably to escape paying alimony.  So, on June 26, 1928 Juanita, with baby Ross in tow, arrived in Hawaii for the first time via the S.S. Maui looking for her husband.

The S.S. Maui in the mid 1920's

I don’t know if Juanita was ever able to track Ross Sr. down, but years later in her third Lily Wu book THE MAMO MURDERS Sheridan would write a very realistic scene of a desperate young mother (Cora) confronting her wayward husband (Denis Desmond) in a Maui hotel bungalow — “…Every day somebody comes with another bill– payments on the car, the furniture, on the house — you never even paid your helper the last three weeks before you left!  And the baby’s been sick; he’s had chicken pox, and I’ve almost gone out of my mind, worrying!” We can only guess about what part of that fiction story came from fact.

What we do know is that Juanita and baby Ross stayed in Hawaii a little over a month and returned to California on the S.S. Maui on August 1, 1928.  Juanita was listed as Mrs. Ross Hart, married.  Her husband was not on board.  He would return to California three weeks later, listed as single.

S.S. Maui leaving Honolulu Harbor

So, who accompanied Juanita and baby Ross across the sea after what must have been a very disappointing first trip to Paradise?  In a quick scan of the passenger list one name popped out at me:  EARL DERR BIGGERS — the famous author of the Charlie Chan novels himself was on the boat!

Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan

Could Juanita have met the famous detective novelist aboard ship?  Could that have been the impetus for  Sheridan’s creation of Lily Wu, “the female Charlie Chan”?   Did Juanita traveling alone with a young baby raise questions?  Sympathy?  Who else was on the boat that she might have gravitated to?

Checking the next page of the ship’s passenger list, another name popped out at me:  Wai Sue Chun.  For some reason that name sounded familiar to me.  She was a year older than Juanita, from Honolulu, single, and seemed to be traveling all by herself.  She was one of only 5 passengers on board with obviously Chinese surnames.  Did Juanita and Wai Sue become friendly on the ship?  Did Juanita confide in Wai Sue and ask her for help with her marital problems?  Could Wai Sue have been the budding inspiration for the first Chinese female sleuth in an American detective series?  Did Earl Biggers try to pick Wai Sue’s brain for details for his next Chan novel?  Did all three of them get together on the ship and hatch out a plot?  Where was Wai Sue going anyway?  And what had Earl Biggers been doing in Hawaii?

I was to find the answers to a few of these questions in the  next few days…To Be Continued

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About nestedegg

Robin Lung is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about the first American feature length documentary to win an Academy Award.
This entry was posted in 1920's Hawaii, Books About Hawaii, Charlie Chan, Chinatown Hawaii, Hawaii Prostitution, Juanita Sheridan's Husbands, Lily Wu, Mystery Characters, Ross Hart Sr., Rue Morgue Press, The Chinese Parrot, The House Without a Key, The Mamo Murders, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Female Charlie Chan, Ross Hart Resurrected & Suspect #1 (Part 1)

  1. Enid Schantz says:

    You might be interested in looking up the new study of Charlie Chan–Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. Huang was born in China, emigrated to the U.S., and became enamored of Chan and later fascinated by Chang Apana, the legendary Chinese-American Honolulu detective who was the inspiration for Charlie. Basically, he did for Biggers what you are doing for Sheridan. It’s a fascinating book. And I found this installment of your blog very interesting–to think that both authors were on the same ship together.

    • nestedegg says:

      Thanks, Enid. My mystery maven friend Clarissa Tartar (the same friend who turned me on to the Sheridan books) forwarded me a link to a NYTimes article about Huang and his new book. I’m putting it on my reading list. Biggers and Sheridan on the same boat does suggest tantalizing possibilities, doesn’t it?

  2. Lou Armagno says:

    Aloha from Cleveland Ohio. I admire the intense research you’ve done, especially on the ship manifests showing Sheridan on the same vessel as Biggers and your real life Lilly Wu. I have been studying the 6 Chan novels since ’97, and found it interesting that Sheridan wrote a book entitled “The Waikiki Widow”. Although years later, that title was also (as you know) a prominent character in the first Charlie Chan novel “House Without a Key”–namely, The widow of Waikiki. In my researches I’ve found that Bigger’s quite often infused real life people and events into his books. I wonder if you ever came across the occupation of Ross Hart Sr. In Biggers’ novel “Charlie Chan Carries On” the character John Ross is our Murderer. Although in the book he hails from Tacoma Washington, that’s not to far off. In the novel he was “a logging man there in Tacoma, who injured his leg in a logging inident. However, at the conclusion it’s discovered his real name is Mr. James Everhard, and that he was originally a violinist in a musical comedy company orchestra. He was thrown over by his wife and her lover, while in South Africa and conducting illegal diamond smuggling. I just wondered if maybe something in the above fit into the real life of Hart and Sheridan. Thank you so much. Lou

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