EARL DERR BIGGERS’S 1928 TRIP TO HAWAII
Just what was Charlie Chan’s creator doing in Hawaii in 1928? He was meeting Chang Apana for the first time — the Chinese police detective that many (including most Honoluluans of the time) credit as the real life inspiration for Charlie Chan.
Two Chan novels had already been made into films and Biggers was enough of a big shot for the Hawaii Tourist Bureau to stage a photo shoot with him at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with a “fake” Charlie Chan. (Photo below taken from the well-researched article on Biggers by Barbara Gregorich)
Given the hoopla that surrounded Biggers’s visit and Juanita Sheridan’s interest in writing fiction, she was probably well-aware of his presence in Hawaii. Who knows, maybe she even ran into him on the island while searching for her wayward husband Ross Sr.
According to Gregorich’s article, Biggers was recuperating in Hawaii after working 7 days a week to finish BEHIND THAT CURTAIN and gathering information for his fourth Chan novel THE BLACK CAMEL, the second Chan novel set in Hawaii and the first to mention Chan’s daughter Rose who is next in line after Number One Son.
Most likely Biggers had already started writing notes for THE BLACK CAMEL when he returned to California on the S.S. Maui in August 1928, so any chance meetings with interesting passengers might have influenced a scene, a character or a situation. For a budding author like Sheridan, having Biggers aboard the same ship, must have set her thinking about her own writing and the older writer’s formula for success — A Chinese sleuth and an exotic setting. For both writers, you would think that a young woman traveling alone on the same ship would draw attention, especially if she was the only young Chinese American woman on board — To determine whether the 7-day trip on the S.S. Maui influenced the writing of Biggers or Sheridan, I had to see if I could find out more about that young woman Wai Sue Chun.
WHO WAS WAI SUE CHUN?
It turns out I had read about Wai Sue while flipping through the pages of CHINESE WOMEN PIONEERS IN HAWAII, edited by May Lee Chung and Dorothy Jim Luke. My librarian friend Patrick McNally had recommended the book when he heard that I was searching for a Chinese American woman with the background of Lily Wu – university educated, cosmopolitan, with a Hawaii background. A group called the Associated Chinese University Women, formed in 1931, published the book, and it featured short biographies of some of the founding members of the Hawaii club. Many of the women written about were 2nd generation Chinese Americans who had attended mainland universities in the 1920s and 30s. Wai Sue Chun was one of them.
According to the biography written by Wai Sue’s children, Wai Sue was born on Christmas Day in 1905 and was a year older than Juanita Sheridan. In 1928 she graduated wtih a B.A. degree in Education from the University of Hawaii and that fall she attended Columbia University in NYC for graduate studies — hence her trip with Earl Derr Biggers and Juanita Sheridan on the S.S. Maui. Wai Sue’s father had bought her a fur coat to keep her warm in the cold New York winter and while in Hawaii she drove a Chevrolet touring car, an unusual thing for Chinese young woman of the time.
My heart started beating fast when I read this bio. For the first time here was evidence of a Chinese woman who had the makings of a real life Lily Wu — a contemporary of Sheridan’s, an educated woman who had spent time in Hawaii and NYC, and a woman who is distinguished by her expert driving abilities and ownership of a fur coat. When I discovered that Wai Sue had named one of her daughters Juana and another Lorraine, I was even more positive that I had found a possible real life version of Lily Wu. Juanita Sheridan’s middle name was Lorraine.
But the photo staring out at me, from the pages of the book didn’t match my idea of who Lily Wu was. Wai Sue, pictured in 1952, is an attractive Chinese woman wearing a dark dress, with a glimmer of a smile on her face. By herself I could imagine her as an older Lily Wu. She is surrounded, however, by five immaculately dressed children and a suit-wearing, bespectacled husband. The conventional life that this picture suggested did NOT equate with my idea of what the future held for a daring character like Lily. Obviously, I was going to have to do more digging into this matter.