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Halekulani had connection to fictional Charlie Chan

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    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.

The Halekulani opened 94 years ago this week in Waikiki on the site of the former Hau Tree Hotel. Haleiwa Hotel proprietors Juliet and Clifford Kimball purchased the hotel and its five acres of prime oceanfront property in 1917 and renamed it the Halekulani Hotel.

The Halekulani name goes back to 1883, when Robert Lewers built a home there. Local fishermen, whom Lewers had welcomed to rest under a giant hau tree next to the house, gave it the name Halekulani — “house befitting heaven.”

One of the greatest fictional detectives of all time, Charlie Chan, had a special relationship with the Halekulani Hotel. Mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers stayed at the adjacent Gray’s-by-the-Sea. He based his famous detective on real-life Honolulu Police Department Detective Chang Apana. Apana grew up on the Big Island and joined the Honolulu Police Department in 1902. He spoke English, Chinese and Hawaiian and was comfortable with all ethnic groups.

Biggers noticed that people in Honolulu did not lock their doors and named his first Charlie Chan novel, published in 1925, “The House Without a Key.” Kimball soon applied that name to a restaurant on his property.

In a 1931 newspaper interview, Biggers said that “sinister and wicked Chinese were old stuff in mystery stories, but an amiable Chinese acting on the side of law and order had never been used, up to that time.”

When we think of great fictional Hawaii detectives, younger readers probably think of Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” or Tom Selleck of “Magnum, P.I.” Charlie Chan was the original and ruled the 1930s and 1940s. Biggers wrote six Charlie Chan novels, and 47 movies were made with the sagacious detective. Later in his life, Apana enjoyed signing his name as “Charlie Chan Apana.”

In 1983 the low-rise Halekulani was remodeled, but much has been retained, including the original eucalyptus floors of the main building, which were carefully restored. One can still dine in the House Without a Key and enjoy the sunset.

Today’s Halekulani is faithful to the spirit of the former, preserving the charm of the property while maintaining and enhancing its level of comfort. Halekulani’s reputation as a five-diamond oasis of tranquility in Waikiki has brought this unique property to its current status as one of the world’s top luxury resorts.

Bob Sigall, author of the “Companies We Keep” books, looks through his collection of old photos to tell stories each Friday of Hawaii people, places and companies. Email him at
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