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One wrong move: Jackie Chan's latest role threatens to overshadow his film career

Widely portrayed as kung fu's loveable goofy hero, Jackie Chan's wide-ranging business empire attests to a very different persona; a driven, ambitious man whose financial acumen is more fearsome than his fist.

Defying his humble origins, the 54-year-old action star has retained his position as one of Asia's highest-paid actors for more than three decades. But even kung fu masters have their weaknesses, and Chan's Achilles heel is his seeming inability to say no to any of the myriad product endorsements and lucrative advertising deals that come his way. Chan has plugged everything from Hanes T-shirts to Hefty trash bags and Mountain Dew soda.

Guided by his long-time manager Willie Chan, he tirelessly hawks his own clothing line and gym equipment as well as crooning on dozens of CDs. Officially one of the most generous stars in showbiz, Chan has donated much of his fortune to disaster relief and children's charities as well as serving as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador. But Chan's latest role – as spokesman for the Beijing Olympics – has proved the toughest sell of his career. Chan is momentarily lost for words to defend China from the global outcry over its clampdown in Tibet.

"It is sad, very sad. But every Olympics it goes on. No matter. Next year. Same thing in London. When London announced the Olympics – boom! The bombs going off," he insists. "But I am the Olympic ambassador, and I just want to say: Olympics is Olympics. You cannot mix sports with politics. Olympics for me is love, peace, united. Every country when they have Olympics a lot of people come out opposed. This year everyone is concentrated on China but it doesn't just happen in China, it happens everywhere. I just want to say, please, understand, they are just some naughty boys. They just want to be on TV. They know if they can get the torch then they can get on TV, and that's the wrong things. They misunderstand. I want to welcome tourists to China. I will stand in the airport, bowing. Welcome, welcome, welcome..."

And Tibet?

"That's like ancient history. That's not just two or three years; that's like a million years of history and myths and nobody can solve this kind of problem. Let the history tell and let there be the right time to tell," he says incomprehensibly. Chan clearly finds himself lost without a script. Especially since Tibet's recent anti-China protests – which left more than 22 people dead – inconveniently coincided with his promotional duties for his latest film, The Forbidden Kingdom. The film marks the long-awaited screen pairing of Chan and Jet Li, the highest-paid actors in Asia."I have known him [Li] for many years but after I worked with him I found out he is a very quiet person," says Chan, eager to move on from Tibet questions.

"Even though Jet is humorous, he has a different kind of humour. I'm funny, and he is more humorous. Most of the time he is hiding himself, I think after the tsunami, he almost died, he carried his two daughters and saved them. Then he became a Buddhist; most of the time, hiding in hotels for meditation. I always make fun of him."

Chan's been married to his wife for 25 years, Taiwanese actress Lin-Fenn-Chiao: "I'm very lucky I have a wife like her. Always not showing off; hiding and not buying expensive jewellery."

Despite his charitable generosity, his tough childhood has taught him the value of money. His parents Charles and Lee-Lee Chan fled the Chinese civil war, first to Hong Kong where they worked for the French ambassador, later moving on to Australia.

By Chan's own admission, he was an unhappy child. "We lived at the French Embassy where my dad was a cook and my mom was a maid. I cried a lot and my mom would have to take me out in the middle of the night so I wouldn't wake anyone," he told US Parade magazine. At seven years of age he begged to be sent to the famed Chinese Drama Academy in Beijing where he excelled in martial arts and acrobatics. "The first three days were fun," he recalls. "But then I received my first beating. I remember dropping a piece of rice on the floor, and the teacher caned me."

Watch the Forbidden Kingdom trailer

According to Chan, the children received very little to eat but plenty of discipline: "I was beaten almost every day. I never forgot how it felt. It made me never want to hit anyone, and I don't want children to think its OK to beat someone up," says Chan.

"I desperately wanted to leave that place but couldn't because my parents had signed a contract. And when my parents left Hong Kong for Australia I was angry at being left by myself." But the school's brutal training regimen – including instruction in kung fu, acrobatics, acting and singing, as well as cleaning chores – proved to be his making. Many of the school's graduates were recruited by Peking opera companies. But then, in the late Sixties kung fu movies had taken off and Chan and his classmates were hired to do dangerous stunts.

Not that Chan saw any money from this since their master kept most of the money, leaving Chan and his classmates penniless.

"I think my own poverty finally helped me understand my parents' plight whereas, up until that point, I had just felt angry. They thought they were giving me a better life, putting me in that school, and I wanted to make them proud." Driven by a desire to have everything his parents didn't, by 18 he had become the youngest stunt co-ordinator in Hong Kong. While Chan received good money, stunt-doubling on Bruce Lee films Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon, he wanted to be a star himself.

Director Lo Wei recognised Chan's talent and set about modelling him on Bruce Lee, in the process changing his name to Shing Lung, meaning "become a dragon". But Chan's chance at stardom failed after Wei cast him as a pale imitation of Bruce Lee in his 1976 film New Fist of Fury. But under the guidance of Hong Kong producer Willie Chan, he set about creating an absent-minded comical persona that propelled him to the top of Asia's box-office attractions.

Next he strove to translate his success into Hollywood, appearing in 1980's Cannonball Run. Disappointed that his performance went unnoticed, he returned to Hong Kong. Ten years later he was back in Beverly Hills with his wife and son where hard work finally delivered Western success with Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon.

Perhaps because English is his second language, Chan is brutally honest in assessing the one-dimensional careers of fellow action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal: "From the beginning, they always create one image, that's it. Like with Steven Seagal, he's just the tough guy, always fight fight fight. But Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was clever. He does Terminator, then T2, then he makes the kindergarten police comedy.

"I think I'm different, I started with comedy but that created so many things, like the cop movies ... I have so many different roles so that's why I have so many chances to do other things. I think that's why I have longevity in the business."

Awarded an MBE in 1989 for his services to entertainment, the Beijing Olympic officials have clearly counted on Chan's irrepressible humour to see them through the worst of public criticism. Does Chan think he's doing a good job so far?

"I don't know. You tell me? It hasn't been easy. But I do it for the love of my country," he says solemnly.

The Forbidden Kingdom opens on 9 July