The king of thwock! and roll

He may well be the world's biggest movie star - but Jackie Chan's childhood in Hong Kong was far from luxurious. Here, he tells Suzi Feay about his brutal upbringing with the Chinese Opera, his transformation into Asia's greatest action hero, and his new line of designer clothing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Is Jackie Chan the greatest action hero - and by extension the greatest movie star - in the world? His films trounce the likes of Titanic in Asia, and in his autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan (Pan £12.99), he tells how he once scoffed to an American reporter: "There are billions of people in Asia... America is a very small market." And yet, despite the lavish suite, its doors flanked by posters for his latest film, the hilarious Western spoof Shanghai Noon, the set up for someone of his stature seems positively low-key. The publicist confides that Chan has been puzzled by the casual way that British photographers take a few snaps and push off. "In Hong Kong, he's photographed wherever he goes."

Is Jackie Chan the greatest action hero - and by extension the greatest movie star - in the world? His films trounce the likes of Titanic in Asia, and in his autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan (Pan £12.99), he tells how he once scoffed to an American reporter: "There are billions of people in Asia... America is a very small market." And yet, despite the lavish suite, its doors flanked by posters for his latest film, the hilarious Western spoof Shanghai Noon, the set up for someone of his stature seems positively low-key. The publicist confides that Chan has been puzzled by the casual way that British photographers take a few snaps and push off. "In Hong Kong, he's photographed wherever he goes."

Chan is not tall (but not diddy either), and more thick-set than you'd imagine from the high kicking balletic martial arts he demonstrates on screen. For much of the time it's like sitting opposite a well-dressed Chinese businessman. Then his eyes light up, he waves his arms or chops at the air to make a point and pulls his ear-to-ear grin, and suddenly, he couldn't be anyone else.

He was born Chan Kong-sang (which means "born in Hong Kong" Chan) in 1954; and as a burly toddler, became known as Pao-pao, or cannonball, the first of many sobriquets. At the Chinese Opera school, where he underwent 10 years of punishing physical training (but no education), the nickname Big Nose stuck. After his parents moved to Australia, Pao-pao was briefly anglicised to Paul, but he preferred Jackie, the name he was given when he worked on a building site in Canberra.

By the time he graduated, Chinese opera was dead, and like many of his old school "brothers" (including Samo Hung, of TV's Martial Law) he moved into film stuntwork, earning a reputation for attempting death-defying stunts for next to no money. He worked briefly with Bruce Lee. And when Lee died, Chan was one of many to be dubbed "the new Bruce". In Chan's autobiography there's much discussion about his new name - Lee having been the "Little Dragon".

"How about Yun Lung - 'cloud dragon'?" he suggests

"A dragon in the clouds can't be seen, right?" grumbles the boss.

Zi Lung - "child of the dragon" - is similarly shot down. "We don't want people to think you'll grow up to be a dragon, we want people to say, this guy's already a dragon."

So "already a dragon" - Jackie Chan Sing Lung - it is.

Shanghai Noon is the result of a deep-rooted obsession. "I just love cowboy movie. Also I love fireman movie," he enthuses in his fast, funny English. "When I'm growing up I want to be a police, but when I got the form I don't know how to fill it in. Then becoming a stuntman, then very lucky, I becoming a star. Then yeah! I wrote police."

Police Story (1985), one of the great Chan movies, culminates in an extraordinary sequence in a shopping mall, in which our man descends 100 feet through the air on a pole wrapped in Christmas lights, shedding electrical sparks and glass shards all the way down.

"All my idea is like, CIA story, Western story, Fireman story," he goes on. "Each time I present it to the company, they refuse. Why? Too expensive. After success of Rush Hour, I say: 'No more police story, I'm tired. Can we do something like the cowboy thing?' For them it's a business, for me it's a dream come true. Now I push the production company to give me my second dream." He pauses dramatically: "Fireman!"

Chan's fans have come to recognise the "superstunt" - like Police Story's glass slide, or Project A's sheer fall down the front of a building, impeded only by a series of cloth canopies - all performed by Chan himself, and with the frequently agonising outtakes screened over the closing credits. Shanghai Noon has lots of action - Jackie beats a gang of bandits aboard a steam train, Jackie takes out half an Indian tribe, Jackie demolishes a saloon bar - but no trademark superstunt.

"It's the 1800s. What else we have? No helicopter, no bicycle, no motorcycle, nothing! Even the train - dumdumdumdum." (This is the sound of a train moving slowly.) "You know Hong Kong movie: fighting, boom boom boom, then little bit of talking, then fighting. America: drama. Dialogue. Comedy. Humour. Then the action. If you fight too much, it becoming a violent film and they need a PG rating. Hong Kong way, I get total control. American way, I like the quality, the budget. But too straight. Should be flexible."

To demonstrate, he acts out the saga of the rubber gun, grabbing my tape recorder and waving it around alarmingly. "On Rush Hour, I ask for a rubber gun, because when I kick the real gun, I hurt myself. 'Oh, sorry, Jackie, not on the call sheet.' Why you cannot get it? You give me a plastic gun. It's so quick you will not see it. 'Oh... next week.' NEXT WEEK? Hah!

"In Hong Kong, I call props for plastic gun. Two minutes later, they give to me. They cut it. Psssht [spray paint sound]. That's the problem. In America, everybody is a professional. The prop guy is a professional. The cameraman: professional. 'How dare you use that sort of thing as a prop gun. You insult me.' That makes me frustrated. Next week they give me a rubber gun, it cost two thousand US. Oh my god, more expensive than the real gun, but I don't need that, I need ten cents gun!" He throws the tape recorder down on the table, sighing.

In his book, Chan pays great tribute to Master Yu, his teacher, but also paints a brutal picture of life at school. It's difficult to believe Chan can be so magnanimous to a man who seems little short of a torturer. Chan hesitates a little before delivering his reply.

"I really forgive my master, and also I thank my master because right now, whatever I'm using I learn from the school. And because of my mental training, I learn everything very fast: English, golf... I can fight with anything, even this." He grabs the cup and saucer. "I can use all the techniques in my movies. But when I see some of my friends, what are they doing? Now they become a waitress. I thank my master, but I don't think some other students think the same way."

Schools such as his have all closed, "because now you hit children, they can sue you. You have to get up at five-o'clock in the morning - you still asleep? Pow, pow!" He rocks his head back and forth under the imaginary blows. "Now do 500 kicks. Go! They force me to learn. If now I'm good, because they force me good. It's not learn by myself."

Very early on in his movie career, a spurned director turned to the Triads to force Chan to work with him. Chan defied them and has since organised marches to protest at the continuing Triad influence in the Hong Kong entertainment business. He's had no further trouble. "Jackie's too big. They cannot do something about me. I just tell all my friends NO! Don't step back, step forward. One step forward, they scared! If you tell them: 'What? I don't want to make a film with you,' they think: 'Who are you calling? The police know already? Do you have a wire?' Just don't back up! The more you back up, the more they step on you."

Trips to Hong Kong, his nominal base, are now infrequent - to his relief. Hong Kong has changed since 1997. "I think, being Chinese, return to China, okay good. But after return - not as good as before. Now, people more free but becoming very selfish. They don't have the discipline any more. Every newspaper: look at Jackie, thinks he's the big star. They never write good things, only bad things. I hate to go back. I don't like Hong Kong any more. I don't like to say that, but I'm ashamed of the situation right now." He compliments me on my Chinese silk jacket, tells me about his new clothing line to be launched soon (his fine suit is an example), and pads silently away, across the luxurious carpet, to have his picture taken.

Shanghai Noon (12) is released on 25 Aug

Comments