Jackie Chan was born Chan Kong-sang (which means Born in Hong Kong) in 1954. He attended a Beijing drama school, where he excelled in acrobatics and martial arts, before his stunts won him a role in his first martial arts film at the age of 17. He has starred in Hollywood comedies such as Rush Hour and Shanghai Knights. He married Joan Lin, a Taiwanese actress, in 1982; they have one grown-up son, Jaycee, who is an actor and singer
Okay, this time the panda gets it
Jackie Chan recently celebrated his 54th birthday and, while that makes him 11 years younger than Indiana Jones, he knows he can’t keep on taking the high kicks for ever. “This one is probably my worst injury,” he says, offering his head for examination where his hair hides a large dent in his skull. “I got it while I was filming Armour of God in Yugoslavia. I fell down from a tree and, after 15 days in hospital, I went back to finish the scene.”
The injury gave him headaches for a while, but now the bigger problem is his hearing. “Years and years of injuries have resulted in my hearing loss,” he says. “Most of the time I just use one ear to listen.”
Chan has starred in more than 100 films since his screen debut as an eight-year-old and is still going strong. Even so, his new movie, Kung Fu Panda, was kinder on his battered body: the animated film about a panda that dreams of becoming a martial arts expert required only Chan’s voice.
“I believe it’s important to carry on doing what makes you happiest for as long as possible,” he says. “Take my father, for instance. He died earlier this year after a wonderful life – spending the past 30 years travelling, enjoying life. And when I was visiting him in the hospital towards the end, I sit down and I see the whiskey bottle on the top shelf above his hospital bed. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he says, ‘The doctor lets me drink . . .’ He knew he was close, so why not? I said, ‘Okay, go ahead.’ It’s all about finding balance in life.”
This may be so, but Chan has displayed a ruthless single-mindedness throughout his career. It has helped him rise from being an unknown 17-year-old stuntman named Chan Kong-sang to the highest paid Asian actor in the world. Along the way he has helped to take martial arts movies into the mainstream.
He was born in Hong Kong, where his parents worked for the French embassy, and it was here he developed an early thirst for adventure.
“Ever since I was a boy, I’ve had a passion for cars and danger,” he says. “My fascination grew all the more stronger because, growing up on Hong Kong Island, there isn’t much room for cars, so my family didn’t have one.”
At the time he earned the nickname Pao Pao (or Cannonball) because he was constantly rolling around. It wasn’t until he attended a Chinese drama academy in Beijing, however, that his talent for martial arts and acrobatics took on a more structured course. Chan got his first break as a stuntman on the Bruce Lee films Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. He followed this success with small acting parts, but his appearances were confined to low-budget Hong Kong films.
Chan decided to recast himself as a comedy actor to sidestep the glut of serious martial performers that emerged postBruce Lee. It worked. After a bit part in the light-hearted The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, Chan went on to star in the 1995 film Rumble In the Bronx, which gained a cult following in the US. He cemented his clownish character in the 1998 action comedy Rush Hour and then in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights alongside Owen Wilson.
Today he drives a Jackie Chan limited-edition Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX, one of only 50, which was given to him by the Japanese company as part of a sponsorship deal. Chan was also recently spotted in Hong Kong promoting his version of the Segway scooter, though he claims most of his driving is now done on screen.
“It’s always fun to do car stunts,” he says, “although there’s many more people out there who are better at it than me. In my leisure time I enjoy a drink, and cars and alcohol don’t really go together, so I let my driver take the wheel.”
Despite the onscreen fighting, Chan’s toughest role of late has been as an ambassador for the Beijing Olympics. “It is sad, very sad,” he says of the protests surrounding China’s policy in Tibet. “But every Olympics it goes on.” He dismissed the protesters as “just some naughty boys. They just want to be on TV”.
It is the sort of line that will make pro-Tibet campaigners want to cuff him around the ears, but he insists he rarely has any trouble with tough guys wanting to prove a point: “I’ve not had a single fight in all these years. I might be in a bar or on the street, and so many big martial arts guys – much bigger than me – they come up and they touch me, shake my hand; very respectful.
“I think because, first, I’m the good guy and, second, my characters in the movies are always the underdog. I never show I’m the superhero. I can cry. If I break my finger I go to hospital. People always come and say, ‘Hey Jackie, respect! Truly from my heart, I love you’.”
He credits Joan Lin, his wife, with providing the security at home that allows him to lead his high-octane life. “She’s used to it. She’s used to never seeing me for six months or even two years. She just takes care of my son. I’m very lucky I have a wife like her,” he says.
He’s not sure how many more blows his body can take before he’s forced to give up, but he says he’s determined to carry on. “I believe I will retire some day. But when? I don’t know. Maybe in five years’ time, but I don’t have any exact date in mind. I will continue to do it until I cannot do it. And even when I am not in front of the camera, I will be behind the scenes producing and directing; and I start a school, teach people.”
Will Jaycee, Chan’s 25-year-old son, follow in his footsteps, as Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son – tragically killed in a filming accident in 1993 – did after the death of his father? Unlikely, he says. “When he was young I tried to teach Jaycee martial arts. He listened to me and learnt, but after 10 years he refused to learn any more and started going to music school instead,” says Chan.
“When I asked him the reason he said, ‘I don’t want to be a Brandon Lee where, no matter how much training he does, his father will always be the best. I don’t want to be you. I will never be you. So I will be a pop singer instead’.”