“I Am Jackie Chan.”
In Asia, the title of the film star’s autobiography would be a simple assertion. Chan has made and remade Hong Kong film history in terms of narrative, action, industry practices and standards.
In the West, where he is not as well known except to frequenters of dingy Chinatown theaters or the film underground the line might verge on bold arrogance.
Egotism, though, would be difficult to believe of the man famed for his good-natured modesty. Between interviews at the Clift Hotel restaurant, he is busily signing newspaper clippings for the serving staff.
“Can I sign your book?” Chan asks a nervous reporter. The international superstar never presumes.
Two things make the book’s declarative title less straightforward than it might appear.
First, the autobiography is written in English, with which Chan only has passing verbal competence, by magazine editor Jeff Yang.
More important is the fact that Chan has held many identities in his 44 years. His parents named him Chan Kong-sang, which translates to “Born in Hong Kong” Chan. He adopted Yuen Lo upon entering the China Drama Academy. In his early professional life, he used an older classmate’s discarded academy name, Chan Yuen Lung, but answered to Paul at the Australian embassy where his parents worked and where he stayed after his career stalled twice. His manager and producer named him Chan Sing Long (“already a dragon”) to groom him as the next-generation Bruce Lee, but he kept Jackie Chan, granted after an Australian construction co-worker found his Chinese birth name too cumbersome.
“I Am Jackie Chan” is his way of introducing himself to the West, to moviegoers who may have never seen a single frame of a Jackie Chan movie, in which he melds Buster Keaton stuntwork and Gene Kelly grace with his own agile precision.
The release coincides with “Rush Hour, ” and his visit to San Francisco coincides with the film’s opening day. He doesn’t know what the box office numbers will bring; he just knows he needs to break $20 million or else he goes back to Hong Kong for good.
“In America, I’m still new, ” he says with typical modesty. “Almost 2 billion in America. How many people know me?”
Well enough, he would soon learn. Opening-weekend ticket sales for “Rush Hour” soared to $33 million, setting a September box-office record, formerly held by “The First Wives Club” with its $18.9 million opening in 1996.
“I Am Jackie Chan” brings readers a Dickensian tale of success wrought from abject poverty and a grueling upbringing. Chan talks about the bamboo-cane discipline during his excruciating, often cruel Peking Opera training; the film industry’s corruption and vitality before, during and after Bruce Lee; and the unimagined success of a poverty-stricken, illiterate son of refugees.
Most of all, it explains to an English-speaking audience what Chan himself could never put to words: why he wants to make a name for himself in the American market. He knows his stilted English curtails his range.
“I can be a very good star in Asia, in China, but I can never be a good star in Hollywood, ” Chan says. “I can never make a movie like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ But I know I’m a very good action star.”
Although “Rush Hour” is not the traditional Chan vehicle, it’s a far better project than his previous American attempts, such as “Cannonball Run” with its horribly clunky script and stilted action direction. The book recalls Chan’s indignation over the mishandling, but like so many of the hard knocks that literally hit him, the sharp edges of humiliation have been educational.
“Fifteen years ago, I’m the biggest star in Asia. Too big. I come to America. ‘Wow, there’s so many big stars in America.’ It destroyed my confidence. It’s a good thing. Then, I change my personality. I’m not snobbish anymore. I’m becoming humble.”
Even after the redemptive success of his latest movie, he fully understands the brief shelf life of a Hollywood career. “I come to Hollywood, yes. I don’t think I can have a long planning maybe three, four years, ” Chan estimates.
His longtime manager, Will Chan, had convinced him to try America one more time because American action stars have longevity compared to those in Hong Kong. Chan still wonders why he pursues this dream.
“Honest, today, why am I still doing this kind of crazy thing, ” he says, stretching out his hands. “It’s not the money. It’s not for myself anymore. Right now, I just want to do it for the Chinese community. I want people proud about me. After when I die, I want my family (to say) yes, we have Jackie Chan in American market.'”
Chan knows he has gone farther than almost any Asian in Hollywood. He can point to being the first Chinese with a handprint (and nose impression) at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. He has served as an Oscar presenter and received MTV’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Moreover, his success has wedged in a place for a sustained Asian presence, both from abroad and here.
“What I see for our future, is how long can we stay here? We’re not talking about Bruce Lee he’s a legend already. We talk about Joan Chen. John Lone. Where is he?”
What Chan wants is for America to recognize him as an action-comedy actor, with an emphasis on actor. Then, after his on-screen run, he wants to work behind the scenes as an action director, with directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. If that doesn’t work out here, he’ll return to Hong Kong where he can develop as a dramatic actor, then retire to teach his craft.
His willingness to accept relatively limited success in America is purely pragmatic.
“Asia is my territory, ” Chan says. “America is not my territory.” He knows Hong Kong filmmakers can learn from superior U.S. standards. He also sees the sheer, all-encompassing international status of American stars.
As the elder statesman, he often admonishes rising stars back home to reign in the ego and learn the craft.
“Right now, when I go back to Hong Kong, I see some other young star, young singer, young star, everywhere they go, they have 10 people with them, bodyguard. (They think) ‘I’m big star.’ No, you’re nothing compared to American star.'”
How will Chan finally know he has arrived in America and he can rest his mended, middle-aged bones? He’s the first to admit, even he may not know. He doesn’t want to go down the route of playing someone’s father, then the grandfather, then go on to some silly TV show.
“I don’t know, ” Chan says after a long pause. “Sometimes I do ask myself when I’m going to stop. Is it when I do a stunt, boom, die, stop? Good, if this is how I die, I become a legend like Bruce Lee.”
Chan’s reluctance to play a paternal figure extends to his own life. Raised in a culture where filial piety is expected, not earned, Chan rarely saw his own father in his growing years. Indeed, extreme poverty forced his family to give Chan to the academy for 10 years. Now, Chan can go months without seeing his wife, former Taiwanese actress and singer Lin Feng-jiao, and his 15-year-old son, Jackson.
In the book, Chan says he and his wife deliberately wanted to keep their child out of the obsessive media spotlight. The marriage was also kept secret after one fan committed suicide and another attempted to kill herself at the slightest rumor of his attachment. “Our marriage may seem nontraditional, at least by American standards, but what matters is that it works. We don’t see each other as often as we’d like, but when we’re together, we’re a family.”
Still, Chan is quietly thoughtful when asked if he spends as much time with his son as his father did with him. “I just want my son to have a good education, ” he says.
Extensive location has made family life an ongoing challenge. Last year alone, he spent four months in South Africa, four months in Rotterdam and three months in Los Angeles, where his family lives.
Still, he says he’s doing the best he can. He recalls an incident while filming “First Strike” in Australia. He hadn’t seen his son, who was about 11 at the time, for years. So he gave him a call.
“He goes, ‘Hi. Where are you now?'” When Chan told him he was near the mountains, his son said longingly, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen snow.”
Chan hung up the phone and had an epiphany.
“I think, I might have no more chance with him in the snow mountain anymore in my life. I don’t know when. He don’t have a childhood with me together.” He called again and told his wife to get on the plane for Australia the next day. When she protested about Jackson missing school, Chan insisted. “I said, ‘I don’t care about the school.'”
His voice rises excitedly as he remembers when he finally saw his son. “I’m so happy. When he see me, he didn’t come to hug me. He run to the snow, lie down, for like 15 minutes. I feel so happy.”
It could almost have been a bittersweet scene from one of his movies.
“Then I feel so happy, even now. I’m so proud of myself at that time. Because he missed school seven days, what the hell. But maybe after, I think he comes these seven days. All my life, I might not have a holiday with him to go to the snow mountain again. Maybe he’s not interested in snow anymore. In that moment, that second, oh, I get so many pictures. I feel like a father.”
With the success of “Rush Hour, ” Chan may be able to be closer to his family and work on a sequel. He is determined, however, to fly back to Australia and talk to his own father. The second chapter of his book reveals half-brothers and half-sisters Chan didn’t know he had until he was an adult. The brief explanation his parents gave was that they had to leave families behind when the Japanese invaded China.
About a month ago, a new twist emerged to the family saga. “There’s some rumor from China, my name is not Chan, ” he says. “It’s strange. Then I (went) back to Australia; I want to ask my father, I say, father, is my original name called Fong?’ My father looked at me. Don’t ask. I hope I have time to (tell) to you the long story, before I die. I don’t want you, after I die, don’t know nothing.'”
So his surname, the one stable link in his life, might not even be his. He intends to sit down with his father to record the entire story and find out about his past.
He did have some hesitations at first. “I ask myself, should I ask, should I don’t ask? Is he my real father, or do I have another father?’ Then after, I say, no, I have to know my story. I have to find out who am I, but I don’t mind.’ I say, you are my father. I just want to know my family.’ Maybe there’s a second biography.”
Ultimately, the name doesn’t matter for the man who has reinvented his identity throughout his life. The world will always know him as Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan on attitude adjustments, from “I Am Jackie Chan”:
I’ve done a lot of talk shows in America since (“Battle Creek Brawl”). My English is a lot better now, but the most important thing has been the adjustment in my attitude. I know who I am; I’m Jackie Chan. I may not have perfect English, but tell me, how many talk show hosts can speak Chinese? Can Jay Leno? David Letterman? I can guarantee that I know more of their language than they know of mine!
There are billions of people in China, and millions of Chinese people around the world. Someday, everyone will have to learn Mandarin, just like most people have to learn English today.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times