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Jackie Chan, from stuntman to superstar – Part one
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Jackie Chan, from stuntman to superstar – Part one

Thursday, 25 June 2020
By Frank Rousseau
Frank Rousseau

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8 min read

From humble beginnings, Jackie Chan has reached the height of fame. An international star, he is disarmingly modest, although this hasn’t always been the case. As a younger man, he would spend, spend, spend – including on watches.

When Jackie Chan shakes your hand, consider yourself lucky: he could just as easily have pinned you to the ground. In a career spanning more than four decades and some one hundred films, Chan has given countless bad guys a pounding. In life, he’s taken some knocks, too.

I've often wondered if Jackie Chan was your real name?

My real name is Chan Kong-sang although my parents called me by my nickname, Pao-Pao, which means “cannonball”. I became Jackie Chan later. I was living in Australia, where my parents had emigrated for work, and was taking whatever jobs I could find, washing dishes or on construction sites. My co-workers called me PawPaw, which was my terrible English pronunciation of Pao-Pao. A foreman on one of the sites could never remember my name so he started calling me Jack. Jack became Jackie and the name stuck…

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan
You're one of China's most environmentally aware stars. How did that happen?

It started in Hong Kong where, as you probably know, space, or rather lack of it, has led to enormous real estate speculation. If you want to find an apartment big enough for all your belongings, you’d better be first in line! People are forced to spend a fortune just to keep their furniture in storage. Anyway, I got to thinking about how we accumulate too many possessions, and the fact we sometimes own several of the same thing. I don’t mean collector’s items such as watches. More the stuff we buy too much of through fear we might one day run short. You see the same overconsumption on film sets. It would be so easy to recycle the wood from the sets instead of burning it, which has been the rule. The savings this would make could be used to hire more people. Sure, it’s a simple logic but at the end of the day it works.

You clearly feel strongly about this…

I do, especially as for years I didn’t think twice about the planet. I was aware that the film industry was one of the biggest polluters, but I didn’t feel personally concerned. Now I’m intransigent! For example, on one of my sets, we needed thick black smoke for a scene. Despite the fact I’d laid down strict rules, one of the guys started burning a tyre to get the effect. I asked why they hadn’t used CGI and he didn’t know what to answer. So what if the government was never going to haul the guy up in front of a judge, I certainly wasn’t going to let him get away with that kind of behaviour – especially as the whole crew had to breath in the fumes. The same goes for set construction. When I noticed the carpenters were nailing planks together, I suggested they use screws instead. There are two advantages to this: you can reuse the screws and the planks are virtually intact. Obviously I can’t impose my rules on every film set in the world but I hope that, on my level, I can help people realise that every little helps.

You once described the 20-year-old Jackie Chan as a pretentious little jerk…

It happens when, like me, you go from rags to riches. By the time I turned 20, I was already a millionaire, which isn’t bad when you think my first acting jobs paid 25 cents a day. I’ve gone up in the world, socially and financially, but there were people who took advantage of me along the way, paying me 50 cents a day as a stunt double. Once I started to make a name for myself, I could get $10 a day but at what price! Most nights, I’d limp home. As my reputation as a stuntman grew, so did my fees. I could earn up to $500 a film, even though a lot of the time it meant risking my neck. Then suddenly, almost overnight, I was earning big money: half a million dollars from my first film in the US. Me, the Chinese kid with no real education. I was a little punk back then. I used to hang out in bars, play cards, get into fights, illegal gambling… No-one had taught me how to behave. At the end of the day, apart from the financial aspect, film work knocked some sense into me.

Which makes me think, I read somewhere that you didn't buy your first watch. You won it at poker!

I did! I was in some back-street gambling joint in Macao. A hang-out for the local mafia and prostitutes. I must have been about twenty. Seriously, it was like an old James Bond movie! The alcohol was flowing and the air was thick with the smell of opium. One of the players had run out of chips so he bet his watch: a solid gold Rolex smothered with diamonds. The guy had the price of an apartment on his wrist! I didn’t have a great hand but I knew how to focus and could bluff. I won the game and the watch was mine! I was looking over my shoulder all the way home. I was convinced someone was going to mug me for it!

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan
Come on, you're Jackie Chan. It would take a brave man to try and steal your watch…

[Laughs] Well I wasn’t so well-known back then. And it would have been a shame for such a beautiful watch to take a beating in a fight.

Is it true you once owned so many watches, you didn't know what to do with them?

There was a time in my life when I liked to make a big show of my wealth. Paintings, cars, clothes, watches, anything, until the day I realised how it must look to others. What do you say to a fan who asks how much you paid for your watch? People might admire you, they don’t necessarily understand how someone can spend so much on a watch. To be honest, I had the same reaction when I started buying watches for myself. I used to wonder how something so small could cost so much. Eventually, I stopped feeling I had to justify myself. I’d worked hard to earn the money to buy the things I wanted. At first, I’d tell myself I was buying watches as an investment when it was also a way of impressing people. With time, however, I started to read more about the subject and met professionals who worked in the industry, and that’s how I discovered how fascinating watches are. It’s a world that’s constantly setting new challenges. Of course, there’s still the notion of money but when you think about it, the true value is the intelligence that goes into designing and making these watches. It’s the expertise. I’ve always liked people and businesses that constantly push the limits. Which is the story of my life, too.

Your parents, Charles and Lee-Lee Chan, were from a modest background…

That’s right. My father was a cook at the American embassy in Australia and my mother was a maid. Prior to that, we never had enough money coming in. When I was born, my father almost sold me to the doctor who delivered me for $200. He only changed his mind at the very last minute. Later, when my parents took the decision to emigrate to Australia, I was excess baggage. My father had no idea what to do with me. Nor did he want to abandon me to a life of misery so he enrolled me at the Chinese Drama Academy. I was sad and alone with no mother or father. Not one letter. Neither of my parents knew how to write. Not a single phone call. They didn’t have the money. I was seven years old and had to grow up fast. Back then, I wasn’t dreaming of watches. Just a little loving care.

People have also taken advantage of your generous nature...

You’re right. I grew up in poverty. And I don’t mean we were short of cash at the end of the month. My parents couldn’t afford to feed or clothe me, let alone heat the shack we called home. When I started earning money, I became more confident, even insolent, pretentious, condescending. My problem is that I lived alone for years. Suddenly finding myself surrounded by people who took an interest in me gave me wings. It never occurred to me that the majority were just hangers-on. Whenever we went out to dinner, I’d pay for everyone. Fifteen years ago I could spend two million dollars a year on gifts alone. Watches, cars, made-to-measure leather jackets, vintage wines, jewellery, you name it…

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