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

Friday, 26 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.

What about your charity work?

I started the Build A School project because I didn’t want kids to suffer the way I did. As a child, I had nothing. No love, no attention, and no possessions. I realised I had to use my fame to do good and set an example. Auctions were one of the ways we raised funds. I’d come on stage fully dressed and leave practically naked, in just my socks and underpants! [laughs]. People would bid for my shirt, tie, jacket, pants. At one point I thought I was going to have to start cutting locks of my hair and that I’d be going home bald! The great thing about this kind of event is that everyone puts their hand in their pocket: me, the audience, the sponsors, the government. Thanks to the project, we’ve built 30 schools.

This is obviously something you take to heart.

I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve for those kids and for the community. But remember, I’m not doing it alone. There’s a whole army of volunteers helping out and not just in Asia. I’ve also had the support of friends in Europe and the United States.

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan
Richard Mille, for one...

I’m crazy about his watches. They truly are one of a kind, masterpieces of design and innovation. In 2012, the Year of the Dragon, Richard did me the honour of engraving a model with my name. An exceptional watch in honour of Chinese culture and legends but with a strong futuristic element.

What type of watches tend to catch your eye?

The ones that let you see their “skeleton”, all those tiny cogs and wheels meshing together like metal lace. They are the heart and soul of the watch, and an incredible window onto the watchmaker’s expertise. As a boy in China, I remember seeing artists paint a scene onto a grain of rice or carve one into a tiny sculpture. I feel that same sense of wonder when I look at the hundreds and hundreds of micro-components in a watch. Spread them out on a table and they have no life of their own, but assemble them and they take on a function, ultimately becoming a single entity. Every one of those parts has a role to play, and every one depends on the others. All it takes is for one part not to do its job to jeopardise the whole.

I heard you were once asked to leave the Peninsula Hotel because you were inappropriately dressed. Is that true?

It is! This was just after one of my highest-grossing films when everyone wanted to talk to me. I’d arranged to meet a bunch of distributors and studio directors in the hotel’s Lobby tearoom to talk business, when one of the waiters came over and asked me to leave because I was wearing shorts! I tried showing him the expensive watch I had on but he absolutely didn’t care. Even with a Rolex, shorts didn’t cut it with the dress code. Then another waiter came over carrying a pair of pants on a tray for me to change into. I mean, picture the scene. Here I am discussing millions of dollars worth of business with some of the most influential people in the industry, and I almost get thrown out because of a pair of shorts!

You were awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. How did you react when you first heard?

As a young actor starting out, if someone had told me that one day I’d win an Oscar, I’d have had serious concerns for their mental health! Not for one second did I dream it could ever happen. Maybe present one to someone else, but win one myself, never! I remember the ceremony like it was yesterday. How could I forget? John Travolta was there. So was Tom Hanks. When he told me he was a fan of mine I didn’t know what to answer. Sidney Poitier told me he loved my films, then Quincy Jones, and so on. At one point I was convinced they must have given each other the nod! [laughs]. Honestly, I just couldn’t believe I was getting an Oscar. I mean, come on, my films aren’t in the same league as Titanic and they’re not arthouse films either. Anyway, I was on set one evening, filming a fight scene, when an assistant came over and said, “Hey, Jackie, some guy called Oscar has been trying to reach you.” I asked who was it and he said he had no idea. So I called back and someone from the Academy answered the phone and explained that they were giving me an Oscar. I asked for which film, and that’s when I found out it was for my entire career.

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan
You must have let out one heck of a "kiai!"

To be perfectly honest, I was a little puzzled. I still couldn’t see how it was possible. Finally someone explained to me that it was an honour awarded to just one person each year, and that I’d been chosen. Who by? By the Board of Governors who believed I had done a lot for the film industry but also for charity.

Why did it take Hollywood so long to acknowledge your work?

Because my English was so shit! The first time I talked movies with Americans was in New York. I wanted to show them what I was capable of as a martial artist, except they weren’t interested. They were more concerned about my awful English. After shooting two films in the US, I threw in the towel. They wanted me to play a Chinese American but no way were audiences ever going to believe that. Not with my accent! And to be honest, I had no wish to become a Chinese John Wayne. Why not Clint Eastwood, while we’re at it! After ten years, people stopped hassling me about my English. Better still, everyone thought I was great and loved my films. The moral of the story: don’t change a thing; stay as you are!

What does it take to become a good martial artist?

Endurance, speed and precision are all essential qualities but, beyond physical performance, the two things that make the difference are the will to win and, the cherry on the cake, intelligence. Every great champion I’ve ever met has confirmed it: brain power will always count for more than how hard you punch. It’s my personal belief that speed isn’t something you learn in the ring. It’s something you’re born with. You can work on physical strength and endurance. For me, a good karateka isn’t someone who shows his strength but someone in control of himself, who feels confident and has physical comeback, but doesn’t make a show of it.

You give the impression of being totally fearless. Are you?

Absolutely not! I’m terrified of sharks. Just talking about them brings me out in a cold sweat. For years I was incapable of swimming in the ocean. Every time I set foot in the water, I pictured this huge jaw swallowing me alive. It doesn’t matter how focused I am for martial arts, the second I put a toe in the water, I lose it [laughs]. Maybe that’s why I’ve never owned many dive watches!

Would you say you're at the height of your fame?

In Asian countries, I have nothing left to prove. In the US, it took me years to get any kind of recognition. If the Americans hadn’t liked what I do, I think I would have retired. In Asia, people talk about me like I was their property or their pet. I’m part of the landscape, part of daily life. It can be scary, sometimes. A fan in Hong Kong once told me, “Mr Chan, you’re a national treasure. The Americans have Mickey and Star Wars and ET. We have you!”.

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