Chan Kong-sang was born on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong in 1954, the son of two servants to the French ambassador. He spent his toddler years within the confines of the embassy where they lived. Despite the rigid discipline of his father, the young Chan showed a great dislike for academic study, preferring instead his lessons in kung fu and the ingestion of large quantities of food (his father was the cook at the embassy). After only one year at school, it was clear Chan was struggling, and so his parents took the decision to withdraw him from school and look for another solution.
The search for a way to educate Chan became more important when his father was offered a job in Australia. Benefits of the move were clear, they would obtain Australian citizenship, and earn more money (enough to save rather than merely survive on). However, Chan and his mother would have to stay behind initially, and without the discipline of his father Chan might slip into delinquency. His father's friends eventually suggested a course of action which would provide support, education and discipline for the boy.
Chan was sent to Master Yu's China Drama Academy on Kowloon Island. In return for being taught the skills of dramatic performance (which included music, gymnastics and martial arts) and being given food and housing, Chan would be expected to remain under Master Yu's tutelage for a period of ten years. At first he found it difficult to fit in with the rigid hierarchy imposed upon himself and his fellow students, but gradually he began to demonstrate competence in every area of study. Chan was frequently in confrontation with the elder students who had disciplinary power over the younger children - an echo of his days back home when he used kung fu against the local bullies, and a glimpse of his future personality.
Once the students of the Academy were sufficiently practised in their given profession they began putting on performances of classic Chinese operas in a theatre at a local amusement park. These provided the money to keep the Academy running, along with providing students as extras in film productions. Chan took leading parts in the Academy productions, receiving praise from audiences and earning the respect of his Master. It was here, in the spotlight, that Chan realised he wanted to be a star.
As time passed and Chan neared the end of his ten year contract, it became clear that working in traditional Chinese opera was becoming an increasingly difficult way to make money. The entertainment business in Hong Kong was now centred around the film studios, where Chan's elders graduated to after their stay at the Academy. They rose to every conceivable position in the industry, from acting talent to behind-the-scenes production roles. When it was Chan's turn to leave Master Yu behind, there was only one viable choice for someone with his mix of acting and martial arts skills; he became a stuntman.
Action in the Movies
Chan had performed a few stunt roles during his days as a student, but now he had to find enough work to support himself (his mother had also moved to Australia during his time at the Academy). Luckily for him, cinema production in Hong Kong exploded in the early 1970s, thanks in no small part to the emergence of Bruce Lee as a superstar. Suddenly action and martial arts films were in huge demand in Asia, and that meant no shortage of work for the stuntmen. In this environment, Chan worked quickly at building a reputation for attempting seemingly impossible, and usually very dangerous, stunts. He even worked with Lee on two of his films. Unfortunately, this brief period of success was tragically cut short. When Bruce Lee met his untimely death, it signalled the end of the lucrative years for the studios, and many people lost their jobs, including Chan.
Unable to make money in Hong Kong, Chan travelled to Australia and lived with his parents, working on construction sites to make ends meet. One of his workmates was a fellow named Jack, who took Chan under his wing. The pair were jokingly referred to as Big Jack and Little Jack on site. Over time, Little Jack became Jackie, the name which finally stuck and became known worldwide.
Even through this period, Jackie did not give up on the dream of stardom, and he kept in regular touch with contacts in the film industry back home. One of these contacts was Willie Chan, a manager working for one of the most famous directors in the business, Lo Wei. They were looking for a young actor to mould into a star. When Jackie was offered the job, he hesitated. The money was nowhere near what he had been making previously, but the lure proved too great and he agreed to a ten-year contract with the company.
Initial efforts did poorly at the box office, mainly because of Lo Wei's refusal to open up to new ideas. Instead, he attempted to recreate the Bruce Lee era, resulting in films completely lacking in originality.
Just as it was looking like Jackie's dreams were coming to an end, Willie found a temporary solution in a loan deal to a rival studio, Seasonal Films. Infused with more creative freedom than he had ever before experienced, Jackie scored his first big hits - Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, and Drunken Master. The rise was meteoric, from relative obscurity to household name in three months. But the solution was only temporary, and he did not relish his return to Lo Wei's studio. Even when Wei relented and let Jackie direct Fearless Hyena, the amount of control he exhibited over wages and creative output became too much. Finally matters came to a head, and Willie announced he had secured a deal for Jackie to join Golden Harvest Productions, without Lo Wei's consent. Increasingly desperate to remain in the film industry, Lo Wei turned to the Triads to force Jackie to stay with him. Fortunately, negotiations took place before the situation could become more serious (although Jackie was forced into brief exile in America by the experience), and Golden Harvest bought out Lo Wei's contract.
The switch to Golden Harvest, for whom Chan had worked for years earlier as a simple stuntman, gave him full creative freedom and even directorial duties in some cases. That first benefit gave rise to Jackie's trademark, 'the superstunt', an enormous one-take scene involving large amounts of destruction and danger. An example of this comes from Police Story 2, where Jackie rides along on the top of a double-decker bus, dives off the roof into the air and sails through a second-floor plate glass window. This is the kind of spectacular moment which sells movie tickets, and Jackie has provided over two decades' worth of them.
The Pacific Divide
Jackie's star status in Asia has been unquestionable ever since those first films in the late 1970s. Translating that success into global stardom has proved much more difficult. In particular, the American market was very unreceptive, due to a combination of bad marketing and bad casting. His first US feature film, Battle Creek Brawl saw him portraying a vengeful loner, a routine which had already been done before by countless actors and was not suited to Jackie's comedic talent. His next American film, Cannonball Run, was a hit, but it was an ensemble piece and did not give a good idea of audience reaction to Chan himself.
A further complication was the restriction to Chan's style of working, enforced mainly by the studios fearful of legal action if their investment were ever to injure himself on set. The lack of actual contact during action scenes removed the intensity which was his hallmark, which added to the frustration.
This initial flirtation with the USA market soured his opinion and he resolved to stay away, reasoning that the Asian market was bigger anyway. However, he did not give up completely on breaking into other markets, and he raised the international appeal of his films by including actors from many other countries.
It was not until 1994 that Jackie finally decided to try the States again, when Rumble in the Bronx was released. When it made almost $10 million on its opening weekend and became the first Hong Kong film to make it to number one at the US box office, he had finally cracked it. Every film Jackie has made since has seen a successful American release, making him a true global phenomenon.
Hazards of the Job
Success for a stuntman comes at a price, perhaps the ultimate price if luck is against him. Jackie has certainly had a severe physical toll exacted on him. Almost every part of his body has suffered some form of injury, whether it be simple cuts and bruises or dislocations and fractures.
The worst incident came during the filming of Armour of God in Yugoslavia. The stunt itself was relatively simple, by Jackie's standards, a leap from the top of a 15 foot wall into a tree. However, he missed his landing and fell to the ground, hitting his head on a boulder below the tree. The blow resulted in a skull fracture so severe a bone fragment lodged itself in his brain, causing a life-threatening haemorrhage. He survived because the nearest hospital happened to have the country's best brain surgeon on the staff. The accident left Jackie hard of hearing in one ear and a hole in his skull remains.
To give the audience some idea of just how dangerous the whole process is, Jackie began adding footage of stunts which went wrong to the end credits of his films, interspersed with shots of the setting-up of the superstunts and more comedic out-takes. He was inspired to include this footage after seeing the finished Cannonball Run, and the tradition has continued to this day.
The Internet Movie Database gives a full account of Jackie Chan's screen career.
Recommended Jackie Chan Films
- The Police Story series
- Drunken Master
- The Young Master
- Dragons Forever
- City Hunter
- Project A
- Project A 2
- Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
- Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin