This is Jackie Chan’s life story. From bullied child actor to the acrobatic martial artist who continually puts his life on the line to keep our eyes fixed on the screen.
Jackie Chan was born in Hong Kong on April 7th, 1954. Born as Chan Kong-sang, he was the only child of poverty-stricken parents – both refugees from the Chinese Civil War.
The small family lived in the Victoria Peak district, a prestigious area in Hong Kong. But their lifestyle was far from privileged. They lived in the servants quarters while his father worked as a cook and his mother as a housekeeper for the French Ambassador.
As an abundantly energetic child, Jackie earned the nickname “Pao-Pao”, meaning Cannonball. To put his energy to use, Jackie’s father would wake him up early and they would practice Kung Fu together. The hard work and practice required by this martial art taught Jackie the value of strength, patience, and respect.
While his fighting skills began to take shape, his academic skills fell short. Being dyslexic, his learning difficulty wasn’t catered to back in the day. As a result, he failed his first year at Primary school and was left behind. But his potential in Kung Fu led his father to enroll him at the China Drama Academy, a Peking Opera School.
Jackie remembers walking into the musty halls of the school, tightly clutching his father’s hand. His fear disappeared as his eyes gazed upon dozens of kids somersaulting and playing with swords and sticks. It was his idea of “Disneyland”. He quickly let go of his father’s hand and grasped the robes of his new Master, Yu Jim-Yuen.
But the magic soon wore off and the true colors of the Academy began to show. It was a ruthlessly competitive place where training would last 18-19 hours a day. Jackie wasn’t a particularly good pupil, and would often get into trouble.
Between his rigorous training periods, Jackie was bullied by the other kids, as he was visibly afraid of them. This was until he finally stepped in to save another student from being bullied too. His courageous act ended his own hardship, teaching young Jackie the importance of helping others.
Over the span of 10 years, Jackie learned martial arts, acrobatics, singing and acting – but at a painful price.
- Acting and dreams of stardom
In order to keep their jobs, Jackie’s parents left to work at the American embassy in Australia. This left 7-year-old Jackie alone in Hong Kong to study.
Jackie would later reveal that his father was a spy and had to hide in Australia, his mother following soon after so they could fund Jackie’s attendance at the Pekin boarding school.
At the age of 8, Jackie became part of the “Seven Little Fortunes”, a group of children from the Academy who would be lent as extras in Chinese movies. Excited, Jackie played his parts with diligence.
In one of these movies, a Taiwanese actress playing his mother took a liking to Jackie and had him appear in her next features. Even though his Master took all his paychecks, Jackie was ecstatic and began to dream of becoming a world-famous actor.
At 17, Jackie Chan graduated and continued his trade as a movie extra and stuntman for various Chinese productions. Movie after movie, Jackie chased his dream of making it big.
Some ventures paid off, others were not as much. One ended in the director telling him he was “useless”. But Jackie Chan was determined to be the best and he trained harder than anyone around him. While everyone slept, he was up practicing his moves in the mirror until 4 AM.
Gradually, his efforts began to show promise. Jackie Chan was quickly becoming known for his willingness and ability to perform death-defying stunts, his seemingly fearless jumps and falls turning heads in the industry.
Of course, Jackie was actually terrified before every dangerous stunt. But no one else was doing it at the time, so he saw it as his chance to stand out. Eventually, it worked.
- Innovating the Hong Kong movie industry
At 21 years old, Jackie Chan was called back to Hong Kong to star in a movie called New Fist of Fury, directed by Lo Wei. His previous stunt work had finally been noticed, and so the budding star was featured in a string of Kung Fu movies. None were successful.
Jackie was hurt, miserable, and forced to rethink his plan of action. He decided he didn’t want to become the “next Bruce Lee”. He wanted to be the first Jackie Chan.
With this in mind, Jackie searched for a way to be different. He recalled his childhood role models, comedians such as Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Maybe, if he then took comedy and applied it to the usually serious realm of martial arts, the audience would like it. He drew from his experience of fighting in his early years, where punching someone hurt and being scared was expected. Jackie brought realistic behaviors into action-packed scenes and made them hilarious. By doing this, the genre of comedic Kung Fu was born.
His first big successes came in 1978 with Snake in Eagle’s Shadow, where he reportedly knocked out a tooth. It was followed by Drunken Master, in which he almost went blind.
In 1979, his debut as a director gave way to The Fearless Hyena, another huge success. He joined a new production company, breaking his previous contract with Lo Wei. Except Wei wasn’t ready to let Jackie Chan go, and sent the Triads to threaten him.
This branch of Chinese organized crime began to invade Jackie’s daily life. From being shot at when exiting a plane to being surrounded by 20 gang members while at a restaurant, Jackie was afraid for his life.
- Breaking into Hollywood and hard-earned success
By now, Jackie Chan was the highest-paid actor in Hong Kong and had reached celebrity status across Asia. He was “too famous” to be touched by the Triad and the unintended feud soon settled.
In the 1980s, Jackie Chan's success had earned him full creative control over his movies. He took on more than anyone on the set, from directing to performing the theme songs. But Asia wasn’t the limit. Jackie wanted to make it in Hollywood.
That same year, his production company sent him to the States to try his luck in the Hollywood flick The Big Brawl. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off. Neither did any of the following movies he starred in while there.
Jackie Chan’s underwhelming English skills were getting him nowhere in the States. So he returned to Hong Kong and worked as a director/producer for his own movies. He became the youngest person to act as a stunt coordinator, opening a school for enthusiastic newcomers and training them himself. His innovative stunt methods set a new standard for Chinese movies, which to this day attribute their international success to Jackie Chan’s pioneering tactics.
Over the years, Jackie Chan’s tireless creativity is reflected in his action-packed films and valuable contributions as a writer, stunt coordinator, and even singer. Looking back on his harsh childhood training and countless movie failures, Jackie Chan can’t help but smile. He doesn’t regret any of his hurdles, as one way or another, they all inspired him to think differently and work even harder.
Although Jackie Chan never learned to fully read or write, use a computer, or fully lose his fear of public speaking – he never stopped pushing his limits. He now speaks seven languages, contributes millions of dollars to philanthropic causes, and is a creative entrepreneur with a desire to “do one good thing every day”.
With his cheeky smile and worn-out jeans, the simplicity and can-do attitude of this avid soccer fan is nothing less than charming. He shares his words of wisdom to others in imperfect English, hoping to inspire someone to keep fighting for their dreams. When asked how anyone can get to where he is now, Jackie smiles and simply says, "Never give up."
"Every day, we would train from dawn to midnight and anyone caught taking it easy, would be whipped and starved." – Jackie Chan
Photo Courtesy: theguardian