Jackie Chan is a great ball of energy. At 55, he moves swiftly yet lightly as if walking on air, with chin slightly up, but when he speaks his voice booms out while the smile never leaves his face and hands constantly move as he makes his points and jokes. Surprisingly, Chan doesn’t seem to travel with an entourage but just one quiet assistant, and his star quality is offset by his lovability and readiness to make people laugh.
Chan also commands attention unknowingly, and people around him also knowingly vie for his, resulting in our 13 minute 21 second interview. No matter how at ease he puts people or down to earth he seems, the likeable Chan is a global superstar who has “success” stamped on everything he does. In Thailand he’s a household name along with Sammo Hung. They are lovingly known as Chen Long (his Mandarin name meaning “becoming a dragon”) and Hong Jin Pao (Sammon Hung) to older generation Thais. Chan, however, went on to take the world outside of Asia by storm. Across the region, people have grown up watching his films, his pioneering comedic kung fu and real, death-defying stunts that have continued to today.
Among his many facets from actor to entrepreneur, Chan’s lesser known side must be his philanthropy. But, in fact, Chan has long been involved in charity work. The Unicef Goodwill ambassador founded the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation in 1988 and the Dragon’s Heart Foundation in 2005. In 2006, he publically announced that half of his assets would go to charity at the time of his death.
“Doing charity work makes me feel good. Every time people invite me to help, I always thank them for letting me have an opportunity to help other people. Charity has taught me to become a good boy. I’ve learned so much from it. I also learn how to lead people to do charity. It’s not easy,” he said.
Chan was recently in Bangkok as a keynote speaker at the 3rd Asean event series “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace” held by the International Peace Foundation. As a part of the programme, he also travelled to Cambodia after he completed his visit to Thailand and gave speeches on “Arts and Culture as a Pathway Towards Peace” at different venues. Between receiving Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra and Anand Panyarachun, as well as actress Ann Thongprasom, Chan also visited street children and people with HIV/Aids at the Human Development Foundation in the Klong Toey slum community as part of his hands-on method of philanthropy.
“I could see more and now I know what it’s like so I will come back again next year. That to me is the most important thing. It’s not just about socialising or sitting in the hotel. I want to go [to places] and see what’s going on,” he said.
Born without any special privileges, Chan was sent to the China Drama Academy, a Peking Opera school run by Master Yun Jim Yuen. At the time it was common for the unfortunate who couldn’t afford to raise their children in comfort to send their offspring to this kind of martial arts and acrobatic school in Hong Kong. Chan trained for many years and later became part of the Seven Little Fortunes, a performance group that picked outstanding students. It was during this period that he formed a close friendship with fellow group members Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The three would later go on to star in many films together and were known as the Three Dragons.
It was also during his childhood that Chan got a chance to travel and lived abroad with his performing troupe. He spent two years each in Taiwan, Korea and Thailand. Even though he was in Thailand when he was 9, some of his Thai remains. He will use whatever basic Thai he has left when he has a chance. He brightly told Ann that the photographer wanted to take picture of just “song khon”.
“I stayed in Yaowarat. We were okay. We had a good master to take care of us. We slept on the floor. At night, I learned Thai boxing,” said Chan.
When he was only 17, Chan worked as a stuntman in legendary Bruce Lee films Jing wu men (Fist of Fury) and Enter the Dragon. While his breakthrough in Hollywood came much later, in 1995 with Hung fan au (Rumble in the Bronx), he first stepped into Asian hearts and households in 1978 with Se ying diu sau (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow) when he first established the comedic kung fu genre and perfected his signature moves – a cross between Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton. His major success came with Jui kuen (Drunken Master, or Long Mud Moa in Thai). Even though it was his landmark movie, Chan now sees the error of his earlier hits since he now champions and promotes peace as one of his many causes.
“Many people watch my movies. I’ve now realised whatever I do, children follow me. [Drunken Master] gives the wrong message because I tell children to drink and fight. A few years later, I made Long Mud Moa II, and this time the message was “don’t drink, don’t fight”. When I was young, I didn’t know. I just wanted to make a comedy [with fighting in movies]. I’m not God. I do wrong things, but when I do, I have to correct myself,” he said.
It might seem contradictory for a man known for his kung fu moves and high stunts to be talking about peace, but now Chan is dealing his arts out with a conscience. Good vs evil and karma consequences usually form the undertone of his movies.
“When I make movies, I let people know that there are bad people and good people everywhere. We need to help each other. How? Through culture. Through arts. In my movies, I always talk about peace. If you hurt people, people will hurt you,” he said. “I travel around the world, and I don’t understand why people are fighting with one another. Sometimes the country or the area is already very poor, so why are they still fighting? The whole world already has a lot of natural disasters so why are we having human-created problems?” added Chan.
He also believes that peace can be achieved and conflicts overridden through mutual cultural understanding.
“I respect all cultures. Before I used to say ‘Oh Americans so stupid’, but actually I was the one who was stupid. You have to follow the rules. When you’re in Bangkok, there are Bangkok rules, and you have to follow them. In Bangkok, you don’t touch people’s heads and you wai people since it’s polite. Then we’ll understand each other. Once you understand the culture, there will be no fighting. You need to have respect,” he said.
But Chan’s road to heavy involvement with charity work didn’t begin naturally. It took a shock to the system during his younger years at the height of his first wave of success.
“My first time was at a hospital in Hong Kong. I didn’t want to go at first. I just wanted to make movies. That time I was young, [and just got] famous and rich. I spent my free time at karaoke and discos to sing and dance. I spent money on luxurious jewellery and sports cars. I would crash a Porsche in the morning and a Mercedes Benz at night, and the next day I would buy a new one. That was normal for me.
“People kept asking me to do charity, and I always said ‘No, I don’t have time.’ But [for this hospital visit] they begged me to go for 15 or 30 minutes only, since they arranged the press and everything, so I agreed to it. The night before I was still at the disco. When I got up, I regretted having agreed to do it. But once I got there it hit me like ‘Boom!”‘
Chan still remembers vividly how sick children walked towards him with such joy and excitement in their eyes when they were frail to the point of breaking. The children began to thank him wholeheartedly, but Chan instead began to feel pangs and pangs of pain in his stomach and conscience.
“They all asked ‘Jackie what did you bring me?’ and I couldn’t answer, so I just told them to open them. They opened the boxes and cried. It really hurt me. I didn’t spend money to buy the presents. Everything was fake. Everything was about Jackie [when it should have been about the children], and I didn’t even want to go [in the first place]. People arranged it, but children thanked me. I felt so embarrassed. I went home and couldn’t sleep that night. I lied to children. I can’t do this!”
The shock of reality propelled him to change. From then on, Chan would collect presents he received from fans, and then go back to the hospital every year to hand them out to children along with monetary support.
In 1988, Chan decided to start the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation. It began as a place to help young Hong Kong people through scholarships, but it has since grown to support other worthy causes. Founded in 2005, the Dragon’s Heart Foundation helps children and elders in remote areas of China. Besides managing his own charity foundations, Chan is also actively involved in a lot more charity work, manipulating his celebrity status and setting an example through action.
“Before I just donated money, and I didn’t know where the money went. Well, I trust myself so I do it now. People trust me, and they send me money. Everybody needs to help everybody. If you don’t know whom to help, send it to me, I will do it for you.”
Published: 25/11/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook