Another long day is nearly over, and Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan is beat. And no wonder: The day before, he made an overnight dash to Beijing, carrying a torch in a run to promote the upcoming World University Games in Guangzhou. Landing in Hong Kong he rushes straight to a series of photo shoots, appearances and dubbing duties for Kung Fu Panda 2. Rubbing his eyes, it's clear he needs a break. But he still has one more appointment, this time with a special opponent.
Dayne Nourse flew in from Salt Lake City in the U.S. to show Chan his moves. He hardly looks like a formidable foe, especially to anyone with Chan's kung fu skills. However, Hong Kong's top hero has a weakness for such adversaries. Nourse, 14, stands waist-high, when he stands. Mostly, he sits in a wheelchair, crippled by brittle bone disease. The Make-A-Wish Foundation flew him to Hong Kong. Meeting idol Jackie Chan is his final wish.
The ultimate pro, Chan responds with a performance that has all eyes misting up at a Chinese dinner he hosts for Nourse and another Make-A-Wish teen, Keisha Knauss, at a west Kowloon restaurant. Chan makes silly faces and flirts with Knauss, then teaches kung fu moves to Nourse. "He's really cool," Nourse gushes afterward. "I knew he was nice from his films, but I had no idea how nice he would be. This has really been a dream come true."
At the banquet filled with friends, Chan bounces from table to table, the perfect host. But he dotes on the teens. Knauss calls him "my boyfriend" to much laughter, but for one special day he really is. Earlier Chan took the teens around his Clearwater Bay film studio, showered them with souvenirs and demonstrated daring stunts. "I know how important this moment is," he confides during a moment away from the youngsters. "If I can help them to live two more days, or two more years, whatever it takes. This is what makes me happy."
Chan, 57, punched his way to fame in scores of cheap sock 'em flicks through the 1970s in Hong Kong before becoming the city's first Hollywood star in the 1990s. Today he's more than an entertainment juggernaut with hundreds of films, television and cartoon shows, and record albums to his credit. In a city obsessed with commerce, where billionaires are celebrities, this grade school dropout is a Hong Kong icon. In earlier times it was hard to walk a block without seeing his face on a poster or product advertisement. The same now holds true in the rest of China, where he's often on hand opening cinemas, hosting variety shows and making appearances.
Unlike so many pretty boys in the Hong Kong industry, which was the biggest in the world after Hollywood until the 1990s, Chan rose from rags to riches and did it his own way--performing death-defying stunts himself. As a global star with international hits such as Rush Hour, he claimed fees of up to $25 million a picture. More important, he altered the formulaic way Hong Kong made and marketed films. "Jackie Chan helped create the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and subsequently was part of the Hong Kong talent that succeeded in Hollywood and international cinema," says Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. "He helped shape how the world today looks at Hong Kong movies."
Some critics term his films trivial, panning Chan's cheesy mix of comedy, action and positive themes. Yet the blend has proven box office appeal; his fans span the globe and defy categorization. In December his Facebook page topped 10 million fans. Even critics concede that he injected life into Asian action films with his martial arts mastery.
Along the way Chan has been transformed from stuntman and fighter to unlikely leading man and role model. However slapstick the script, his films usually have strong moral messages. He often defends underdogs or urchins. Invariably his movies are clean-cut, without sex scenes or graphic violence--call it Kung Fu Disney with Confucian characteristics.
What is less known is how fame has transformed Chan into one of Asia's premier philanthropists. Others may give more or get more attention, but probably nobody works harder for more causes than Chan. "Every time we ask him to do an event, he agrees without any question," says Anthony Lau, director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Chan has been the face of everything from no-smoking campaigns to cleanup efforts. Lau recalls requesting the star's appearance in Japan two years ago. Chan was working in remote China but flew 30 hours straight to the event. "The next day, he made the journey back--another 30 hours."
Chan has always regretted his lack of a formal education. So when he launched the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation in 1988, it offered scholarships and other help to young people. Over the years the scope has broadened to include medical services, help for the poor and quick responses to natural disasters. After China's Sichuan earthquake he donated more than $1.3 million to relief. His impact is multiplied when he lends his name and puts his boundless energy behind a cause.
Two days before meeting the U.S. teens, as FORBES ASIA trails the hyperkinetic Chan around Hong Kong, he bounds up several flights of an old apartment building, bursting into a room of photographers. Flashes pulsate as he poses with a giant cardboard check for around $3.4 million. This was raised in a concert he organized to help victims of the Japan quake and tsunami. He put up $150,000 of his own money.
Twenty minutes later we are back in a car, Chan behind the wheel. "I love driving," he says, zipping in and out of Hong Kong traffic, jabbering at every stoplight into a pair of phones--one for China, one for Hong Kong--before pulling into the driveway of his Kowloon Tong home. There are two old houses, side by side in a huge lot framed by giant thickets of bamboo. Jackie lives in one with his wife; his son, Jaycee Chan, also an actor and musician, lives in the other.
This is an unscheduled stop in a day crammed with appointments. Chan is a ball of energy but easily distracted, making a shambles of any itinerary. Our meetings have been repeatedly rescheduled, month after month. Staff members say he's a reluctant delegator who tries to do everything himself. Even so, they are intensely loyal and talk lovingly of their good-natured boss. Practically all have been with him for years, some for decades. "He wants to be on top of everything," says Mabel Cheung, one of Hong Kong's most respected film directors, who made Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family.
A dozen years ago Chan learned that both his parents had previously been married and had abandoned families in the mainland amid the chaos of the Chinese civil war. Cheung took a film crew to China and interviewed his half-siblings and then went to Australia and filmed him talking to his parents about their past. She says he is a joy to work with. "He followed my direction and never asked to change a single thing. He never even came into the editing room."
Unlike most Hong Kong stars, Chan travels under his own power, eschewing big entourages. We often leave a car in a lot--Chan parking himself--then ride an escalator and hustle to a meeting or meal. Maybe because he's dressed down and lacks bodyguards, hardly anyone seems to notice. When they do, smiles invariably bloom. Everyone seems to cherish Jackie Chan. "Even as an international star, he's very much a Hong Kong person," notes Cheung. "He really acts like a big brother to everyone in the film industry in Hong Kong. He always has gatherings for his friends, in his house."
His superstardom and simplicity seem surprising in a city so consumed by flash and showiness. But his boisterous can-do spirit is the essence of Hong Kong. "I think Jackie Chan is one of the reasons people come here," says Lau. "They know him and his attitude, and that says a lot about Hong Kong."
His wealth has been pegged at $130 million, but he's happy to eat a bowl of dumplings set on a folding card table outside his house. The furnishings are modest. On a wall is a plastic decoration often seen in dentist offices, a kind of clock-shaped mingling of the words: "Live, Learn, Laugh, Love, Life."
Chan wears old sneakers and ripped jeans and seems uninterested in possessions or attention-grabbing statements. His yard does host a collection of cars, including a vintage Rolls-Royce. One has the license "123," which cost him $150,000. He says he's been offered six times that amount to sell the plates in numbers-obsessed Hong Kong. "But I'll never sell." The plate, he says, denotes the date, Dec. 3, his son was born. He also shares the property with a pair of Golden Retrievers--Jones and JJ. His wife of nearly 30 years is Taiwanese former actress Lin Feng-Jiao, or Joan. "It makes it easy--we're all Js," he says with that moon-size smile.
Chan spent his early years atop Victoria Peak, Hong Kong's most prestigious address, but his was never the life of privilege. His father worked as a cook at the French consulate; his mother did laundry. He lasted less than a year in school. Instead, when his father moved to another job, with the American embassy in Australia, Chan was enrolled in the China Drama Academy in Kowloon, a Peking Opera school run by Master Yu Jim-Yuen. He proved a superlative student of acrobatics and martial arts; he started working in films at age 8.
Chan admits he didn't take to charity at first. "When I started, people were always asking me to do stuff, and I was just too busy, so I always said no," he says. "Then I finally agreed. I remember being so embarrassed. Kids came up to me and asked what I brought them, and I didn't know. I hadn't done it. Somebody else did it for me. They all thanked me, and I was shamed." That was 25 years ago
At nearly the same time Chan was in Yugoslavia, filming a dangerous stunt. He's listed in record books for doing the toughest stunts and has taken numerous tumbles, breaking most bones in his body. On this day he took a near fatal drop on his head. "It was one of the first times in my life where I started thinking, what have I really done, for myself, for my country, for society? I thought, if I recover I have to do more for everyone."
In 2004 he started his second foundation, the Dragon's Heart Foundation, which builds schools and helps children and the elderly in remote parts of China. One of his cleverest schemes for this foundation has been to enlist kids from around the world to contribute, and he matches all funds. But the global bond is far more important than the folded dollars that flow in. "I want to show you something superspecial," he says at his Clearwater Bay studio. One hallway is crammed with photographs signed by celebrity pals: Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Madonna, as well as Tiger Woods, James Brown and a Miss World or two. On the other wall are movie posters and trophies.
But Chan guides me inside to his real treasures. "Look at this," he says, pulling out a stack of poster boards filled with crayon coloring and collages, many featuring dollar bills. These are donations from kids all over the world. Some put together classroom projects, others went door-to-door or emptied their cookie jars. "Now I have to double everything," he says. "There is no way I'd ever spend any of this. Someday, I'll have a museum and hang this on the walls."
Chan talks of cinemas in China. He's about to debut his epic, 1911, covering 100 years of Chinese history; the patriotic flick is his 100th. He's recently opened China's biggest Cineplex, with 17 screens, in Beijing and has plans for dozens more. He has his own line of clothing and Jackie Chan cafes and gyms. There are so many business ventures, he cannot keep track. When he's on the phone I explore the studio and spot several Segways. Sure enough, he has a distributorship.
A philanthropic pioneer among Hong Kong entertainers, Chan sets an example for stars such as Jet Li who have launched charities. It's easy to understand why he works so hard. "When I was a child, I was very poor and wanted everything. So when I got money I began buying things. Now I want to give away everything. When I give somebody something and see their face, it just makes me so happy."
Chan believes giving will catch on in China, too. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett received a cold response when they visited to solicit support for a global campaign to get tycoons to pledge half their estates to charity after their death. Chan has taken the pledge. "China is an old country, but people are just starting to get money," he says. "I think they will follow the same path; it's just starting."
In the homespun wisdom of Jackie Chan, the way forward is simple. "I do small things. I try to do good things every day. If everyone does some good, think of what a good world this will be."
SOURCE: FORBES ASIA