The Man With the Plan: Willie Chan

By Neil Western

The high wall outside the large detached house on Waterloo Road, Kowloon Tong, is almost completely covered by a tiled mosaic featuring sketched portraits and scribbled eulogies from as far afield as the Netherlands, Japan and Brazil, all dedicated to "J.C.", Jackie or simply "my hero". "Jackie Chan for president" declares Austin Harelson of Grayson, Los Angeles, which in a Governor Schwarzenegger era does not seem as deluded as it once might have. This is the headquarters of Jackie Chan Productions and the geographical span of the tributes reveals an undisputed truth: Jackie Chan is a global icon. Once Hong Kong's, then Asia's, action hero, the kung fu comedy genius now belongs to the world. And how.
Inside the offices hang signed photographs of dozens of Hollywood heavyweights swearing allegiance to the cult of Jackie ("You are the king" - Nic Cage; "All the best mate, I'm a fan" - Mel Gibson; "For the incredible work you do" - Kevin Spacey). It is in this league that Chan now competes, earning up to US$20 million a movie and grossing up to US$200 million at the box office with each outing.
Such is his superstar status that one wonders whether Cage, Gibson and the rest have signed photographs of Chan in their homes. More than an icon, Jackie Chan is a brand: he is opening the latest branch of his restaurant chain, Jackie Chan's Kitchen, in Honolulu this week; his name helps sell a fashion line and promotes Hong Kong as a holiday destination, with tourists flying from every corner of the world just to get a glimpse of him and to see the city in which he grew up.
It is said that behind every successful man there is a good woman. In Chan's case it is a man: Willie Chan, a flamboyant character who has been Jackie's manager, business partner and friend for 30 years. Chan, who almost by accident pioneered the notion of artist management in Hong Kong, was responsible for nurturing Jackie's career through the post-Bruce Lee slump in Hong Kong cinema fortunes, and ultimately taking him to Hollywood where, after several attempts, he became a megastar. In his ghost-written auto-biography I Am Jackie Chan, published in 1998, the actor said he had two paternal influences. "Charles Chan is the father of Chan Kong-sang [Jackie's birth name] but Yu Jim-yuen was the father of Jackie Chan," he wrote. Master Yu was the head of the China Drama Academy in Kowloon; he brutally raised Jackie from the age of seven when his real father emigrated to Australia to find work.
But the book also acknowledges a huge debt to Willie Chan, to whom Jackie refers in person as "brother". Master Yu's unforgiving 10-year training regime may have equipped Jackie with the tools of his trade, his seemingly impossible martial-arts moves and death-defying stunt capabilities, but it was not until Willie entered his life in 1974 that his career started to take shape. While the next three decades were fraught with problems and pain, it was Willie who guided his star west to the riches and fame he currently enjoys. "In his own words, he says we are partners, friends, father and son," says Willie. "He's the boss. He pays my dues. I'm the manager but we fit into all those categories. I know more about Jackie Chan than anybody, including his father."
Their story is one of shared ambition and friendship - one on which Willie, with his protege now more independent and, with a Hollywood agent, no longer reliant on him, is able to reflect with a mixture of pride and nostalgia. Willie's hair has a youthful spiky cut, but he is greying, his wrinkled features and the dark bags beneath his big, bulging eyes an indication of his recent health battles. Renowned for being a cigar-chomping bon vivant with a peacockish dress sense, Willie still has a taste for loud, colourful shirts and trademark dark glasses, but his party wings have been clipped by his ailments.
Now in his early 60s, he has suffered a collapsed lung, undergone heart bypass surgery and must take 20 pills a day for his complaints. Smoking is strictly out, although he can drink a little wine. "I still love to drink, but no hard liquor," he confides, sitting in the bright boardroom of JC Group's offices. Yet he remains a charming, gregarious entertainer who speaks passionately about his favourite topic, his number one client, Jackie Chan, although he is prone to long pauses and introspection when asked about himself. It is as if he has had to spend so much of his life thinking about Jackie that he has rarely had time to contemplate his own existence.
"Many couples would have been divorced by now," he says of his relationship with Jackie (Willie's marriage did collapse, owing partly to the strain of his workload and travel commitments). "I say this with a little pride ... it's a long time to be together. There have been very happy moments and also frustrating moments. Of course we have differences of opinion, coming from such different backgrounds. But we survived it all. The very fact that I'm still heading the JC Group, I guess I should be happy."
Willie Chan, who graduated from the East-West Centre in Hawaii in 1966 with a masters degree in marketing, moved to Hong Kong from his native Malaysia in 1970 to work in the movie industry. He was a film producer in the mid-70s when he met Jackie, who was a stuntman in Lo Wei's follow-up to Fist Of Fury, called, predictably, New Fist Of Fury. Willie noticed something special in Jackie's willingness and ability to do dangerous stunts.
After Jackie, fed up with his career stagnation, moved to Australia for a few months to work as a cook, Willie brought him back to work as a leading actor for Lo's company. He was paid $3,000 a month plus $3,000 for each film, yet the films were flopping. "Everyone was trying to find a replacement for Bruce Lee. Jackie was one of them," laments Willie. "He didn't look like him but had the actions and was good at martial arts. But how can you replace a legend? No matter how good you are you will always be inferior."
Then Chan was loaned to film-maker Yuen Wo-ping, for whom he made his first comedy kung fu movies, Snake In The Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master. "That was what he wanted to do," says Willie. "It allowed him a chance to be himself, to fight as well as add comedy. That was his first break." Offers flooded in and went as high as HK$1 million a movie. As a manager for Lo's company Willie says he was duty bound to keep Jackie, but as a friend he told the young star to work out the money and decide for himself. "Lo Wei blamed me for instigating [his departure]," says Willie.
Willie left the company and Jackie followed a week later. Adds Willie: "Jackie felt he was instrumental in me leaving my job, so he said, 'I don't know Chinese, I'm not educated, I don't know how to talk to people, let's work together.' He didn't use the word 'manager' because there was no such thing then." With Willie as his personal manager Jackie joined Golden Harvest ("his second big break"). There, boss Raymond Chow Ting-hsing recognised his star potential and launched Jackie in Japan, a much bigger and more lucrative market than Hong Kong, where he scored successes with films such as Fearless Hyena and Dragon Fist.
Chow insisted on sending Jackie to the US, where he spent weeks at the Berlitz language school in Beverly Hills. Willie went with him. "It was eight hours a day learning English. They would take him to a supermarket and make him buy an apple, or to a service station to fill up the car with gas. They were tough times but they were good times, because Jackie was becoming very famous [in Hong Kong]. It was the two of us against big company executives, that was when we really talked a lot," says Willie, gazing out of the window.
However, Jackie's first films in the US were less than successful. His 1980 debut, The Big Brawl, in which Jackie played a Chicagoan, left him struggling with the dialogue. "It was one of his worst movies ever," admits Willie. Next he appeared in The Cannonball Run and its sequel, Cannonball Run II. It was hoped that appearing alongside Rat Pack favourites Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr would make Jackie's a well-known name.
"But it was a cameo, most people didn't notice him. The films made money but didn't put Jackie up there," says Willie. "I was always with him. Every day after shooting he would come back and complain ... about the system, how come they wouldn't let him do this extra shot, how come they would spend two days on dialogue and only give him half a day for action. Every night I had to be the guy to argue with him, 'Look, there has to be a reason why Hollywood does things this way, otherwise why would it be so successful for so many years?' Whenever he saw a script I had to defend the Americans and help him with it."
By the time Jackie played a New York cop in The Protector with Danny Aiello in 1985, the game was almost up. "[The character] was not him, he couldn't be jovial. After that he was really disillusioned with Hollywood. He didn't want to go through that."
Back in Hong Kong, however, Jackie was enjoying hit after hit. Willie too was basking in glory so he expanded the idea of artist management, signing Maggie Cheung Man-yuk for the JC Group in 1985. At its peak the company had 43 actors on its books. "We had all the stars except Andy Lau Tak-wah," Willie says, looking at a picture of himself with Jackie, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung and Cherie Cheung. "This was the happiest time in management for me. There were no triads, everybody had a lot of work. We were happy, happy." Tears appear to well in his eyes.
But happiness gave way to anxiety. By the early 90s Hong Kong cinema was booming and the triads were moving in, demanding that stars work for them with offers that dare not be refused. "There came a time when actors were doing 12 or 13 movies a year, sometimes three at a time," says Willie. "They would go for days without sleep. You want your artist to be busy because that is the measure of their success. They make money and we make more commission. But there came a point where the girls cried when they got a film offer. As managers we felt we were exploiting them. It became a dilemma."
In 1992 Willie joined a march by stars and producers against gangsterism in the industry, but opted out of management soon after. "Jackie said, 'If you're so unhappy and the pressure is so great, why don't you quit? Our company can still function.'" By then Jackie was a superstar who took over all aspects of the production of his movies. In 1995 he made Rumble In the Bronx, his own version of an American film, which was a surprise hit. That was the third pivotal moment in Jackie's career, Willie says, because US studios realised he was a bankable star.
Rush Hour (1998) was the film that launched him across the world. "I literally had to force him to get on the plane because his memories of Hollywood were so bad," recalls Willie. But Rush Hour was a smash hit, recouping the US$35 million outlay in its first weekend alone, and led to Chan becoming one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars, earning huge cheques for a sequel and other blockbusters such as Shanghai Knights and The Tuxedo. Rush Hour 3 is in production for release next year; Around The World In 80 Days, in which Jackie plays adventurer Phileas Fogg's companion, Passepartout, opens this week.
Is Willie happy with the roles Jackie has been given, considering some critics claim Jackie has to play stereotypical Asian characters and deliver lines such as "Flied lice"? "Me, yes," says Willie. "For Jackie the answer will always be yes and no. He loves Hollywood for the big budgets they can afford and wider scope of topics you can deal with. Here we are restricted to cops, triads and love dramas. But Jackie loves the Hong Kong way of control. He doesn't believe [film-making] should be so compartmentalised. He might want to grab the camera and take a picture, but someone will say, 'No, the union doesn't allow it.' He will never be entirely happy shooting in America."
For this reason Jackie intersperses American blockbusters with Hong Kong movies. "He needs his balance," says Willie, while noting that Jackie's perfectionism can send his own films way over budget, as it did particularly on The Medallion last year. "It should have been a Chinese film; it was a mistake," says Willie. But such is Jackie's earning power that he can afford mistakes - even wildly expensive ones.
Jackie Chan's global success is bittersweet for Willie: a time of triumph but a time of upheaval. The move to the US meant Jackie needed an American agent and chose William Morris. There have, one suspects, been inevitable behind-the-scenes tensions between the two camps concerning Jackie's management, his lower fees for Hong Kong films and his public appearances, but Willie says it was the right move. "Once we went to America we knew we had to have an American agency. It's quite different, the contracts are so complex you need agents and lawyers. Now Jackie is up there and on his way he can manage quite well in America. His English is good enough.
"I never thought we would go that far. There are occasions when I miss the old times. Everybody wants to be needed. When Jackie first went to Hollywood I really felt I was needed. We spent very long and lonely times doing promotion, travelling, morning in one city, evening in another - all the shows in America seemed to be the morning ones that make you wake up at 5am. I guess I miss those days. Now he's so much more independent."
Willie looks out of the window again, then his face brightens and he adds: "You have to expect it. I'm kept busy, bringing through new talent, although I'm only able to sign up so many new artists because they saw what I did with Jackie Chan and they think I can do it for them." Willie has 10 young actors on his books and is working on New Police Story with Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and young Emperor Group talent. He says it is fulfilling, but after sharing suitcases for so long he is having to adjust to life without Jackie. "We're not as close in the amount of time we spend together," he admits, although they see each other frequently, Jackie spending much of his time in Hong Kong. "That is to be expected. He's married, he has a son. Life changes ..." he trails off. "It's normal. We're going through what most people go through. But when it comes to decisions and business we are as close."
Despite having his big stable of stars in the late 80s, Willie is happy to have devoted most of his career to Jackie. "I depended on the right guy. Many people have tried to take over my position, from Hong Kong and overseas, but we have stuck together. The trust and the love built up over 30 years is not something that's easily taken away."
In nostalgic mood, Willie says he is "thinking of putting all this in a book about Jackie Chan", a counterpoint to Jackie's autobiography. "I could write a similar book, Jackie Chan from Willie Chan's eyes," he says, then hastily adds, "It wouldn't just be about Jackie Chan, but about the movie industry." Willie freely acknowledges the difficulties connected with such a project. "If I was very frank in it I would probably offend a lot of people, so it's probably something I should do when I retire and move away from Hong Kong," he says, although he later admits he would never want to leave.
Would Jackie approve? "If I write about him ... it would probably be more good than bad, because basically Jackie is more good than bad," he says. "If I write that in a book people will say, 'Of course you will say that, you are not telling the truth,' even though I may be, even though I am. But he's a very kind-hearted guy, he's very smart, very hard-working, very dedicated to his work, and his philanthropic character comes from his heart."
Willie takes great pride in Jackie's achievements, his having been made an honorary professor by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University ("and him an uneducated man"), his leading roles in various film associations and, in particular, his extensive charity work. Willie appears to derive more satisfaction from Jackie's successes than his own. "I wouldn't mind a few million more or a house in Repulse Bay," he says, smiling. "But it's made me happy. It's made me enough to travel around the world and to have my own lifestyle, to have time to spend on meditation. I don't have to worry about tomorrow's meal.
"I only wish I had a life companion as well, that's something he hasn't given me. I'm not young any more. When you have lived your life the way you like it's hard just to bring somebody in. I don't want to change. I think, I think," he says, pausing, "that I'm happy now. Would I really want to have my own big movie studio? Would I like to have the empire that Sir Run Run [Shaw] has? The obvious answer should be yes, but I'm not sure, unless Jackie was involved. If I had it all on my own it would become too much. I have nobody to pass it on to. I have no kids. Jackie still has many dreams and if I can continue to play a part and help him ..."
One question lingers: could Jackie have made it so far without Willie? Willie leans back in his chair and thinks for a while. "That's a question you would have to ask him, but I'd like to think so," he says. "It's hard to say what would have happened if we hadn't done this or that. If we hadn't gone to America he might enjoy life more. Maybe he would have even more money, who knows?" He chuckles in his infectious way and adds: "But I think I did play a little part in getting him where he is. I hope he would say the same thing."





©2004 Katharine Schroeder/Jackie Chan Kids Corner

The Jackie Chan Kids Corner is a part of the Official Jackie Chan website run by the JC Group in Hong Kong

No part of this website may be reproduced or distributed without permission