Man With the Plan: Willie Chan
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.
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
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
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],"
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
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
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."
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