Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi School of Hard Knocks

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 12, 1998: 

"While making Supercop, I dislocated my cheekbone. I didn't even know you could do that.

--Jackie Chan

Now that Jackie Chan's first all-American effort, Rush Hour, has raked in record-breaking bank at the box office (50 mil and counting), it's probably safe to say that we'll be seeing plenty more of the kinetic comedian. I, for one, couldn't be happier. As this new autobiography confirms, Chan is exactly what we've always suspected--a hard-working nice guy who just wants to please his legion of fans. You can't help but think the fellow deserves his fame. Chan's sudden renown in America is a bit puzzling (especially for Jackie, I'm sure), considering he has been a superstar in Asia for decades. Chan only came to prominence with mainstream America two years ago when his 1994 film Rumble in the Bronx was released in North America by New Line Cinema. Hardcore Hong Kong cinephiles knew him from a few years earlier thanks to pirate videos of his earlier overseas smashes like Police Story. Still, Chan's legacy stretches back to the early '70s. The just-released I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action attempts to fill in these gaps for both new and longtime fans.

The result is pure Chan--fast, funny and highly entertaining. His story reads, if nothing else, like a Far East version of a Charles Dickens tale. Chan kicks things off (so to speak) by recounting his early childhood in Hong Kong. Although the martial arts star seems to have abandoned his home turf for the more lucrative dirt of Hollywood, it's obvious that Chan is forever linked with that island. (Chan's original name is Kong-sang, which means literally "born in Hong Kong.") The son of a chef and maid for the French ambassador, Chan lived a more prosperous life than most Chinese immigrants in late-'50s HK. Perhaps that prosperity explains Chan's early life as little more than a happy idler and an elementary school drop-out.

His life changes forever, though, when papa Chan moves to Australia to pursue a more lucrative job offer. Chan's parents essentially "sell" him to a Chinese opera school, signing a binding contract that allows the school's master to raise the child any way he sees fit. During his 10-year tenure at the opera school, Chan is instructed in all the traditional Chinese performing arts: acrobatics, music, dance, acting and martial arts. Though many fans may be familiar with Chan's "rigorous" training (the story of Chan's upbringing was loosely adapted for Tsui Hark's film Painted Faces), the remembrances in My Life in Action are vivid and brutal. Though frequent beatings and near-unendurable physical strain were all part of the daily ritual at opera school, Chan holds no rancor for his old teacher, Master Yu Jim-Yuen. Indeed, Chan laments the loss of these traditional Chinese opera schools. Today's opera troops are more humanely treated, but just don't have the skills that Chan and his compatriots (Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung among them) developed.

Chan's adventures in opera school take up the bulk of this breezy autobiography. It is certainly the most interesting and exotic part of the book. Even so, later chapters detailing Chan's dogged rise to the top of the Asian film market are well limned. His impressions of Bruce Lee ("Bruce was Bruce, and for that reason alone, he was the best"), for example, become quite prescient when Chan spends a healthy chunk of his life being groomed as "the next Bruce Lee." Eventually, of course, Chan is allowed to direct his own films and develops a style of comic kung fu athleticism, which became his unique trademark all over the world.

If My Life in Action lacks a certain emotional depth, we can hardly call it a criticism. Though most people would be compelled to confront their feelings of parental abandonment, Chan does not. Perhaps he doesn't need to. He seems as well adjusted as one can be--at peace with his past and happy with his current position. I, for one, would rather read Chan's list of "My Top Ten Fights" than see him do a Mommy Dearest imitation on the typewriter. (Ballantine, cloth, $24.95)


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