Hail the kung-fu king

Jackie Chan has just got an Oscar. But why is he so unloved at home?


Pretty popular overseas, less so at home: Chan

In 1980 Jackie Chan first attempted to break into Hollywood with The Big Brawl. But the Hong Kong star found it hard to adapt his martial arts style to the choreography of a typical American fight sequence and the film was a flop.

According to Southern Weekend, this setback almost derailed Chan’s prospects. He subsequently met Steven Spielberg to talk about a potential cooperation but the meeting only lasted for five minutes. Because of his broken English (it’s considerably better now), The Today Show cancelled an interview with him at the last minute too.

Chan concluded that The Big Brawl failed because the director Robert Clouse wouldn’t allow him to direct the film’s action scenes the way he wanted. For the rest of the 1980s, Chan worked instead in his hometown Hong Kong, churning out Cantonese-scripted kung-fu comedies. (Though funny, the films were not without risk – his stunt team reserved rooms in a local hospital to treat injured crew – Chan himself suffered multiple bone fractures during filming).

In 1995 the action-comedy star finally got his Hollywood breakthrough with Rumble in the Bronx. That was followed by the huge blockbuster success Rush Hour in 1998. Today Chan is arguably the most famous Chinese actor in the world and Forbes magazine estimates he was the second highest paid actor last year behind Robert Downey Jr.

Earlier this month Chan got the ultimate recognition: an Academy Award. The 62 year-old was one of the four veterans who received honorary Oscars for their career achievements.

“Standing here is a dream,” Chan said as he received the iconic statuette from Sylvester Stallone. “After 56 years in the film industry, making more than 200 films, breaking so many bones, finally this is mine.”

The Los Angeles Times reckons Chan’s award was partly motivated by the Academy’s attempts to improve diversity within the Oscars (in recent years there have been criticisms that the winners – particularly the leading actors – are predominantly white).

News of the win, however, generated a muted response in Hong Kong. Indeed, Chan has yet to win a best actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards (which started in 1982).

Regular WiC readers will be familiar with the Jackie Chan bashing that goes on across Chinese social media. In 2010, he was voted as one of Hong Kong’s least trustworthy personalities in a poll. In Taiwan, a series of statues that Chan gave to a museum were returned in a recent high profile snub (see WiC342). And in mainland China netizens have long mocked the “Jackie Chan curse”, noting how sales of products seem to dip after he has been paid to endorse them (see WiC187).

So how did Jackie Chan manage to become one of the least liked celebrities in Greater China?

The same question is being asked by media outlets abroad and closer to home. On a Quora forum, one Hongkonger responded that Chan has been too keen to curry favour with China’s leaders, which hasn’t endeared him to people in Hong Kong. A classic example: his rant in 2009 that he wasn’t sure if China is suited to a liberal political system, adding that the Chinese people need to be ruled in an authoritarian manner.

Buzzfeed, a news portal, also notes that Chan has been dubbed “the No.1 five pence” (the term for people paid to praise the government online) in China. “Those on weibo know why his post roused such hatred. On Chinese social media – where exposing official hypocrisy is a national sport – nothing makes you lose street cred as quickly as shilling for the government, and those on weibo know that Chan has a history of parroting the Communist Party’s stances on many things,” it suggests.

That seems to be a common verdict across the Chinese internet too. “Politically Chan is very conservative but his personal life is very liberal,” one critic wrote on Chan’s own weibo page, explaining a paradox that hurts the actor on both sides of the border. “His many comments don’t go down well with the political correctness in Hong Kong nor the political correctness among Chinese netizens. Thus many netizens in Hong Kong and China dislike him.”

Despite the apathy over his recent honouring in Hong Kong, Chan’s Oscar coup seems to have got him a bit more credit on the mainland. “Personally I dislike his political stance but he fully deserves his honorary Oscar,” argued one widely discussed post on Zhihu, China’s answer to Quora. “No matter if he is in China or the US, he always identifies himself as Chinese, unlike many Hongkongers,” another observed, touching on an issue that riles many mainland Chinese: the anti-motherland sentiment felt by some of the Hong Kong population.

The award also has some critics reevaluating Chan’s acting achievements. “His hard work has paid off. Look at the fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean, his comedy action has clearly influenced mainstream Hollywood,” Beijing Times suggested.

Chan is also the first Chinese actor to have won an Oscar, Global Times noted approvingly.

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