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My bosses at Golden Harvest decided that the time was ripe to introduce me to Hollywood. To make me more independent and force me to work on my English, they put me on the plane to America alone, without a translator or companion. A man named David picked me up at the airport. As soon as he saw me, he started dancing around, striking drunken-master poses. This cheered me up after the long and lonely flight.

Really excited, he started telling me about the movie Golden Harvest had set up for me in America. “They’ve reunited the team from Enter the Dragon,” he said. “It’s a great lineup, and the script is awesome, too. I think you’ll be a big star over here in no time!” Oh, no. After that string of failures in the ’70s trying to turn me into the next Bruce Lee, I was not too thrilled about walking in his footsteps again. The person in charge of this project was Golden Harvest’s international manager, Andre Morgan. He’d worked with Raymond Chow for twelve years and spoke such fluent Cantonese that I was taken aback.

At that point, I knew almost no English. Andre assured me that this film, titled The Big Brawl, was going to be huge and that it would showcase my kung fu skills to American audiences. The budget was $4 million USD, a shockingly large amount compared to my Hong Kong budgets. Andre also wanted me to do press interviews and go on TV to raise my profile here. I quickly learned that an American film shoot was completely different from what I was used to in Hong Kong. The American way was very rigid. The director, Robert Clouse, who’d worked with Bruce Lee on Enter the Dragon, stuck strictly to the shot list for every scene, and had fixed ideas about where the camera should go and how the actors should be positioned.

There was nothing wrong with this way of doing things, but it didn’t suit me. In Hong Kong, we fooled around on set to try out different approaches. We would change the dialogue on the spot. That was not allowed in America. My English was so bad anyway that I had to focus all my attention on getting my lines right and forgot to make facial expressions. I would stammer through my speeches, looking wooden. With action sequences, I was used to creating my own complex, beautiful movements, but this director insisted on sticking to the script and wouldn’t give me room to improvise. Repeatedly, I tried to suggest different sequences to him, but he replied, “No, we’ll shoot it as written” every time. Scenes that should have been filled with breathtaking action just had me walking back and forth. “No one’s going to pay money to watch Jackie Chan taking a stroll,” I told him, to no avail.

During the filming, I went out for an Italian dinner with a couple of friends. At the time, I was fond of going around in a vest, showing off my muscled bare arms, thinking I looked pretty cool. We were drinking a bunch of beers, and eventually, I had to go to the bathroom. I stood up and started walking over there, but swerved and went straight into the door. Bam! When I woke up, I was on a sofa by the restaurant entrance. One of my friends had his foot in the automatic door, while the other was fanning vigorously, trying to get me some air. I saw their lips move but didn’t hear a word they said. My manager rushed to phone the studio and let them know what had happened. The head of Golden Harvest wanted me to go for a full-body examination right away. I was brought to the hospital, and they wanted to give me shots and take my blood. I’ve always been more afraid of needles than anything else.

Snakes, cockroaches, and mice don’t bother me, but as soon as I see a syringe and imagine it plunging into my flesh, pumping liquid in or taking blood out, I feel terrified! A few years earlier, while shooting Drunken Master in Hong Kong, I’d fallen and hit the corner of my eye. At the hospital, the doctor said I needed stitches. When I refused, he stuck a giant Band-Aid over the wound, after which I went straight back to the set and continued filming. Halfway through, I started bleeding again. Ng See-Yuen, the director, brought me back to the hospital. The doctor said I really needed stitches. I asked if there was another way. He said yes, they could widen the wound and electronically cauterize every single broken capillary. I said fine, let’s do that. The doctor said it would hurt far more than stitches, and I replied that I didn’t care. Each jolt of electricity made me shake, but it was still better than having a needle sticking into me.

Despite this terror of needles, I let them draw my blood at the American hospital. When the results came in, the doctor asked me in English, “How old are you?” I said I was twenty-two. He informed me that I had the cholesterol of a thirty-eight-year-old. Next, he asked what I normally ate, and I said, “A hamburger for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, and a hamburger for dinner.” I hadn’t been in America long, and my English wasn’t good enough to say more than “burger,” “fries,” “Coke,” or “pizza” in a restaurant. So I ate fast food and drank soda three meals a day. When the doctor heard this, he warned me, “You can’t go on like this. You have to eat other foods. You have the sort of physique that could survive on water, but if you keep eating this stuff, your health will suffer.” That’s when I cut those things out of my life.

Since then, I haven’t had fast food or a carbonated drink more than five times. After we wrapped The Big Brawl, the studio booked me another film right away. Andre was delighted. “It’s called The Cannonball Run. Tons of Hollywood stars are lined up to appear in this with you. It’s not an action film, so you can focus on the acting.” The name alone gave me a good feeling. “Cannonball” was my childhood nickname, after all. I hoped this film wouldn’t be as rigidly directed as The Big Brawl. I played a Japanese race car driver, which I wasn’t comfortable with, but it was too late to change so I had to make the most of it. The Hollywood stars in the film—Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr., Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Roger Moore—would say hello politely when they saw me, but that was it. No recognition of who I was or acknowledgment of what I’d done.

 That was when I realized I wasn’t actually a major star. As the Chinese saying goes, “There is always a taller mountain.” I might be big in Hong Kong, but in Hollywood, I was nobody. When I returned to Hong Kong after this shoot, I told every famous person I knew, “You should visit the States to learn what a megastar actually is.” I thought I was impressive with my $4.8 million Hong Kong paycheck, about $600,000 USD. American stars made $5 million USD per movie. I had big dreams about making that kind of money (and I would far exceed it later in life), but at the moment, on that set, it seemed very far off, if it was possible at all. Sammy Davis Jr. did make a point of talking to me. He said, “I’ve just come back from Japan. I know you’re famous over there.” “I’m from Hong Kong, not Japan,” I said. “Oh, right, you’re a Hong Konger. Sayonara!” He spoke Japanese to me every time we met, and I didn’t bother correcting him. He wasn’t the only one.

Most everyone assumed I was Japanese, and I couldn’t make them understand that I wasn’t. I didn’t have too many lines; my role was to pull silly faces to get laughs. Days would go by without my having to talk at all. I started to feel more and more depressed on set, and finally stopped speaking to anyone. I just sat in a corner, sulking. During that entire time in Hollywood, when I turned up at events in a suit, people would ask, “Where are you from?” “Hong Kong.” “Oh, Hong Kong, is that a part of Japan?” “No, Hong Kong is Hong Kong, and Japan is Japan.” Many of the people I met had no idea where Hong Kong was, or that all Asian countries didn’t have the same culture. I got the idea to reinforce that I was Chinese by wearing traditional Chinese clothes, which ultimately became part of my brand. It not only helped establish my nationality in America, it set me apart, too. I’d never have to worry about turning up somewhere dressed identically to anyone else.

I would always be unique. In a lot of old photos of me, I’m wearing traditional Chinese women’s clothes. I preferred them. The colors, pale pink and blue, were more vivid, which I liked, and they had unusual designs. Wearing women’s clothes also set me apart from other men. I was always thinking of how to differentiate myself from everyone else. The English word is “outstanding.” I learned in America that most successful artists developed a signature style. Once you’ve found a special look and make it your own, you leave an impression on your audience and no one will ever forget you. The idea of creating a look for myself—and also my movies—became very important to me.

If you know a movie is mine right away from the look alone, then I’ve succeeded.  The Big Brawl, released in 1980, was a flop. I bought a ticket and watched it in the theater. I didn’t have to worry about being recognized because no one was there. A few Chinese showed up, but Americans simply weren’t interested. Although I knew the shoot had been lackluster, it was still painful to see the empty auditorium. The studio wanted me to do publicity to support the film, and they lined up lots of interviews for me. My colleagues had warned me that you needed to be psychologically prepared to face American reporters, but I thought they were making a big deal out of nothing. After everything I’d suffered when I was younger, and everything I’d been through, how bad could a press conference be? “How is your name pronounced?” “Are you Bruce Lee’s disciple?” “Can you break a brick with your bare hands?” “Can you show us some karate?” “Let’s see some kung fu!” When all these questions came flying at me, I didn’t know how to cope with them. I was famous all over Asia, and people treated me with respect. But here, I was supposed to be a performing monkey? For one TV interview, I flew all the way to New York.

The host’s questions were terrible, and my English was worse, so I hardly said a word. In the end, they just cut my segment. That night, I lay on my hotel room bed and cried. This was much worse than I’d expected. Why did I give up a perfectly good Asian market to come to this place where no one liked me? I spoke to a few experts about what went wrong with The Big Brawl (apart from the script, the direction, and my acting), and they told me that American audiences didn’t believe there was any force in my kicks and fists. “You were fighting with the same guy for ten minutes,” one said. “You kicked him eight or nine times and he’s still standing. In Bruce Lee movies, his leg shot out, and the guy went flying!” That would have been much easier to film, a punch here, a kick there, but that is not how a Jackie Chan film works. I couldn’t make something like that, nor would I want to. The Cannonball Run was released in 1981.

My name and the name of Michael Hui, my Chinese costar, were both prominently featured in the Asian posters to ensure sales. In America, Burt Reynolds got top billing. The film did well in Japan and America but did badly in Hong Kong. My fans did not want to see me playing a Japanese character, nor were they happy that I’d been relegated to comic relief, the butt of jokes for a bunch of Americans. After my first venture in Hollywood, I returned to Hong Kong with my tail between my legs. But as you know by now, I don’t take defeat lightly. After a few years, I was ready to try again. “How is your name pronounced?” “Are you Bruce Lee’s disciple?” “Can you break a brick with your bare hands?” “Can you show us some karate?” “Let’s see some kung fu!” When all these questions came flying at me, I didn’t know how to cope with them. I was famous all over Asia, and people treated me with respect. But here, I was supposed to be a performing monkey?

For one TV interview, I flew all the way to New York. The host’s questions were terrible, and my English was worse, so I hardly said a word. In the end, they just cut my segment. That night, I lay on my hotel room bed and cried. This was much worse than I’d expected. Why did I give up a perfectly good Asian market to come to this place where no one liked me? I spoke to a few experts about what went wrong with The Big Brawl (apart from the script, the direction, and my acting), and they told me that American audiences didn’t believe there was any force in my kicks and fists. “You were fighting with the same guy for ten minutes,” one said. “You kicked him eight or nine times and he’s still standing. In Bruce Lee movies, his leg shot out, and the guy went flying!”

That would have been much easier to film, a punch here, a kick there, but that is not how a Jackie Chan film works. I couldn’t make something like that, nor would I want to. The Cannonball Run was released in 1981. My name and the name of Michael Hui, my Chinese costar, were both prominently featured in the Asian posters to ensure sales. In America, Burt Reynolds got top billing. The film did well in Japan and America but did badly in Hong Kong. My fans did not want to see me playing a Japanese character, nor were they happy that I’d been relegated to comic relief, the butt of jokes for a bunch of Americans. After my first venture in Hollywood, I returned to Hong Kong with my tail between my legs. But as you know by now, I don’t take defeat lightly. After a few years, I was ready to try again.

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