For over 20 years Jackie Chan has been the biggest action star in most of the world. First becoming popular in his native Hong Kong in the early 80s, his popularity slowly spread across the globe, and finally hit the U.S. with the 1996 release of Rumble In The Bronx (1994.) Since then Chan has made three highly successful films with American studois and several more with the Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest. He is easily one of the most recognizable Asian movie stars or all-time. Jackie Chan’s movies are famous for their over-the-top stunts and hilarious-but-amazing fight scenes, so much so that the actual plots of the films are sometimes forgotten. However, if one looks past the all the fights and laughs present in almost all of Jackie Chan’s films and just examines the stories behind them, an odd set of recurring themes soon make themselves present. Many of Chan’s best and most well-known works are attacks on colonialism and racism, not just in Hong Kong, but also across the world. At the same time Chan is making these rather blatant anti-colonial films, other films of his seem to be defending colonialism while reinforcing negative stereotypes about the Chinese people and even other races. Some of his films even seem to do both, attack and defend colonialism, at the same time. It is my goal to show that the majority of Jackie’s films, especially his more recent work, all deal heavily with themes of colonialism and racism, whether it is good or bad, and that this has to do greatly with Hong Kong’s relationship with Europe and America. I will also attempt to show, that while Jackie has begun to make films in America, his anti-colonialism, and to some extent his anti-European and anti-American views have changed very little.
“You’re Stealing our heritage” The evils of British Colonialism
In Drunken Master II (1994) a group of British Colonials are smuggling rare Chinese artifacts out of the country and into British museums, where the Chinese people will never see them again. Jackie Chan, as the real-life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, stops the British along with their Chinese cohorts from stealing the artifacts, saving the country’s heritage for generations to come.
Despite the fact that Wong Fei-Hung is a real person, this sequence of events never happened. It is no coincidence, however, that the person responsible for stopping the devious British colonials in the film, as well as many other films that do not feature Jackie Chan, is Fei-Hung. Wong Fei-Hung is China’s greatest hero, so much so that he is China, and to a lesser extent he is Hong Kong, representing many of Hong Kong’s basic beliefs, such as Confucian virtue and Cantonese tradition (Fore 124.) Hong Kong cinema has had a longstanding affair with Wong Fei-Hung, with over 100 films about him having been made in the past 50 years (Logan 10.) He represents many Chinese ideals, so his small victory over the British colonials can easily be read as a Chinese victory over the British. Because of Britain’s occupation of Hong Kong at the time, it is easy to see why Hong Kong citizens would like to see the British be defeated by someone who holds Chinese beliefs so sacred, and by someone who is held so sacred in Hong Kong.
If Wong Fei-Hung represents the best of China, the villains in the film represent the worst of the British. In this film the British are viewed as evil or cowardly, always taking advantage of the Chinese people, something which could be viewed as a social-commentary on British rule, and colonialism itself. In fact, the film seems to go out of its way to show how China and Hong Kong have been taken advantage of by the British. In an early scene, Fei-Hung and his brother sneak into the first class car of a train, and find it filled with rich colonials, eating fine food and enjoying luxurious surroundings. They are also, of course, being served by dozens of subservient Chinese men.
On the other hand, the cars where all the common Chinese people are is filled to the brim with occupants, so much so that people dive into the windows of the train just for a seat. Also, British colonials are shown to be exempt from the many taxes involved with boarding the train, something that the Chinese people cannot do.
Not just shown to be taking advantage of the Chinese people, the British people in the film also view the Chinese as a nuisance, not even as people. In one scene, the British ambassador is seen complaining about the noise a dojo across the street is making, as if it was a dog that can be silenced. Unable to buy the property from the owners, he threatens to kill the master of the dojo if the occupants do not sell it, which they end up doing.
In the end, the British Ambassador does not even stay to fight for the goods he stole or stand up against those that he wronged, he flees before the final battle. Instead he sends his (Chinese) lackeys out to finish the job for him. These villains, like in almost all of Jackie Chan’s films that are set in colonial times, are easily distinguished by wearing western suits. This visual characterization of the Chinese villains shows their “westernization,” or their sell-out to colonial ideals. They symbolize those that have went along with the British and have thrown out their Chinese heritage (Fore 136.) They may not be British, but they adhere to British ideals, and are just as bad.
In the end, with Jackie and his friends stopping the British, the film is an attempt to show that all Chinese people must work together, and that allowing the British to use them will tear them apart (Fore 136.) This is a recurring theme in many of Chan’s film set in Hong Kong. Many (such as the Drunken Master films and other in which he doesn’t fight alone, such as Dragons Forever ) suggest that in working together as a team (or nation, or culture) is the only way to defeat an enemy (Lu 254.) Chan has said frequently that it is important in Chan’s films that Chinese people work together to defeat their enemies (Lu 15.) This message of unity could be a message to the Hong Kong people to stand up as their own nation. It could also be a message to the Asian people that they need to stand together as one people. It could even be a message to the world, preaching peace and non-discrimination. Regardless of its intention, it is a theme that would carry on into many of Jackie’s most popular films.
Cowards and Liars
Set around the same time period, Project A (1983), features Jackie as the fictional character Dragon Ma, a Coast Guard officer in Hong Kong who is trying to stop a gang of Chinese pirates from pillaging European ships (Chan and Yang 379.) British colonials in this film are so helpless against Chinese villains that they have to hire Jackie, as well as several other Chinese men to stop the Chinese pirates. The butt of many jokes throughout the film are that the colonials are really helpless, and that they need the help of Jackie and his Chinese friends to save the day.
Not only are they shown to be weak, but they are also shown as devious liars, as the pirates are allowed to steal as much as they want because they are bribing British officials. This is not the only time British officials, or any European superpower has been seen as corrupt or two-faced in a Jackie Chan film, in fact, it has been in many of his films since.
In First Strike (1996) (AKA Police Story 4) Jackie is simultaneously helping the American and Russian governments as well as being framed and hunted by them. In Who Am I? (1998) a high-ranking agent in the CIA is working for the enemy, and while pretending to help Jackie, he secretly is trying to kill him because he thinks he might know too much. And, in Rumble In The Bronx, the policemen may not be trying to frame Jackie, but have no problem with putting his life in extreme danger so they can bust a drug dealer.
Jackie Chan’s characters in all of these films are the moral opposites of the westerners. He is always kind, never lies, always does what he says he will do and is strictly bound by his personal honor. Jackie’s good guy image, imposed against the devious cowardly image of the westerners, is there as an attempt to show that the people of Chinese/Hong Kong are better and trustworthier than those that have controlled them for over a century.
The message throughout all these movies is that Europeans/Americans cannot be trusted. It is no surprise that this message is coming from films made in Hong Kong, a country that has been the victim of double-crosses and lies from western countries for over a hundred years.
Anti-Colonialism In Jackie’s American Films
It is interesting then that while showing such anti-western views in many of his Hong Kong films, Jackie made several attempts to breakthrough into the American cinema. Throughout most of his career, however, he did not see a need to. His anti-western thoughts seen in his films for a long time carried into his philosophy about the American film market. For many years he did not care about his films ever succeeding in foreign markets, even saying “if a movie is not a success in America, I don’t give a damn. But for Asia…[I want it to succeed] (Lu 15.)” It is obvious that Jackie’s film carry a certain sense of chineseness, making them very local pictures (Lu 17.) Their very anti-colonial messages that helped them succeed in Hong Kong may have hurt them everywhere else. In the 80s, when Jackie tried making films such as The Protector (1985), films that he thought would do well in both America and Asia, they failed in both countries (Logan 24.)
It ended up that Jackie did not need to make a film in America to become a success here. He ended up doing so with a 1994 English dubbed release of the Cantonese film, Rumble in Bronx, a film set in America (but filmed in Canada) (Chan and Yang 394.) It is most likely not a coincidence that Jackie, as well as New Line Cinema, the then American distributor of many of his Cantonese films, decided to release this film into theaters before other, more “Chinese” Jackie Chan pictures. The film is set in America and there are little to no references to Chinese culture. One could even say that Jackie “acts American” in the film, leaving work to go on dates and goofing around more than he did in his other films.
For whatever the reason, the film was a minor box office success, grossing over 30 million dollars. Following several more re-releases of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong pictures, New Line produced and released Jackie’s first American-made film in over 10 years, Rush Hour (1998.) This film was a huge success, grossing over 140 million dollars, making it one of the biggest films of 1998. Its sequel, Rush Hour 2 (2001) did even better at the box-office, grossing over 225 million. Shanghai Noon (1999), Jackie’s “eastern-western” also performed well as the box-office, grossing over 55 million.
The majority of Jackie’s Hong Kong films are anti-western, so it is interesting to see how these anti-western, anti-colonial themes make it into his American releases. The Rush Hour films particularly carry over the viewpoints found in Jackie’s Hong Kong releases. In both films, while the minor villains are Chinese, the head villain is American/British. In the second film, Chris Tucker’s character James Carter even points this out with his “follow the rich white man” theory of detective work. He says that no matter what the crime, no matter where it is, if you keep following the chain of command behind it, it will always lead to a rich white man waiting for his cut.
Both villains also exploit the Chinese culture. In the first Rush Hour, Griffin, (who also goes by the Chinese name Juntao) is working to smuggle priceless artifacts out of Hong Kong, much like the British colonials in Drunken Master II. In the second film, Steven Reign, (who with this casino and his “Reign Towers” is an obvious spoof of Donald Trump) opens up a Chinese-themed casino. In it he has trivialized everything about Chinese culture. He opens the casino by reciting an old Chinese fable, rickshaw drivers carry around guests, and fake Chinese artifacts adorn the walls of the Casino, which is named Red Dragon.
In Rush Hour 2, Reign has bought an original printing press from the U.S. mint. With the press he is able to make the best counterfeit bills in the world. The availability of such an item in the film is blamed on U.S. colonial activities. The press was given to the Shah of Iran in the 1950s as a gift to help establish U.S. relations with Iran, because they wanted their oil. It is there that it fell into the wrong hands. In effect, all the problems that Jackie and Chris Tucker face in the film can be traced back to the mistakes of the US government and their international policies.
Both films, the first one especially, also spin the traditional action/colonial narrative on its side. Instead of a white man going to a far off land and conquering the narratives, an Asian man goes off to a far off land (L.A.) and conquers the white man. Like all of his films, they also shatter racist stereotypes of Asians being subservient and helpless.
“James Bond without the women”A Mixed Message
As shown in the previous examples, many of Jackie Chan’s film throughout his career in both America and Hong Kong have covertly (and overtly) attacked colonialism by America and England. It is interesting then to note that sometimes Jackie Chan himself becomes a colonial in his films, sometimes while he simultaneously attacking the colonialist views he is portraying. In Armor Of God (1984) (released as Operation Condor 2 in the U.S.) Jackie is an Indiana Jones-type character who raids ancient temples for valuable artifacts. In the very racist opening of the film, Chan, as The Asian Hawk, is seen sneaking into a primitive African village in an unnamed country. The African natives, stereotypically dressed in straw dresses and body paint, are worshipping a gigantic primitive idol, and appear to be preparing a sacrifice. Jackie then jumps onto the idol, steals the massive weapon it is holding, and runs away from the natives. Because they are so stupid and primitive, hooting and hollering more like apes than people, he is able to elude them by tricking them with items like cans of soda.
This is an odd scene because in Drunken Master II (made eight years later) as well as in Rush Hour, Jackie says that the artifacts of a culture are greatly important, and that they should be preserved for all the people of that culture to see. In Armor Of God, not only is Jackie smuggling artifacts out of their native countries, he is selling them to private collectors, so they will never be on display. Even more curious is that until the international release of Rumble In The Bronx, Armor Of God was Jackie’s most successful film outside of Hong Kong, getting theatrical runs as far away as the U.K. (Logan 73.) Its pro-colonial attitude could be a reason behind this. This idea is supported by the surprising international success of Supercop (1992) another film that featured Jackie Chan as a colonial figure (Logan 79.)
Even more confusing in its stance on colonialism and Hong Kong is First Strike (1996.) While the film does have some rather obvious anti-European views as discussed earlier, Jackie’s character is nothing more than an Asian stereotype usually seen in American films. He is nonsexual, something that he even points out in the film, saying that he is “just like James Bond, but without all the beautiful girls” and he is basically subservient throughout the first half of the film, doing strictly was he has been told to do (Lu 24). The advertising campaign even promoted Jackie as “fighting for America!” (Chan and Yang 395.) Jackie does pay for his subservience by being doublecrossed by his employers however, so this could all be an attempt to show that acting in such stereotypical ways are bad for the Chinese. But this is unclear.
When discussing racism in Jackie Chan films, one must also bring up the Rush Hour films. The traditional buddy cop formula has the handsome white male taking the lead role, with the nonsexual black man serving under him. In the Rush Hour films, there is no sexual lead. Both Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan seem to be taking the worst aspects of the black buddy character, spreading it out between the both of them. Chris Tucker is the comic-relief buffoon, yelling and screaming half the time, he is shown to be a selfish detective that lets his emotions, and juvenile sex drive (so comical that it is reminiscent of blaxploitation films of the 70s) get the best of him. Jackie, much like his asexual James Bond character of First Strike, takes the non-sexual role of the black buddy cop character, the only trait that at all characterizes him with the “superior” white buddy is his psychical talent, but during his displays of psychical prowess he is always fully clothed, unlike white action stars like Mel Gibson.
Conclusions: Chan’s Uncertain Future
At 47 years old, Jackie Chan is nearing the end of his action star career. Until then he will most likely make as many action films as possible, both in Hong Kong and America, which is quite a feat. Chan has said that he never wants to stop making movies in Hong Kong, even with his ever growing success in the American market, showing his allegiance to the Asian audience still remains (Chan and Yang 397.)
What messages Jackie will insert into these future films remains to be seen but he currently seems to be toning down his once very strong feelings against colonialism. His last Hong Kong film Gorgeous (Chan and Yang 398) was more of a simple romantic comedy than action film with colonial overtones, and his next American film looks to be a sequel to Shanghai Noon, a film that while having a strong anti-racist message was less of a social commentary than an accurate representation of America in the 1800s.
Jackie could be toning down his message for several reasons, the most obvious being that Britain no longer has control of Hong Kong, China does. Whether this will translate into more anti-Chinese films to be made is unknown, but it is likely that Jackie Chan will continue to find complex message about race and colonialism in his films, regardless of where they are made, even if they may not be as strong as they were in the past.
Logan, Bey. Hong Kong Action Cinema. New York: Overlook, 1996.
Hsiao-peng Lu, Sheldon, ed. Transnational Chinese Cinemas. Hawaii: University Of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Chan, Jack and Jeffy Yang. I Am Jackie Chan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.
Fore, Steve"Life Imitates Entertainment: Home and Dislocation in the Films of Jackie Chan." In Esther Yau, ed., At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 115-42.