WHO says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Not that anyone is calling Chow Yun-fat a dog, mind you, especially since he is spearheading the Hong Kong acting industry's first serious stab at Hollywood stardom. But Chow, who has just verbally accepted the lead role in Columbia Pictures' The Replacement Killer, is certainly finding life in the United States a learning experience. 'It's good for me,' said a cheerful Chow over the telephone from Los Angeles. 'If I continued to be the kind of actor I used to be in Hong Kong, I would only have ended up being spoilt by the audience and the film-makers. 'Here, I am learning from scratch. It's not easy, but it also marks a turning point in my life. It's important that I can take the first step. Let's face it, the film industry is the same machine everywhere. I just have to change my native tongue to English, that's all.' Since moving from his Clearwater Bay home to the City of Angels with his wife, Jasmine, three months ago, Chow has kept himself busy trying to get his foot in the studio doors and brushing up on his erstwhile limited English. 'I've been spending a lot of time talking to the studio people and discussing the different roles and characters with them. My English isn't all that good, but I just use every word I know to tell them how I view the characters,' he chuckled. A language teacher goes to his home to give him an hourly lesson in English every day, but, Chow added, 'homework takes about three or four hours'. 'I've got loads of homework everyday . . . on grammar, writing and American slang. I've also got to watch a lot of television.' The actor rates his present English skills as 'OK' as long as it is nothing too complicated. 'I can handle normal conversation. But when I start work on a film, I will have to get a special dialogue coach to teach me my lines,' he said. 'I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself or I will feel really stressed. If you feel strained in a certain role, your audience would feel the strain even more. So if I know just 100 English words, then I hope to be able to say all my lines using just those words!' Chow may not have to worry about his language skills for some time yet. Although he has expressed his interest in taking the role in The Replacement Killer, final details have still to be ironed out and Chow has yet to sign on the dotted line. The script has not been written and, until then, Chow does not know who the director or the female lead will be, although an industry observer has said it was likely to be someone 'in the stature of Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone or Michelle Pfeiffer'. The Lamma-bred actor has come a long way from his early days doing menial low-paid jobs - he has been a factory hand, an office boy, a bell boy, and even an assistant postman. He joined TVB in 1973 and started off doing small roles. While he was not your usual tall, dark and handsome leading man, he had a charisma that was soon apparent to both his audiences and directors. He was cast in Man In The Net and The Brothers, but his role as the Shanghai triad member Hui Man-keung in The Bund etched him forever in the minds of Chinese audiences - not only in Hong Kong but throughout Southeast Asia. Just as he has outgrown the local film industry, he also quickly outgrew television serials and made the switch to films. Then came Hong Kong 1941, which gave Chow his first best actor award, and he has not looked back since. In the years that followed, he quickly built up his reputation as Hong Kong's most prolific actor, gathering more acting awards for his roles in City On Fire, An Autumn's Tale and All About Ah Long. But, it was as 'Brother Mark' in A Better Tomorrow that he made his most indelible impression on his audience. Hong Kong's most prolific actor he may be, but Chow conceded that he was still such a rookie in Hollywood terms that he did not even dare consider who he would like as his leading lady. 'It's better for the studios to think about it and arrange it. It's still all new to me and I need time to practise my English and learn how to relate to the people here. At this time, I hardly have enough clout to state my preferences,' he said. Chow, who has been talking about trying his luck in Hollywood for almost five years, had to wait until his long-term contract with local film company, Golden Princess Amusement, ran out with Peace Hotel before being able to make the move. Despite his humble words, there can be no doubt that Hollywood has given Chow a warm welcome since he decided to cast his sights on an international career. In the past three months, he has looked at various scripts before deciding on The Replacement Killer. 'A lot of them were Chinatown big brothers, which I have done before and am not interested in doing again, and assassins. Some required a lot of steamy love scenes like The Lover,' he said. Will Chow bare his butt for Hollywood then? 'I don't want to do that,' he groaned. 'And, anyway, the market in Southeast Asia and in the US is better for action films. For me, it is a better genre to choose too. For starters, I don't have to say so much on screen and, secondly, the budget is usually bigger but overseas sales can cover that easily. 'No one here knows who Chow Yun-fat is so if I do a drama, it would be too risky.' The Replacement Killer attracted him because it represented a role reversal for Chow. 'The killer becomes the hunted and I really like the concept of the interaction between the killer and the leading lady,' he said. Besides The Replacement Killer, Chow has also tied himself to several other projects, the most notable being Oliver Stone's The Corrupter at New Line Cinema, John Singleton's Band Of Assassins and a futuristic thriller called X-LA, set in the 21st century. 'These are all just in the conceptual stages. In the US, things are done so differently. You have to spend a lot of time just talking about the project and getting the concept right,' he said. 'Only when a studio gives the nod, does the script get written. It's all very complicated. First I have to talk to the screenplay writer. If he is also the director then it's easier. If not, then I have to discuss the role with the director all over again.' Chow figures he may 'light as many as 30 or 40 fires' but ultimately end up only making three or four movies - if he is lucky. 'A normal American actor may make maybe 20 to 30 films in his whole career. In 1988 alone, I made 12 movies,' he said. 'When the Americans hear that, they all say I am chee sin. They say the way we work in Hong Kong making two or three films simultaneously is mad.' Chow credits good friends and directors John Woo (Hard Target ) and Ringo Lam (City On Fire) - who is to start filming a Hollywood production with Jean Claude Van Damme next year - for the attention he has received. 'Their movies such as The Killer, Hard Boiled and City On Fire has helped people in Hollywood notice me. At least it would be easier for scriptwriters to write a role for me because they would have an image in mind,' he said. 'I'm very lucky there are actors who want to work with me and scriptwriters who want to write roles for me.' Despite their many joint successes, Chow does not think he will be working with Woo in the near future even though he knows fans would love them to do so. 'It doesn't seem practical at this stage,' Chow said, with a slight tinge of regret. 'John has some contracts that he has to fulfil before he can take on other projects and I can't wait around for him. I will use this time to look for new directors and scriptwriters I haven't worked with. 'Each of us should try to draw our own share of the audience before finally getting together.' Chow has taken to life in Los Angeles like a fish to water and the excitement of new Hollywood projects - evident in the enthusiasm in his voice - has been offset by a peace he has never been able to find in Hong Kong or Southeast Asia. He was never one for the social whirl that other stars in Hong Kong seemed so fond of. Often, he would prefer living his simple life, taking pleasure in going to the wet market to buy cooking ingredients or going for long hikes. His anonymity in Los Angeles has afforded him the luxury of a normal life and has come as a blessing after years of having to change his telephone number every other month because fans kept tracking him down. 'It's convenient for us to go anywhere . . . to the movies, the supermarket or just for a walk. 'You don't get any hassle because people still cannot recognise me. I've acquired a brighter outlook on life,' he added. It is not surprising, then, that Chow does not plan to come back to the territory any time in the near future - except for flying visits - and the local film industry will have to do without its favourite son for the time being, if not forever. As of now, he intends to concentrate on The Replacement Killer, which starts shooting next July or August 'if all goes well', and any other Hollywood projects that might come up. 'In the past five years, I have visited the US quite often to meet the studio heads, but it's only when you decide to stay in the country that they will think of you. 'When you are physically here, it is easier for people to look you up and discuss possible projects,' he said. 'I'll see how it goes after the first film opens . . . you know, the conditions, working attitude and how I am accepted. 'I mean, if the first film is a huge flop, no one would want you to stay around anyway. Although if people still offer me work, I would stay on. If not, I can work anywhere in Asia.' Some might find it a pity that the not-so-warmly-received Peace Hotel could possibly be Chow's final legacy to Hong Kong's film industry, but the actor said he was satisfied he did his best. 'At the time, what I was thinking either was not quite right for the Hong Kong audience or the market was not good. Maybe it was because I was not at the peak of my popularity then,' he said. 'I have no control over what the audience likes or does not like. I don't look back on what's already passed.' Certainly not when he has another career to look forward too.