Sympathy for Jackie Chan: in defence of a damaged man

  • Chan’s difficult childhood and lack of self-esteem may have played a part in his actions
  • His memoirs gloss over details about the good things he has done
PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 9:22am

He cheated on his wife. He abandoned the child he had with his mistress. He threw his young son across a room. He regularly drove while drunk. He gambled and visited prostitutes.

After reading the many depressing admissions in his memoir, Never Grow Up, how could anyone have any sympathy for Jackie Chan? Well, hear me out.

Jackie Chan is a hypocrite: he hasn’t earned our sympathy

Like Michael Jackson – another star whose artistic achievements have been overshadowed by his private life – Chan was robbed of his childhood. After being held back in his first year of primary school, Chan’s parents sent him to the China Drama Academy boarding school in Lai Chi Kok.

He was seven years old. He would live there for the next 10 years, following a routine that he describes in Never Grow Up: “Wake up at 5am for breakfast. Practise kung fu until noon. Lunch. Practise until dinner at 5pm. Dinner. Practise until bedtime at 11pm. Do it again the next day.”

As the child of poor servants who worked at the French consulate, Chan was bullied by children from wealthier families. By the time he left the academy as an illiterate 17 year old, Chan felt abandoned, unwanted, ashamed of his poor background and gripped by insecurity – the feeling that he was not “good enough”.

Of all the revelations from his past, one quote in particular stood out for me: “When I was a lowly martial artist, I’d often walk by the Peninsula hotel and gaze in the window and feel small, like I didn’t deserve to set foot in there.”

So when Chan went from earning HK$5 a day as a stuntman to HK$5 million per film in the early 1980s, it’s understandable why this newly enriched man wanted to not just set foot in The Peninsula, Hong Kong’s most prestigious hotel, but practically smash through the hotel doors in a speeding Porsche while wearing seven diamond-encrusted Rolexes. He had made it – and he wanted those people who had made him feel “small” to know it.

New Jackie Chan memoir Never Grow Up offers insights into a flawed everyman

Not every Hollywood celebrity goes off the rails when they experience wealth and fame – and go off the rails Chan certainly did. But to put things into context, let’s not confuse Chan’s consensual relationship with his mistress with the sex crimes of Bill Cosby or his excessive drinking with the drug consumption of countless stars.

It’s true that Chan glosses over some tawdry aspects of his life in the memoir, but he also pays short shrift to several positive areas of his past. He is an enthusiastic supporter of hundreds of charities, his professionalism on set is legendary and he has been instrumental in helping several stars of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, such as director John Woo and actress Zhang Lanxin, get into Hollywood

I’m not saying Chan deserves a free pass for his transgressions. If he drove while drunk as often as he says, innocent lives could have been lost. And a husband and a father myself, I find Chan’s betrayal of his wife, his abandonment of his daughter and his violence against his young son to be particularly appalling.

But, like all of us, Chan is a flawed human being. The only difference is that Chan’s wealth and fame has allowed his flaws to be projected across a global stage. And by acknowledging his failings – which mostly seem rooted in a desire to prove that was “good enough” after all – perhaps Chan has taken the first step on the road to redemption.

So how could anyone have any sympathy for Jackie Chan? The clue is right there in the title of his book: Never Grow Up. The damaged child never grew up. He simply became a damaged man.