Spirit of Hong Kong

Yen steps into his next big starring role

Donnie Yen Ji-dan, who will star in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, is taking on just as big a role with The Spirit of Hong Kong Awards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 3:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 9:29am

For a man who hit the big five-0 in July, Donnie Yen Ji-dan is not about to put his feet up and take life any easier.

On the contrary, the action star is preparing for his biggest role yet when he plays the lead in the sequel to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with Michelle Yeoh. The film's producer is the legendary Harvey Weinstein, the man behind the likes of Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Unlike the original film, the sequel will all be in English which will be new, but Yen was more than eager to give it a go and has faith in Weinstein. He had been looking to collaborate with the famous producer on a film for the past 12 years, but they couldn't find the right project.

"I'd be over at the old Miramax offices in New York and he'd go over all these projects he'd planned for me but they never got made. Periodically he'd call me after that but we still didn't make any films," Yen explained.

"Finally a year ago he called me up and said: 'Donnie. This is it! This is the project I want you to do - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, part II.' Well he and his people got in contact with me every week after that and we eventually came to a gentleman's agreement.

"Then in Cannes earlier this year we announced we were going to do it. It took us 12 years to get the project going but I'm thrilled about it. We won't have Ang Lee [as director] but Harvey is a brilliant producer so I can't wait to see the result. It's going to be fun."

He may be one of Asia's highest-paid actors but it's this sort of can-do attitude that typifies him and the city he loves. It was for this reason that he also accepted just as big a starring role - to be the ambassador for South China Morning Post's The Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.

Hong Kong has many unsung heroes. From the social worker who puts in a 12-hour day to provide support to the underprivileged to the firefighters who put their lives at risk, and these awards are aimed at reflecting that. As part of its Celebrating Hong Kong initiative, last month the Post launched The Spirit of Hong Kong Awards to celebrate those who happily do such sterling work  for very little reward.

Readers can nominate who they think deserves to receive an award. There will be 11 awards in all, the first 10 all judged on the same criteria by a panel of judges, chaired by the former chief secretary of Hong Kong David Akers-Jones.

The awards can be given to an individual or a group. The 11th award recipient will be voted for by the public and called the Sino Spirit Award.

Along with Akers-Jones the other judges are: the Post's Editor-in-Chief Wang Xiangwei; Dr David Pang Ding-jung, chairman of the SCMP Group; chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, Ronald Arculli; the former permanent secretary for home affairs Shelley Lee Lai-kuen; Daryl Ng Win-kong, executive director, Sino Land; author and explorer Rebecca Lee; Nelson Chow Wing-sun, honorary professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong; and former secretary for works Ronald James Blake.

Who better to be the ambassador for such an admirable enterprise than Ip Man? OK, Yen only played the character on the big screen but he's taking this role every bit as seriously.

"I'm well known for being an actor but what you contribute to society can be in many ways. Many people here care more for others than themselves - this happens in Hong Kong on a daily basis," he said. "They are the true heroes and we should always recognise these individuals. To celebrate their spirit and let everyone know that they matter as well."

Video: Donnie Yen on giving back to the city

When Yen starred as Ip Man it brought him worldwide success and increased the public's fascination for Chinese martial arts. Yen is credited by many for contributing to the popularisation of the traditional martial arts style known as Wing Chun which the original Ip Man taught.

This has led to an increase in the number of people taking up Wing Chun, leading to hundreds of new Wing Chun schools to be opened  in mainland China and other parts of Asia.

Born in the southern city of Foshan, Ip Man settled in Hong Kong in 1949 and devoted his life to the practice and popularisation of the Wing Chun fighting style, known for its explosive, close-range strikes.

Released in 2008, Wilson Yip's film Ip Man is a biopic set in the 1930s, before and during the Japanese occupation, with Yen in the title role. Yen and Yip then reteamed - along with the illustrious fight choreographer Sammo Hung - for Ip Man 2, which covers its hero's years in 1950s Hong Kong, as he contends with rival instructors and thuggish British colonialists.

Yen believed that of all the characters he played it was Ip Man that best captured some of the qualities that The Spirit of Hong Kong Awards are trying to convey.

"As an actor I try to bring my own life experience to each character I play in a film. So even when it's someone as legendary as Ip Man I try to bring my own characteristics to that role. I'm a family man and so was he," Yen said.

"Chinese culture is very family-orientated, and the character of Ip Man had all the best virtues of a family man. Family values matter and I think it was one of the main reasons why the film was so successful. It's the same in life. It's very, very important."

Video: Donnie Yen on Ip Man

Family has always been paramount in Yen's life. His mother, Mark Bow-sim, is a Fu Style Wudangquan [internal martial arts] grandmaster. At a young age, under his mother's guidance, Yen developed an interest in martial arts and began experimenting with various styles of traditional Chinese martial arts.

Yen also comes from a family of musicians. In addition to being a martial arts teacher in Boston, his mother is a soprano, while his former newspaper-editor father, Klyster Yen, is a violinist. From a young age,  they taught him to play musical instruments, including the piano. The influence they had on him is obvious.

"One was very active while the other one was into literature," he said. "I was very blessed and fortunate that on one side my mother was a martial arts teacher and on the other my father was a journalist. I was lucky to be touched by two people who had very different careers but ones that taught me so much."

Yen was born in Taishan, Guangdong and came to Hong Kong with his family when he was 18 months old. When he was almost 11  he moved with his family to Boston in the US where he spent his teenage years.

He returned to Hong Kong and worked as a stuntman on his first film Shaolin Drunkard in 1983. The rest, as they say, is history. He describes himself as a "world citizen", but Hong Kong is his town and there's no place he'd rather be.

"When I'm away I miss the energy of the place. It's unique," Yen said. "There is no other city in the world like Hong Kong, not even New York. The energy generated here is amazing. That is the real spirit of Hong Kong coming through."


Action Hero

NAME: Donnie Yen Ji-dan

AGE: 50

BORN: Taishan, Guangdong

MARTIAL ARTS: Yen is widely credited with bringing mixed martial arts into the mainstream of Chinese culture. He has choreographed this style of fighting in his recent films and the sequences have won numerous awards. He has trained in boxing, kickboxing, taekwondo, Muay Thai, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Wing Chun and Wushu.

MAJOR AWARDS: 2003 Golden Horse Award for Best Action Choreography in The Twins Effect; 2004 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography in The Twins Effect; 2006 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography in Kill Zone; 2006 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography in Kill Zone; 2007 Golden Bauhinia Award for Best Action Choreography in Dragon Tiger Gate; 2007 Golden Horse Award for Best Action Choreography in Flash Point; 2008 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography in Flash Point; 2009 Beijing College Film Festival Award for Best Actor in Ip Man; 2009 Huabiao Award for Best Actor in Ip Man.