Willie Chan, long-time manager for Jackie Chan and other Hong Kong entertainers, dies at 76

Malaysian native pushed martial arts star to role that sealed worldwide fame

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 8:40pm

Legendary Hong Kong talent manager Willie Chan Chi-keung, responsible for propelling an unknown Jackie Chan to global superstardom, died on Wednesday aged 76.

Willie Chan’s godson Geoff Tsui, in a Facebook post on Thursday, said that he was “still in shock”.

“We are still waiting for all medical reports to come out … we will definitely share more info [with] everyone when we find out from the doctor. To all of my dad’s (Willie Chan) friends, family and fans, he’s at peace,” Tsui added, thanking everyone for their “heartfelt messages”.

In a tribute to Chan, he wrote: “Always and forever have the style and swag on … he’s still with me no matter where, heaven or in this world.”

RIP Willie Chan: the man who made Jackie Chan a global star

Chinese media including Ming Pao and Apple Daily reported that Chan died in his sleep in the early hours of Wednesday at his Sai Kung home. He celebrated his birthday in May with a group of celebrities.

From Canto-pop icon Jacky Cheung Hok-yau to actresses Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Carol Cheng Yu-ling, Chan guided the careers of leading local entertainers and made them household names in the city.

On Wednesday , Jackie Chan posted on his Facebook page: “Another important person in my life has passed away … Willie Chan. A lot of people know that without you back then, I would not be where I am today.

“But what people don’t know were the things that we went through together. Only you and I know, and understand each other. You’re my teacher, my brother … l’ll miss you always. Rest in peace.”

Willie Chan cut his teeth in the movie industry after moving to Hong Kong from his native Malaysia in 1970. He graduated from the East-West Centre in Hawaii, in 1966, with a master’s degree in marketing.

Without you back then, I would not be where I am today
Jackie Chan, on Willie Chan

He gained fame for discovering Jackie Chan in the 1970s and spending the next three decades turning the martial arts actor into a Hollywood player. Last November, Jackie Chan received an honorary Oscar.

But the duo’s partnership ended bitterly around 2007, with the manager claiming the action star had become so famous he no longer needed his help.

“I never thought we would go that far,” Willie Chan told Post Magazine in 2004 before they parted ways. “There are occasions when I miss the old times. Everybody wants to be needed.

“When Jackie first went to Hollywood I really felt I was needed. We spent very long and lonely times doing promotion, travelling – morning in one city, evening in another.

“I guess I miss those days. Now he’s so much more independent.”

Willie was a film producer in the mid-1970s when he met his protégé, who at the time worked as a stuntman in film director Lo Wei’s movie New Fist of Fury. He saw potential in his willingness and ability to pull of dangerous stunts.

Before Jackie Chan’s career took off, he moved to Australia for a few months to work as a cook, having grown frustrated with his then stagnating career. It was Willie who brought him back to work as a leading actor for Lo’s company.

Willie seized the opportunity to groom Jackie as the Hong Kong film industry looked for a successor to martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who passed away in 1973. Willie became his personal manager.

After several movies earned Jackie notoriety in Hong Kong, Willie took him to the US. Throughout the actor’s ups and downs in the US, Willie stayed with him.

It was Rush Hour in 1998 that certified Jackie as an international celebrity. And the role materialised because of Willie, with the manager recalling that he forced a reluctant Jackie to get on a plane to Hollywood, still stung by his poor memories there.

In his ghostwritten autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan, published in 1998, the megastar acknowledged owing Willie a huge debt and referred to him as a “brother”.

Years later, Willie spoke similarly of their closeness.

“In his own words, he says we are partners, friends, father and son,” Willie said in 2004. “He’s the boss. He pays my dues. I’m the manager, but we fit into all those categories. I know more about Jackie Chan than anybody, including his father.”

Despite their falling out, Willie claimed they kept in touch.

At a party in Hong Kong this year to celebrate his Oscar, Jackie said:“ Miraculously, I have been in the film industry for 54 years. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also been very lucky to have met many people who helped me. I phoned Willie myself. He didn’t come because he didn’t feel well.”

Robert Chua Wah-peng, an industry veteran who created TVB’s Enjoy Yourself Tonight, one of the most successful television shows in local history, expressed sadness over Chan’s death.

“He was a very nice and kind person. He was always helpful,” Chua said, adding that he last saw Chan half a year ago and described him as looking fine at the time.