Crouching Tiger, Giving Dragon In front of the cameras, Jackie Chan is a manic yet loveable action hero. Off set, says John Arlidge, he has a black belt in philanthropy
Crouching Tiger, Giving Dragon
In front of the cameras, Jackie Chan is a manic yet loveable action hero. Off set, says John Arlidge, he has a black belt in philanthropy
JACKIE CHAN LOVES cars, mainly British marques. He keeps dozens in his Hong Kong garage and he once spent $150,000 on the license plate 123. He’s been offered six times that amount to sell the plates in numbers-obsessed Hong Kong. ‘But,’ he insists, ‘I’ll never do it.’
Today, he has left his home for Beijing. He is is darting between the soupy traffic in a Bentley. It is a tough and fast ride — ideal for a hyperkinetic actor who has punched his way to fame and a $130 million fortune in scores of cheap sock ’em flicks through the 1970s in Hong Kong before becoming the city’s first Hollywood star in the 1990s.
Chan is in the Chinese capital to shoot a mini-documentary about the future of philanthropy. It is part of the Bentley Mulsanne Visionaries series which also features the likes of Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese architect Wang Shu. Later he will auction a car for almost $1 million.
To many, Chan is a cheesy hitmaker with flailing limbs, snow-white smile and 27 million Facebook fans. He’s that all right. But he has another role: he is emerging as one of Asia’s leading philanthropists. In a country obsessed with making money, he is getting adept at giving it away. Harper’s Bazaar recently voted him philanthropist of the year.
‘When I was a child, I was very poor and wanted everything. So, when I got money I began buying things. Now, I want to give away everything,’ he says. ‘I’m worried. I see the whole world getting worse. I want to help. I’m not Bill Gates-rich. But I want to do what I can here in China and get others to, as well. I say: “OK, even one dollar, you can do it. One dollar can help to build a school. Let’s do it.”’
Chan has raised nearly $100 million over the the last five years through direct appeals, charity events, auctions and simply tapping up wealthy Chinese and other celebrities. ‘I call people. I use the internet. I turn up. It’s amazing what people will give when you try, especially if you have a name. People say I’m doing it for my good image. Let them. I know I am doing what good I can.’ None of the money Chan raises is used to pay for his costs. ‘If I need to fly or need a hotel, I pay.’
Chan may be worth more than $100 million now but he points out his was never the life of privilege. His father worked as a cook at the French consulate in Hong Kong; his mother did laundry. ‘We had very little. In school, I remember there were priests from the Red Cross and they came to give us toothbrushes, milk and second-hand clothes.’
Below: Watch Jackie Chan talk about his Build a School for a Dollar charity
It was one moment at school, in particular, that sparked his interest in philanthropy. ‘One day I saw the priest had a second-hand jacket. I said: “That’s the jacket I want.” The priest looked at my eyes and he picked up the jacket and put it on my shoulder. “Wow,” I said. “I just thank you, thank you, thank you.” He said: “Don’t thank you me. I only represent somebody who has donated to you. If you really want to say thank you, you must help some other people. Do whatever you can.” I will never forget his words.’
It was many years, many movies and many millions of dollars later that he began his philanthropy, but he decided to start where he had learnt his first lesson: he launched the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation to offer scholarships and other help to young people in schools.
‘I ask the children, “What’s your dream?” One child wants a pencil. Another needs clothes, like I did. Another wants a notebook. In China, a small notebook costs two dollars. I ask one boy — he was seven years old — “What’s your dream?” And then he bent down on the ground, used a stick in the sand. He just wanted to be able to write something, to learn. We help with that.’
In 2004, he started the Dragon’s Heart Foundation, which builds schools and helps children and the elderly in remote parts of China. One of his biggest money-raising schemes for this foundation has been to encourage children from around the world to contribute small sums which he then matches. ‘They send in a dollar and for every dollar I add one dollar, sometimes two.’ So far, the foundation has raised so much money it has helped to build 26 schools, mainly in China. Around 20,000 children have benefited.
OVER THE YEARS the foundation’s scope has broadened to include medical services, help for the poor and quick responses to natural disasters. After China’s Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Chan raised more than $1.3 million for humanitarian relief.
‘Whole villages were gone, buried in mudslides. So many died. We brought in stuff to repair the schools and roads. We brought in water, telephones and down jackets because it was winter.’ He raised another $3.4 million at a concert he organised to help victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year. He put up $150,000 of his own money.
Those who have worked with him say few put more into giving. ‘Every time we ask him to do an event, he agrees,’ says Anthony Lau, director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Lau recalls asking the Rush Hour star to appear at an event in Japan three years ago. Chan was working in a remote village in China but flew 30 hours straight to the event. The next day, he made the 30-hour journey back.
So far, Chan cuts an isolated figure in the world of Chinese philanthropy. In spite of its unprecedented economic growth, the country’s elite has been slow to adopt western-style philanthropy. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett received a cool response when they visited to persuade business leaders to pledge half their estates to charity after their death. Chan has taken the pledge.
Chan insists that will change. ‘China is an old country, but people are just starting to get money. I think they will follow the same path as western countries. It’s just starting. Please — I always tell the world — please, give us time. You know, today you plant a tree. How can you — boom! — suddenly become a tall tree? No. It takes time. The time will come. We’re learning. One day we will be like the British, like England. Like America.’
Until then, he will have to make do with the awards he receives and the big-name events he attends. He recently met Barack Obama and outgoing Chinese premier Hu Jintao at the White House. But what’s keeping him going right now is his latest award. He’s had plenty, of course, but none like this. It’s not for a film. It’s for raising money and it was dreamt up by some of the children he has helped. The name of this award? Buttkicker of the Year. For a martial arts millionaire turned charity agitator, it’s perfect.
Below: Watch Jackie Chan in action from Rush Hour 2
Read more by John Arlidge