Jackie Chan didn’t take acting lessons or attend a fancy conservatory. The biggest star in kung fu cinema learned his craft from a retired Peking Opera star who turned his apartment into a performing arts boot camp for working-class Hong Kong children in the 1960s.
On Friday, Chan and dozens of his fellow graduates gathered at a luxury Hong Kong hotel to mark 50 years since their late teacher Yu Jim-yuen launched the now-defunct Hong Kong-China Opera Institute, a small boarding school that became a breeding ground for top Chinese action stars and action choreographers.
Chan is the most famous of the 40-plus students, but their ranks also include Sammo Hung, best known in the U.S. for his two-season TV series “Martial Law,” Corey Yuen, an action director on Hollywood films like “Lethal Weapon 4” and “X-Men,” and Yuen Biao, who earned a big following in Japan with films like “The Champions” and “Peacock King.” Yuen Wah from “Kung Fu Hustle” was a stunt double for Bruce Lee.
Dressed in identical red jackets and red-and-black striped ties, the now-middle-aged filmmakers reminisced about their childhoods spent under Yu, a strict disciplinarian who regularly caned his students if they deviated from a rigorous regimen of acrobatics, dance, kung fu, and singing lessons.
“We talked about how we were naughty and stirred trouble, how we were scared of the master, how we were beaten by him, who got hit – all the ugly incidents came out,” Yuen Biao told reporters on the sidelines of the anniversary banquet, adding that he was planning a movie about the school.
“It’s such a rare occasion for all our brothers to be in one room, talking about incidents when we were young. I’m touched in many ways,” said Hung, who was Yu’s most senior pupil.
Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang paid tribute to Yu and his legacy.
Yu’s students “showcased the flexible, tough and never-say-die Hong Kong spirit to the world, making people around the world realize that a small place like Hong Kong has a lot of hidden talent,” Tsang said at the banquet, according to a transcript of his speech issued by the government. The banquet was closed to the media.
Chan did not speak to reporters Friday night, but wrote in detail about his 10 years at Yu’s academy in his 1998 autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action.” Chan’s father, a cook, put his then 7-year-old son in Yu’s care when he left Hong Kong to take a job at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia.
Chan recalled his first beating by Yu — “each rip of the cane, each jolt of torment was followed by another, in a steady staccato rhythm, until my throat was hoarse and my buttocks almost numb.”
When a classmate passed out after knocking his head against a table while doing somersaults, he was left aside to rest while practice continued, Chan wrote. If you couldn’t do a split, other students would press you down by force.
“It didn’t matter how much or how hard you cried. Eventually, you’d go down into a split,” he wrote.
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