Over seven thousand miles away from Hollywood, Hong Kong set about creating its own cinematic universe and did so with create success. Producing timeless classics, great actors, and legendary directors. Few fight film legends get through their career untouched by the Hong Kong phenomenon, even if it is several degrees removed. Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994) inspired Yuen Woo-ping, fight choreographer for The Matrix, The Matrix subsequently informed dozens of action films in the West. The five stars below, however, were directly a part of the Hong Kong movement, although not all were primarily martial artists.
1.) Jet Li - Jet Li began studying Wushu at age eight. Wushu came into being in 1949 in an effort to combine the many disparate Chinese martial arts forms into one practice. At eleven, Li won his first gold medal at the Chinese Wushu National Championships. That same year, Lee traveled to the United States, performing with his teammates for President Richard Nixon. Nixon asked Li to be his personal bodyguard, presumably in the patronizing manner of a politician talking to a boy. To Nixon’s surprise, Li retorted, ”No, I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!” Henry Kissinger then said, “Heavens, such a young boy and he already speaks like a diplomat.” Jet Li would continue his dominance at the Wushu National Championships, winning five gold medals and becoming a coach while still in his teens.
2.) Jackie Chan - Jackie Chan has an incredibly long filmography, with 141 acting credits and 79 stunt credits, going back to 1972. It would be easy to assume his life has always revolved around martial arts, but Chan is also a classically trained opera singer. He attended the Peking Opera School, studying under Master Yu Jim-yuen. He has performed at the Sydney Opera House, and voiced Shang for Disney’s Mulan, recording his own version of, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” that was popularized by Donnie Osmond. Overall, he has produced more than 20 albums, recording over 100 songs in five different languages. Chan also recorded the closing song of the 2008 Olympics, “Hard to Say Goodbye.”
3.) Bruce Lee - Bruce Lee was the grandson of an Englishman, and was therefore rejected by many martial arts schools. Even fellow pupils of Yip Man, the master of kung fu who taught Lee, gave him the cold shoulder because of his racial impurity. It is an often repeated fun fact that Lee won a dance contest in 1958, becoming the National Cha Cha Champion. Less well known is that around the same time he won multiple boxing matches. Despite his obvious athletic prowess, Lee failed an Army physical due to his poor eyesight and was therefore not sent to Vietnam. He had worn “coke bottle” glasses thanks to his bad vision, and kept the ugly glasses as a reminder to keep himself humble. He wore those glasses in Fist of Fury (1972).
4.) Sammo Hung - Sammo Hung is a pivotal figure in Hong Kong martial arts cinema, having functioned in just about every possible role—actor, director, producer, fight choreographer, etc. He is probably best known for his work on Ip Man (2009). Hung attended the Peking Opera School at the same time as Chan, and both were members of the Seven Little Fortunes performing group. Also known as the Lucky Seven, the members of the group were selected for their acting and acrobatic abilities. (Many years later, in 1988, the sad story of the child performers was told in the film Painted Faces, where Hung portrayed his former teacher. Hung has said they did share with audiences the worst of their sufferings.) Because of Hung’s abilities as an acrobat, at age 14 he was recommended by a teacher as a stunt performer in a movie. Hung was captivated by filmmaking and embraced the art form wholeheartedly, working in a multitude of genres.
5.) Michelle Yeoh - Michelle Yeoh is arguably the most famous female martial artist on film, but Yeoh was not originally a martial artist at all. Like many stunt performers, Yeoh comes from the world of dance. Hailing from Malaysia, she began ballet at age 4, and also successfully participated in beauty pageants as a young woman. However, a spinal injury cut short her ballet career and she moved into choreography. Her first on camera work was a commercial with Jackie Chan in 1984. Soon after, she was cast in her first martial arts film, and began building a career based in part by her willingness and ability to do her own stunts. Over time, Yeoh built upon her martial arts training film-by-film, learning more with each action sequence she put onto celluloid.