When Rush Hour was released in 1988, Asian representation was at an all time low in Hollywood. Bruce Lee passed away in 1973, while the likes of Lucy Liu, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat would not break through until the early 2000s. Jackie Chan was still an unknown quantity outside of Asia. And I was but six years old, a little girl growing up in Thailand.
Even though we have our own film industries, Hollywood films were and still are very popular in Asia. I, along with my friends and siblings, grew up with classic films like Star Wars, Home Alone, Toy Story, The Lion King and Titanic. We might not hunger for representation the same way Asian-Americans do, but it is undeniable that the limited way Asians are portrayed in Hollywood films have an impact on how we perceive ourselves and people of other races. These films rarely show us as equals of our white counterparts; either we are a punchline, a stereotype or we are invisible altogether. Therefore, for children of colour born in the light eighties and the nineties, when Rush Hour arrived, it arrived as a significant Cultural Moment for us: a rare buddy cop comedy with a black lead and an Asian lead that we could enjoy with our friends and families.
When I think back of my memory of first seeing the film, only one name came to mind: Jackie Chan. As a child, Jackie Chan was not just a name to me but rather a feeling. An experience. Here was someone who looked like me, who looked like my father, like my grandfather, and like many other people I see in everyday life. He was not simply an insignificant side character or the comedic relief; he was not Short Round from Indiana Jones or Delta from The Goonies. He was a hero. Not only could he fight, but he could make jokes and have fun. He could be emotional and still be as capable as any other white character on screen. He made me root for him. Identity with him. Be proud of him.
My Jackie Chan experience was heightened during my high school years. Not only did I went to see Rush Hour 3 in cinema with my best friend, I was fortunate enough to meet Jackie Chan in person. Through the International Peace Foundation, he came to my high school to speak at an event titled, very Hollywood-like, “Art and Culture as a Pathway Toward Peace”. When it came time for him to take the stage, he spoke for only ten minutes on the topic at hand, saying Yes, Of course, we must have peace, Yes, of course, art can help build bridges and achieve this peace, before finishing his ‘speech’ with a wave of his hand as if to say, this is so obvious, why must I dedicate two hours to this? and told us to ask him any questions we wanted. He then proceeded to spend the next two hours answering our queries about the entertainment industry and telling stories about his childhood and his career. He then had another Q&A with just us drama students.
When it was time for him to leave, the entire school came out to send him off and he went around giving hi-fives, shaking everyone’s hands, waving. Then suddenly, in what seemed like a flash, he, along with everything that came with him – his energy, his humour, his presence, his Chinese-self, his superstardom – was gone. Like the Wizard of Oz disappearing with his magic and leaving behind nothing but a quiet buzz that lingered in the air long after he’s left the building.
That was the day my childhood enjoyment of Rush Hour clicked in my head. I understood fully, for the first time, the film’s appeal and the impact it has made in my life and the lives of others like me. Bruce Lee, although an icon, was before my time. My father had Bruce Lee. But I, along with my generation, had Jackie. Somehow he – with his talent, his success, his popularity – was, miraculously, ours.
Twenty years on from the film’s release and ten from my encounter with Jackie Chan, time and distance have given me added perspective on the wide-reaching impact of Rush Hour. I’ve come to realise that at its heart, when stripped off its comedic beats and entertaining action sequences, it is a deeply patriotic film. The theme of colonialism is threaded throughout the entire narrative, starting from the very beginning when Britain hands over the rule of Hong Kong to China until the climatic moment when the shadowy villainous figure of Juntao, who has been stealing and hoarding Chinese national artefacts, is unmasked to be a powerful white British politician. In a rare twist of Hollywood stereotypes, it is the Chinese politician whom Jackie’s character works for who turns out to be the good and honest one. Our heroes’ mission – rescuing the kidnapped daughter of the Chinese consul – can even be seen as a direct metaphor for them retrieving a valuable piece of Chinese identity from the white colonist. (Jackie’s mission in Shanghai Noon follows the same formula: he is a Chinese imperial guard who comes to America to rescue a Chinese princess played by Lucy Liu.)
Rush Hour deals largely with reclamation – reclamation of national governance, of national history, of national pride, of national identity. Jackie’s character (Inspector Lee), specifically, is a reclamation of characteristics that have been historically stripped away from Asian men on screen: humour, intelligence, relatability. The character is written to be the exact opposite of the silent, stoic, wise Asian man we have seen so often in the past. Lee can banter with his partner. He can be warm and kind towards friends, children, colleagues. He listens to the Beach Boys. He dances. He jokes. With Rush Hour, as well as with his subsequent Hollywood films, Jackie Chan manages to cement himself in both American and global pop culture in a way other Asian stars – the likes of Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, Tony Ja and Ken Watanabe – have not been able to do. Having started out as a stunt double in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, Jackie has somehow achieved the impossible: he stepped out from Lee’s gigantic shadow and carved out a path of his own – an entirely unique path that is in equal parts revolutionary and complex.
While Bruce Lee was a classically trained martial artist, Jackie grew up in a Peking Opera School. His moves lack the technicality and ferocity of Lee’s, but they flow and snap, flow and snap like a pristinely choreographed hip-hop routine. He combines physical comedy with his action, drawing inspiration from the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He insists on showing us the chinks in the armour with his trademark blooper reels where he’s seen fumbling his lines just as much as his landings. He makes sure his roles never fall into embarrassing racist caricatures. (I’m looking at you, Long Duk Dong.) He knows how to work off other comedic scene partners to great effect. He creates his own children’s cartoon series and dabbles in voice animation. He provides soundtracks to Disney films as well as his own. He appears on American and British talk shows and endears himself to the audience and the host with his charms and stories. He wins an honorary Oscar, goes on the red carpet and reduces established Hollywood stars to awe-struck, wide-eyed fans. He has made himself into a household name; a brand; a template for what Asian actors can achieve in Hollywood. Yet there are layers to his success and his identity – both on-screen and off-screen – that are rarely unpacked.
Taking off rose-tinted glasses is not always an enjoyable experience but a necessary one. And it takes my being older to recognise the intriguing position Jackie put himself, his culture and his race in. Unlike Bruce Lee, who at times exudes startling rage towards his white oppressors in his films, Jackie’s characters, like Inspector Lee in Rush Hour, are rooted in a deep sense of loyalty to his homeland and his culture. As a policeman, Inspector Lee is literally a civil servant to his nation. He is the honourable one to Chris Tucker’s devil-may-care, fast-talking hot shot. He goes to extreme lengths to finish his mission, willing to sacrifice his own life. On screen he is steadfast, honest, dutiful, clever, kind, capable, safe, almost sexless. He never gives you a reason to doubt his integrity or his intentions. Instead it is his American counterpart – whether it is Chris Tucker in Rush Hour or Owen Wilson in the Shanghai Noon films – who revels in excess and self-indulgence. What I was most proud of about Jackie as a child – his likability – now at times appear like a card trick, used to strip an Asian character of the chance to be a fully-realised human being with flaws and nuances. He is made exceptionally amiable and acceptable for the white gaze. If you are not an evil, moustache-twirling villain, he is not a threat, either to your body or to your conscious.
It is undeniable that Jackie’s heart is in the right place; he has always strived to present Asians in a positive light in his films. But the paternal, old-fashioned and sometime condescending manner in which he goes about doing so has not gone by unnoticed. As Hong Kong’s ambassador of tourism since 1995, he seems overly concerned with how Asia – particularly China and Hong Kong – is viewed by the rest of the world. He seems preoccupied with presenting a perfect image of his country rather than the truth: he has been severely criticised for his support of the Chinese Communist Party, and his rebuke of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong drew derision and outrage from many in Asia. His persona, so beloved by the rest of the world, starts to come across as a stern lecture for how Asians, specifically the Chinese, should behave when confronted with national conflict: head-bowed, respectful, dutiful to your country, know your place. He was named an “anti-drug ambassador” by the Chinese government, but in an embarrassing personal episode, his own son was arrested on drug-related charges in 2014 and had to serve a six-month jail sentence. The image of the honest and loving family man he continues to portray in his films is further harmed by his extra-martial affair in the 1990s, which resulted in an estranged daughter.
I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable while watching Rush Hour 2, in which, during their trip to Hong Kong, Carter and Lee visit a massage parlour where they choose Chinese women who are literally displayed in a glass-case and then spy on a female character while she is undressing. Jackie’s character tries to hang on to a shred of decency and his wholesome image by feebly protesting. In the end, however, he half-heartedly engages in these acts with Carter; these films do not work if his character is a spoilsport. He keeps his promise of showing Carter a “good time” in Hong Kong, lavishing him with beautiful women and fancy parties on luxurious yachts. He might look slightly unease, but he does not object to his friend’s consumption. His role as the tour guide turns into that of a procurer – he finds and picks which aspect of his culture should be given to and enjoyed by the rest of the world. He is, in many ways, standing in the corner with his hands behind his back while he lets the West has its fill of the East.
Another factor which has further tainted the franchise are the allegations of sexual harassment against Brett Ratner, the film’s director. Now that the Ratner allegations have come to light, I cannot help but watch the first Rush Hour with an even more scrutinising gaze. My knowledge of Ratner’s appalling behaviour seeped into my viewing of the film and altered my perception of the story: almost every interaction Lee or Carter had with a female character became sleazy; every moment of flirtation became salacious. Every time a woman entered the scene, I instantly wondered about her experience on the set. Was Ratner believing inappropriately towards her as well? Was she forced to do something against her will just to get this part? The fact that one of Rattner’s main accuser, Olivia Munn, is an actress of Asian descent has only rubbed more salt in the wound. Did the male actors – specifically Jackie and Chris Tucker – know of Ratner’s behaviour? Were they enabling it by turning a blind eye? Once more standing in the corner with their hands behind their backs as their director preyed on his victims?
And so we return again to that age-old question: how do we separate the art from the artist? Is the separation even necessary? Especially with someone like Jackie Chan, whose art and self are so irrevocably linked yet irrevocably not? You get the sense that Jackie’s characters are such a muddled blend of who he is, who he wants to be, who he wants the Chinese to be, who he wants the Western world to think the Chinese are, it is impossible to tell one fragmented part from another. All that’s left for us, his fellow Asians, is to choose which version of him we want to embrace and champion, if at all. This seems to be all he has allowed us to do.
I re-watched Rush Hour as an adult with an attempt to recapture the magic of my youth, knowing full well that the experience could never be replicated. Did I still laugh at many of the jokes? Yes, I did. Of course I did. It was almost like my body was programmed to laugh at them. They are still, at least to me, genuinely funny. (Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? This won’t work, I’m not 6’1’’! My daddy once caught a bullet with his bare hand etc.) But it was a bittersweet experience. When you strip away a child’s innocence and her sense of wonderment, what is left?
I will never forget the larger-than-life experience of seeing Jackie Chan both on screen and in person for the very first time. But like many other impactful men and women, his legacy is complicated and riddled with contradictions. He is a transcendent international star, yet a staunch nationalist; a pioneer in his field, yet a traditionalist and a product of his time. I cannot divorce Rush Hour from the crimes of its director nor can I divorce it from the memory of laughing and watching it with my family when I was little. Both things are too deeply entwined for me: the impact of the film on my life and what the film has grown to represent. Looking back on the experience is not as clear-cut as simply looking back on something that only happened to me but rather something that is a part who I’ve become.
It is, I suppose, rather like looking back on the very first time you were in love. Thoughtlessly and naively in love. You are glad you were in love, but you cannot help but cringe at the person you were and would do anything not to be that person again. You appreciate the experience. You cherish its intricacies, learn from them and carry parts of them with you. But ultimately you must move on. You shed the skin of who you were and you move on.