the coolest actor in the world : In This Country, Chow Yun-fat Is Only a Cult Figure. But the Hong Kong Action Star Has a Global Audience That Has Made His Movies International Blockbusters. With China About to Take Back the Crown Colony, He Has His Eye on the United States.

<i> RJ Smith of Los Angeles is a contributing editor to Details magazine. </i>

Some productions begin with a handshake, a conference call, a Bombay martini at Morton’s. We might say they have a hundred starts, or no real start at all, for the inaugurating rituals remain private and various from project to project, studio to studio. But in Hong Kong, all films begin alike. They embark almost exactly as “Peace Hotel” did in a windowless production office on a December afternoon. They begin with a roast pig wrapped in cellophane and two dried fish on a table. They begin with a prayer.

The ceremony can’t start until Chow Yun-fat, the star of “Peace Hotel,” arrives. Asia’s greatest actor, he’s become a hip invocation in Hollywood, an insider’s secret and an outsider’s, too. Best known in the United States for his roles in John Woo’s action movies, Chow is a cult hero to a widening circle of rappers, fanzine writers, punks and poets. He strides into the small room with his wife and a few assistants, and suddenly the place hums. Over six feet tall with a size-52 frame, tiny ears and an arc-light grin, he projects friendly good looks that mock the idea of the hunk. Even at 39, he shows some baby fat.

Chow’s wife, Jasmine, passes out small envelopes of money, the size of seed packets, to the 25 or so reporters and the dozen photographers. Joss sticks are lit and bundles of red and gold paper ignited. Wai Ka-fai, “Peace Hotel’s” director, Chow and members of the cast stand at the head of a long table, all placing a hand on a large meat cleaver. The actor raises the blade and hacks at the hog, slicing chunks of meat for the gathering.


On a desk, Wai Ka-fai has placed calligraphic instruments in specific relationship to one another. He believes that their feng-shui , their special arrangement, will bless the script he’s written. “Filming is extraordinary,” he says, “and you don’t know what will happen. If you can pray, maybe the bad things won’t happen.”

This remains a time of great indeterminacy for the third-largest film industry in the world and for Chow, one of the world’s most popular actors. “Hong Kong cinema” has come to mean action pictures obsessed with pop culture and allegory, drunk on energy and stunts and mayhem. These movies became an important export in the wake of Bruce Lee’s kung fu success, and have given millions around the world their mental image of Hong Kong as an international metropolis on the make. But in that city itself, the talk is of declining ticket receipts and dwindling audiences, with the bad news perhaps just a prelude to worse.

The industry is contorting itself in anticipation of midnight, June 30, 1997, when Britain turns over the Crown Colony to the People’s Republic of China. Some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, directors and producers have already moved to Los Angeles and Vancouver, and others have acquired foreign passports as insurance policies. Soon there won’t even be something called “Hong Kong cinema”: it will all be Chinese. Everybody senses the imminent end of something. But the end of what?

Chow Yun-fat has more options than most. He makes almost $2 million in U.S. money per movie. He’s being courted by the Communists, who want him to film in China. Hollywood has expressed interest in him for years. The actor is poised to begin work on a American debut--”R.P.M.,” a tale of a car-theft ring in the south of France, to be directed by Roger Avary, a former sidekick of Quentin Tarantino. It’s the most likely Hollywood project among nine Chow is considering.

But Hollywood feng-shui has its own mysteries. At the time of “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino told reporters he was writing a script for Chow. If a script exists, though, nobody around Chow has seen it. “Quentin doesn’t like to talk about it,” says Chow’s friend and adviser, Terence Chang. (Through an assistant, Tarantino said he was too busy to comment.)

A jump to the United States is fraught with risk--it could alienate Chow’s Asian following without boosting him here. When such stars as Jackie Chan or even Toshiro Mifune tried Hollywood, the film industry chose to brush them aside. Now, as the Hong Kong papers count off the days until the change-over, Chow acts as though there’s no big decision to make. While he sees the value of coming to terms with his divisions before China comes to terms with hers, he’s not going to fret about it in public. But then, he always looks cool.


The actors and journalists mark a moment of silence in the production office and then mingle. In a room full of edgy cast members and a director who’s close to biting his nails, the star is nonchalant, reverting to the happy insolence that has made him an icon in a dozen countries. Wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket, Chow entertains reporters in a side room. He cracks peanuts with one hand, pops them in his mouth. When the phone rings, he doesn’t hesitate to pick it up.

On the line is a doctor, and after realizing that he’s speaking to Chow, he asks for free tickets to the Chow movie opening this weekend. Chow starts his banter without a halt in the peanut-popping. “Sure you can buy a ticket, but it will cost you double,” he explains. He’s speaking loudly, so that all the reporters catch what he’s saying. “I go to the doctor and they charge me too much. You go to the movies and you’re going to have to pay, too.” The writers haven’t weighed in yet on the new Chow movie, but their laughter tells him what they think of today’s performance.


From the 70 or so movies he’s made since 1976 emerges a Chow Yun-fat archetype--an unselfconscious, enduringly loyal regular guy. There’s a good reason he comes across that way; friends say it’s who he is. “Everybody in Hong Kong knows that every day he goes to the market, buys fish and vegetables, takes them home and cooks them for his mother,” says director Wong Jing. “People don’t treat him as a superstar. They treat him as a friend.”

Sitting tall in the driver’s seat of his white Toyota minivan on a Friday night, everybody’s friend is driving himself--there’s no limo--to the debut of his latest film, “God of Gamblers Returns.” As he navigates Kowloon traffic, he makes fun of contemporary Hong Kong movies. He skewers the actors who play the same roles over and over, and the famous director who makes three movies at a time by letting his assistants do much of the work. He hoots at the plots and the lack of sophisticated writing. The funny thing is, while he never mentions it by name, Chow could be talking about “God of Gamblers Returns.”

After tonight’s screening, some of the film’s actors will shoot last-minute fix-ups, even though the movie opens in just a week. “Returns” isn’t a film Chow is very excited about, even if this second in the “God of Gamblers” series is destined to be one of the biggest local movies of 1994. Rickety slapstick one minute, a halfhearted supernatural tale the next, the movie ultimately gives up and goes soft-core. In recent years, many of Hong Kong’s educated, affluent citizens have fled, and the ticket buyers are now younger, poorer, more male and less sophisticated. “You’ve lost your middle-class moviegoer,” one newspaper critic laments. “Returns” is made for the new Hong Kong ticket buyer.

Arriving at a bright marble-and-glass shopping mall, Chow glides past security guards holding back hundreds of noisy fans. Upstairs in a lobby, he patiently stands for pictures, flashes exploding in the mirrored walls behind him. It’s about midnight when Chow climbs back in the minivan. He sighs, and for once the regular guy who can’t get enough of the public seems to fade. “Boring, boring,” he murmurs. All the way home, the minivan passes walls papered with Chow’s face.


“Hong Kong films are dying.” says director Ringo Lam, with the convulsive laugh of a Ringo Lam villain. One of Chow’s best friends, Lam makes punkish action pictures--the actor has starred in five. Whooping again as he sips a Bloody Mary in a hotel coffee shop, Lam is adamant. “Right now it’s really bad. You don’t have many talents coming up, and the budgets are getting smaller and smaller.”

When Beijing redefines the industry, he adds, at least things will get the shaking up they need. “I think when ’97 comes,” he says, “new regulations and rules will be introduced. I know when the environment changes, to a certain extent it will help the industry. Because maybe then you can extend your subject matter in your film.”

Hong Kong cranks out pictures the way Hollywood B-studios used to: hundreds of films a year, delivered in a few months or less. Directors serve as both producers and scriptwriters, and if they go over budget, the difference often comes out of their own pocket. Ticket prices have gone up, and American films are now extremely popular with an audience that once demanded its own cinema. In the city that used to teach Hollywood about modern action movies, “The Specialist” is a hit.

The fin-de-siecle bingeing has turned studios into trend factories; if a vampire-gore-sex film becomes a hit (as happened a few years ago), it’s an instant genre. Hong Kong’s celebrity mill is so overheated that when a new star emerges, they will make six or more movies in a year, cut an album--and burn out fast. But for their duration, they are able to demand prices that amount to half or more of a production budget.

If some like Ringo Lam are hoping for a little chaos, others like Wong Jing bank on stability. Only in his late thirties, Wong, the director of “God of Gamblers Returns,” has capitalized on the changes in Hong Kong cinema as proficiently as anybody, churning out movies with his frightening energy. He is part of a group that is negotiating with the Chinese government to open the first foreign-owned theater chain in the People’s Republic. “Our first phase is 400 theaters,” he says. China has about 30,000 theaters that are closed to Hong Kong movies, except for those films in which the People’s Republic has an interest. With potential access to 1.1 billion people, many Hong Kong filmmakers are looking at the bright side of self-censorship.

“I know those officers in mainland China who work with the movie industry,” says Wong from his office overlooking Victoria Harbor. “And actually, they encourage entertainment, they want you to make action movies, comedies--just don’t mention politics. They encourage you to do entertaining movies. They like to laugh. They only don’t like you to mention, say, Mao.” Wong has the likable self-assurance of the a real estate agent at cocktail hour, riffing but not really selling you anything. “You have to understand the way Communists are,” he explains. “They won’t say, ‘This is how it is.’ It’s more like, ‘I think it’s maybe like this . . . .’ Because the old guys are still alive, they can change anything. So (lower-level officials) just cannot guarantee anything. It’s like what they did with ‘Farewell My Concubine’--they ban it and release it, ban it and release it several times. But, 10 years, maybe 15 years later, when all the old guys pass on, I think the situation will become better.”



It’s something of a joke in Hong Kong that even when he’s playing the romantic lead, Chow Yun-fat rarely gets the girl. In movie after movie, he’s self-sacrificing to the point of debilitation: In one film, he’s in a leg brace, in another in a cast, and in a third he’s confined to a wheelchair. His goodness is so overwhelming--both men and women respond to it--that audiences never get tired of seeing him overcome incredible odds. They love to see him suffer, because when he rises up, so do they.

“Prison on Fire,” “City War,” “Full Contact,” “The Killer,” “Wild Search”--Chow’s movie titles often have the crisp sound of a crack on the mandible. But even when he plays a gangster, an inner goodness beams; he is never truly bad. The last time he attempted a purely evil character was in 1987, and the results were ghastly. In his action pictures, Chow displays a kind of vulnerability that American stars would probably not permit themselves. His characters are never more alive, never more understandable, than when they are tested by pain--and not just by the physical kind. His dramatic roles in Mabel Cheung’s “An Autumn’s Tale” and Ann Hui’s “The Story of Woo Viet” show a emotional versatility that’s a minor surprise if you just know the Woo films.

He draws from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gestures that nail a character, frame a way of being. He idly flicks a lighter and inhales the flame in “A Better Tomorrow II”; he drags his thumb across his lips in “Full Contact.” Sitting with me at a hillside restaurant table at midday, the actor reaches over, snags my 24-ounce bottle of Tsing Tao beer and drinks from it, all in one smooth motion. His hands reinvent cool more often in a daytime than Wynton Marsalis has in a decade.

Today, however, the coolest guy in Hong Kong is not Chow, sauntering down the pier near the Star Ferry terminal. That distinction goes to the fat man using balls of dough to catch tiny, spiked fish. Sitting on the dock, he tugs one off his hook, throws it into a metal pail as Chow walks past. The actor asks him in Cantonese how they’re biting, and the coolest man in Hong Kong strikes up a conversation without once looking away from his line. He acts as though there isn’t a movie star small-talking him.

Around the fisherman swirls a school of Japanese teen-agers shouting for Chow’s attention, followed by a Malaysian couple and a tourist from Singapore in a Hard Rock Cafe Beijing sweat shirt. The fans are massing, and Chow starts to move away. He says something to the fisherman, but the man is his own island; he just grunts and lets out his reel.

Chow has come to the pier today to catch a ferry and show me Lamma Island, where he grew up. A few years ago, Lamma was home to hippies from the West. Today, if there are slackers anywhere in Hong Kong, they live, locals are convinced, on Lamma. When the boat docks, one of the first people we see is Chow’s elderly mother, at a table with three friends, slapping down purple-and-white ivory mah-jongg tiles. “Her doctor says mah-jongg is what keeps her alive,” Chow beams.


Round tables line the shore. Behind them are banks of aquariums, full of groupers and cuttlefish, shrimp and abalone and geoduck. These seafood restaurants won’t come to life until the wave of tourists arrives over the weekend. Walking down a trail--cars are barred on the island--Chow scans the line of shops and mutters, “It’s become so commercialized.” As he says this, we pass beneath rows of blue and yellow pennants, each picturing him in a white dinner jacket, black hair impeccably slicked back, advertising “God of Gamblers Returns.”

Chow ducks into a small temple dedicated to the Taoist queen of heaven and goddess of the sea, Tin Hau, its walls blackened with years of soot. Lighting bundles of joss sticks, he prays silently, then turns and says, “Let’s go.” We walk to a tiny stone house about a quarter of a mile away. A padlock hangs from the wooden door of the 50-year-old structure that sits beneath two huge mango trees.

Chow lived there for years, awaking at 4 a.m. to sell dim sum. Customers called him Gao Tsai, or Little Dog. It was the only name he knew until he registered for grade school. “I was just like the children in Virginia or Tennessee--a country boy. I was a very poor country boy, with no slippers on my feet.” The house had no electricity, and growing up, Chow saw few movies.

When he was 10, his family moved to Kowloon, located on that segment of Hong Kong that is connected by land to China. His father worked on offshore oil rigs; his mother hired out as a cleaning lady. She guided her son’s education, which was no easy thing. At one point, Chow was enrolled in a leftist Kowloon school that taught the writings of Mao Tse-tung. Mom found him merrily joining in the 1967 riots, when the Cultural Revolution spilled over into Hong Kong streets, and she transferred him to a boarding school set up by the Nationalist party Kuomintang.

At 17, he quit school and worked as a postman, bellboy, office boy and camera salesman. Then, one day, Chow answered a newspaper ad, and another Hong Kong success fable began. The ad invited people to apply for acting traineeships at TVB, Hong Kong’s leading television station. Television is Hong Kong cinema’s studio system, where actors, technicians and directors get to learn their craft. TV serials, syndicated across Asia, provide the movies with a steady flow of young actors. Within a few years, Chow’s face was familiar to millions for his roles in series like “The Bund,” “Man in the Net” and “Hotel.”

“I think a lot of the roles I’ve had big success with, in TV or in the movies, share a basic attitude and a basic charm,” he says. “If I play a millionaire, and I’ve played such roles, nobody believes it, because of my background. I came from the poor, and if I play a poor person’s role, the audience thinks: ‘Mr. Chow, he’s that one, because he worked in the factory before.’ The people in Hong Kong are very strict. If your real life and your role don’t match--they know. They will feel very frustrated, resentful.”


He’s a Little Dog who fell in love with the big city. For Chow, any encounter on the streets of Hong Kong is an opportunity to haggle and shout. But as we stroll the mountain trails of Lamma, Chow lectures that it’s never a good idea to run--not even if you’re getting robbed. Just tell the attackers, “I’m not going to run; here’s all my money,” he explains. Jogging, furthermore, is bad for your health. For all of a few moments, its quietude seems an influence

“You know, I could retire right now if I wanted to--I really could,” he says. Yellow butterflies keep pace, and the fragrance of Chinese herbs is in the air. He’s looking off into the distance, but he’s searching for the next ferry back to Hong Kong. “But maybe it’s like, God gave you talent. He gives you talent and you sign a contract to entertain people with it. You don’t know, but it could be a contract for 40 years. Who should stop when you’re only halfway there?”


In the winter of 1994, a Malaysian man who ran an automobile accessories shop shocked Asia with his startling claim: I am Chow Yun-fat’s long-lost twin brother. It caused a stir for a moment, until Chow’s mother noted that her son was born in the Year of the Goat, and the Malaysian in another, so the two couldn’t possibly be related.

But if Chow Yun-fat did have a long-lost brother, he might just be found on the 20th Century Fox lot in West L.A. There, in an office lined with movie posters for French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s underworld dramas, John Woo tells how closely Chow’s fate is linked to his own. Woo is short, bows as he shakes hands and even looks frail, which is odd, because in conversation, he throws off a intensity that’s only scary. There is nothing frail about him. But that’s obvious to anybody who’s seen movies like “The Killer,” “Bullet in the Head” and “A Better Tomorrow,” films that have made Woo the most respected action director on earth, and a darling of world cineastes .

Woo and Chow first met in 1985, when they began to make “A Better Tomorrow.” “I was looking for a man who was a modern knight,” says Woo. “I always wanted to make a film like Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’ and ‘Le Cercle rouge.’ And I was looking for a hero’s image, like Alain Delon or Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman. The kind of man with real guts, who can stand up for justice.”

Before he moved to Los Angeles in 1992, Woo’s success made him a role model for Hong Kong directors. Today, his success at 20th Century Fox, where he has a two-year, first-look production deal, is another kind of model--for anyone in the Hong Kong film industry thinking about getting out. He’s just bought a house in Calabasas, but Woo hasn’t always lived so well. Back in 1985, both he and Chow were damaged goods. Woo had had early success as a director of action pictures, but had been pushed by Hong Kong studios to direct a series of comedies that flopped. Some told Woo he should find other work, and Cinema City, his studio, had banished him to Taiwan.

Around the same time, Chow was being labeled box office poison after a string of movies that bombed. Studio people warned Woo that he couldn’t put a serious actor in a film that, by definition, couldn’t possibly be serious. “So even before we met, I knew we had something in common,” says Woo. “We are in the same situation. I was down, I had almost failed. And Chow Yun-fat, he was also down for several years. He hadn’t had any successful films, and he was looked down upon by some of the movie people.


“But we both have the same kind of strong belief that we can make it. We have the same kind of hope, the same kind of heart, so we put this kind of feelings into the character. But in a way, we also have the same kind of feeling about the world. We truly believe that even though we live in an evil world, if you can stand up with a stronger will, then you can’t be beaten down. That’s the true spirit of the Chinese knight.”

Woo speaks slowly, his answers describing a downward spiral; they begin with the general, even the abstract, and five minutes later pinpoint the ideal. In 1985, Woo was looking for a way to introduce aspects of ancient Chinese stories to modern audiences. “We put that feeling into the character and created a new kind of hero. This hero makes the audience feel he’s not a legend, not someone who came from a novel or a comic book. This kind of hero is living beside us. This kind of hero could be you, could be anybody--anybody who loves others, and who can stand up and fight for what is right. He is you.”

“A Better Tomorrow” established the contemporary Hong Kong action picture and made Woo and Chow superstars. Their fates became forever interlocked. You have to go back to the teaming of John Ford and John Wayne--another sentimentalist working instinctively, another hero embodying a culture--to find a simile for Woo and Chow’s bond. To a handsome degree, the Chow character is a Woo construct. He gave Chow a heavy duster coat because he liked the one Alain Delon wore in “Le Samourai”--nobody wears them in too-hot Hong Kong. He transposed some of the hard-guy style of Japanese actor Ken Takakura and invoked the character of another of Woo’s heroes: Jesus. Suddenly, all across Southeast Asia and in Chinatowns around the world, young men started chewing on toothpicks, trying not to sweat in their duster coats.

Woo also realized that a modern swordsman shouldn’t have an archaic weapon. He gave Chow the Beretta, a weapon with its own distinct personality. “The Beretta has so much character and is so powerful,” Woo says. “It can load 17 bullets, and when it fires, it has a kind of passionate rhythm. The song of gunfire, that pow-pow-pow-pow can have also a kind of fury. I think it is right for my hero. I also knew that this gun is just right for Chow Yun-fat’s hand--his hands are so strong. When he’s holding a small pistol, it looks like he’s holding a toy. It’s not solid. If he’s holding a machine gun, his hands make him look stupid. A special gun should be for a man with special qualities.”

One oft-told lie about the quality known as cool is that it believes in nothing. “A Better Tomorrow” is all the rebuttal necessary. Chow’s character sits at a table between crime and the law. He finds his values there and dies in their name--friendship, loyalty, redemption. There’s something universal in “A Better Tomorrow’s” blood trials and brotherhood rites, but there’s something indigenous about them, too. Finding your identity outside the law is a familiar modernist trope, but it has a special meaning in Hong Kong. The character Chow plays isn’t an antihero, because he doesn’t turn his back on common values. If anything, he awakens them in his Hong Kong audience, a people whose deepest beliefs are rooted in another land and have been repressed by Communists and colonialists alike.

Chow’s gangster in “A Better Tomorrow” resonated with Hong Kong audiences--breaking all box office records when it was released in 1986--because he was a modern version of an ancient Chinese warrior. It was honor among thieves, but Woo made it seem the most meaningful honor around. Their values seemed likely to last longer than those of an expiring colonial government.


“There’s a lot of things I want to do that in the real world I couldn’t do,” says Woo. “Like, I’m a really romantic person, but I cannot be that way in the real world. The people around me that I see, they are not romantic. They are too realistic, especially in a big city like Hong Kong; everybody aims for the money, they aim for the fame. Nobody cares for each other. That kind of romanticism is hardly ever seen in this society. So, I feel lonely all the time. But when I met Chow, since we have the same kind of beliefs, then I knew I could show a character doing what I really wanted to do.”


The original Peace Hotel, which gives the movie Chow is filming its name, was a famous Shanghai hotel in the 1930s. European and Asian refugees went there to take shelter and, so the legend goes, reinvent themselves. And then World War II came to Shanghai, and Japanese bombs wrecked the Peace Hotel. Those who refused to leave were among the dead. Sitting on a couch in his Kowloon living room, Chow pours a cup of tea. I ask him again about 1997. “I’m not scared,” he says. “Right now, I’m still holding a local passport, OK? I think, if you are famous in China, if everybody knows you, the Communists won’t treat you like a problem.”

When Chow appeared in Shanghai a few years ago to cut a ribbon for a cake shop, traffic was blocked in all directions, and hundreds of people hung from trees to get a better look at the star. His films are bootlegged in China virtually the day after they open in Hong Kong, and at least one of his TV series was a hit on Chinese television.

“It’s good, we have letters from top authorities saying they really want Chow Yun-fat back in China to make a movie,” says Jasmine Chow, the actor’s wife.

“It’s just like a few years ago,” Chow says, “when your president Reagan was still in the White House, he invited movie stars, Michael Jackson, for a big party. Political people need show business people to support them . . . .If you want to buy people, you have a party with them. Maybe you make a movie with them.”

“Peace Hotel,” indeed, is underwritten by the Chinese government. If Chow received a letter inviting him for a photo op with Deng Xiaoping, would the actor attend?


“He got an invitation from them.” Jasmine says. “Or did you go?” she jokes accusingly.

Actually, Chow didn’t go. “Right now it’s quite sensitive,” he says. “It’s not 1997 yet, and we still have another party called Taiwan.” What Chow doesn’t say is that Taiwan is a bigger market for Hong Kong movies than Hong Kong itself. Posing with the old men of Beijing wouldn’t go over very well in Taipei. Wherever Chow shoots, in the People’s Republic or the United States, he has to keep in mind the larger Chinese audience--Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong. Playing the head of a Chinatown Tong would alienate the people Chow cares most about: the folks at home.

Still, the actor obscures his thinking about Hollywood. He doesn’t make things up, doesn’t lie, as a practiced actor in, oh say, Hollywood might. But suddenly his English gets iffy, or he answers a different question. There’s a lot to think about, and this performer, who claims to have never had a dream, seems reluctant to talk about what Hollywood means to him.

“How many more questions do you have?” he asks suddenly. “Let’s go for a drive, and you can ask me outside where we can get some scenery.” He gets his dark blue ’71 Mercedes-Benz from the garage and we drive past the heart of the Hong Kong film district, past the building where he took his TVB lessons, past the offices of Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong star who had his own dance with Hollywood and then went back home.

We start ascending, over Lion Rock, high into the mountains above Hong Kong. From here you can see the planes landing far below at Kai Tak airport, skimming over the tops of crammed apartment buildings. Farther out are yellow and blue cargo containers stacked on the docks, and a chain of ships trailing out to the horizon, waiting to be guided in. The sun is setting, the ships lighting up. It was from a vantage point like this that Woo filmed a haunting “A Better Tomorrow” scene. Chow and his buddy, running for their lives, park by a mountain road. There’s a feeling that up here, just a mile from the city, one is a long way off, civilization something left behind. In the movie, Chow lights a cigarette and looks over the unblinking neon lights and the sea beyond. “I never realized Hong Kong looked so good at night,” he says. “But like most things, it won’t last, that’s for sure.”

It really is beautiful, a tiara of white lights rimming the streets below, logos and neon calligraphy faint dots of red, gold, green. The wind is whipping around us. Neither of us says anything for a while. “The basic law is this,” Chow finally begins, with a smile. He’s alluding to the Basic Law, the main text China and Britain drew up for guiding post-1997 Hong Kong. “A good role is important. But more than that is the script. Because for me, an Asian, I have a lot of fans, people that support me. If I choose the wrong role in a movie, they will feel shame. For me and for them. If the first movie is not a big success in the United States, I don’t give a damn. But for Asia . . . .”

Two Japanese college students we passed on the road recognize him. After being photographed with them, Chow continues. “It’s like the black man says at the end of “Pretty Woman”: ‘Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream? Everybody comes here. This is the land of dreams.’


“I’m not the new kid in town. I’m the fighter, fighting for 20 years. If I think it is not suitable for me to fight, I think I will quit. If I say that going into Hollywood is one of my dreams, well, maybe the dream comes true and helps my career. On the other hand, maybe it spoils my career, too, if I’m not careful. I have to worry about a lot of things.”