A Family Lost and Found

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As an inspiring fable, the story of Jackie Chan's youth is up there with Abraham Lincoln's or Harry Potter's. Boy is born in Hong Kong to poor refugees from the mainland. Boy enters opera school, where he trembles and thrives under his master's whip hand. Boy puts these hard lessons to use in films, becoming a would-be successor to Bruce Lee and finally his own man: an international star and, quite possibly, the most famous living Asian.

The story is true, as far as it goes. But even stranger is the "prequel": the lives of Chan's parents, Charles and Lily, on their perilous journeys to Hong Kong. The absorbing documentary Traces of the Dragon: Jackie Chan & His Lost Family, which premiered at last month's Berlin Film Festival, reveals the extended Chan clan as a microcosm of China's turbulent 20th century history. It's a riveting yarn, too, replete with guns, gore, drugs, thugs and romance.

Among the film's revelations: that Charles, who in Jackie's youth was a cook in the U.S. embassy in Hong Kong, had earlier served as an enforcer for Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT); that Jackie's mother had peddled opium; that from earlier marriages each parent had two children, whom they deserted in their postwar flight to Hong Kong.

In its sweep and poignancy, its collision of small lives with great events, the film—produced by Jackie and directed by Mabel Cheung—could make a movie epic or a top-rated, multigenerational series on a Hong Kong TV channel. Traces also has a diamond-in-the-rough star: Jackie's father. A jaunty, salty gent, still vigorous in his mid-80s, Charles carries the narrative. He was born as Fang Daolong in 1915 in Shandong province. A disorderly kid ("I was a real brat"), he became an orderly to a KMT general—until he accidentally shot a loaded gun and was cashiered. He had a nice scam fencing linen in Nanjing; then the Japanese took control of China. Charles was jailed and forced to watch executions. The sight of beheadings made even this tough guy sick. Still, Charles was lucky. A relative with connections sprang him from jail, and by fleeing to Chongqing province after Japanese air raids killed his parents, he missed the Japanese army's vile rape of Nanjing.

As a KMT secret agent, Charles was the target of several murder attempts, probably by the communists. One bullet found his left leg, and he has the scar to prove it. Another left a dent in his head. Jackie has a similar souvenir, from a 1986 stunt that nearly killed him. Charles waves this off: "You injured yourself on a film shoot!" The boy is made of steel, the father of cobalt.

In Anhui province, Charles met his first wife and had two sons, Shide and Shisheng. His wife died after an agonizing three-year siege of cancer. Soon after, Charles left town on a KMT assignment in Wuhu; he didn't see his sons again for 40 years. "I didn't even remember him leaving," Shisheng recalls. "I only knew I got out of bed and he was gone."

In Wuhu, Charles was patrolling the waterfront when he saw a woman holding opium. Rather than arrest her, he let her go. That woman was Lily Chan. Lily, whose first husband had died in a Japanese bomb raid, was an aptly roguish match for Charles; she "walked like a hood," he says, and was a devout gambler. Soon Charles had a new family: Lily and her daughters, Yulan and Guilan.

Mao Zedong's 1949 victory cued a huge exodus to Hong Kong. Searching for work, Lily abandoned her children, telling Guilan, "Here's 50 cents. By the time you spend it I'll be back." Taking Lily's family name to throw the Communists off his trail, Charles stowed away on a boat so crowded that some people died, their corpses tossed overboard. The survivors did not find life in Hong Kong much easier. Charles recalls seeing a former Nationalist general begging door-to-door, holding a newspaper to catch donations. "He didn't even have a beggar's bowl."

Charles' first two sons did have bowls, and they needed them: the '60s Cultural Revolution reduced them to begging. Shisheng, labeled a counterrevolutionary, was sent to the countryside for seven years' hard labor. Still he pined for his father: "I dreamed of him in a plane, circling over me but unable to land." In the '80s, when Charles located his sons, one was working in a post office, the other in a pig sty. Meanwhile, the runt of Charles' litter had become Hong Kong's top film star, although until a few years ago Jackie didn't know that his real name was Fang Shilong. Hmm: Jackie Fang. An ideal name for a star in the Shaw Bros. classic action series of the '70s: Five Deadly Venoms.

Traces is a story of desertion and reconciliation. Charles had abandoned his two sons, Lily her daughters. Likewise, Charles and Lily moved to Australia in 1962, leaving Jackie at school in Hong Kong. (As husband to retired film star Lin Fengjiao, Jackie has repeated the pattern, often deserting her and their son to shoot movies.) Finally, Charles reunited his family in Shandong—all but Jackie, who has yet to meet his brothers.

Watching Charles on screen, we can see the source of Jackie's famed resilience. The star smiles as Charles says, "Father's a veteran. He knows best." The old man has a survivor's hard-won wisdom.