How the Hong Kong Protests Divide Its Stars

Chow Yun-Fat, a supporter of the protests, and Jackie Chan, who is pro-Beijing, reflect Hong Kong's current political schizophrenia.

The Hong Kong actors Chow Yun-Fat (L) and Jackie Chan (R), photographed here in 1999, have taken divergent views on the territory's pro-democracy protests. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat have led parallel lives. Born in Hong Kong in the mid-1950s, both men established themselves as stars of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s. In 1995, Chan crossed-over to American cinema with Rumble in the Bronx. Three years later, Chow followed suit with The Replacement Killers. The analogy isn't perfect: While Chow built a reputation as a fine dramatic actor, Chan has largely stuck to his martial-arts infused comedic roots.

Most recently, the pro-democracy protests engulfing Hong Kong have presented a stark contrast between the two native stars. In an interview with the Apple Daily earlier this month, Chow Yun Fat expressed his support for the protesters.

"I’ve met the residents, the students—they are very brave and it’s touching to see that they’re fighting for what they want. The students are reasonable."

That comment didn't sit well with the Chinese government, which has apparently placed the actor—alongside 46 others—on a blacklist. Chow didn't seem to mind much. "I'll just make less then," he said.

The remark is right in character for the famously down-to-earth actor, who earlier this year pledged to donate his fortune to charity. But that won't lessen the financial consequences of upsetting China, which for Hong Kong entertainers can be substantial. The singer Denise Ho, for instance, gets about 80 percent of her income from performances on the mainland. But since expressing support for the Hong Kong protests, a mainland fashion brand canceled a gig without explanation and she hasn't been back for a performance.

For celebrities like Ho and Chow, this sacrifice is worth it. Others have concluded differently. Take Jackie Chan. The martial arts star has taken a dim view of the protests, worrying openly that it cost Hong Kong's economy $45 billion and calling for a "return to rationality." Chan's comments were consistent with a general skepticism of Hong Kong's right to free speech. In 2012, he complained that "there should be rules to determine what people can protest about and on what issues they can’t protest about," while in 2009 he opined that "Chinese people need to be controlled."

For Chan, pleasing Beijing makes economic sense. CZ 12, a 2012 film in which Chan is tasked with reclaiming ancient relics stolen from China, pulled in $138 million in mainland China and just $11.2 million in Hong Kong.

But Chan's association with China is more than just financial. The action star moved his office from Hong Kong to Beijing and has announced plans for a Jackie Chan museum in Shanghai. Chan sang at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—an event of considerable patriotic importance in China—and even joined a Communist Party association that recruits high-profile celebrities like Yao Ming, the former NBA basketball star.

Could it be that Chan is just cynically pandering to his biggest market? Possibly. But Chan also remains a major celebrity in the United States, which he has called "the most corrupt country in the world." Chan has also ridiculed the democracy in Taiwan, where his films have been popular for decades.

Hong Kongers don't take their political cues from Jackie Chan, or Chow Yun-Fat for that matter. But the divergent attitudes of the two stars on the Hong Kong protests gets at the identity crisis that has clouded the territory's future.

"The Communist annexation of Chan may turn out to be one of the greatest benefits arising from the Hong Kong reunification," wrote the author Jaime Wolf last year in a lengthy profile. The blacklist of Chow Yun-Fat shows that the annexation is far from complete.