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East Meets West: 10 Hong Kong actors who starred in Hollywood films

By Gigi Wong 3 September 2019 | Last Updated 12 May 2022

Header image: Still from Rogue One (2016)

Originally published by Gigi Wong. Last updated by Min Ji Park.

Hong Kong not only provides the perfect backdrop to blockbusters—we can count Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Dark Knight as just a few of many examples that were filmed in the 852—it also exports prolific actors to star in Hollywood productions. 

Local veteran actors such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat have all been cast in a Hollywood blockbuster at one point or another throughout their careers. As the film industry and its casting practices grow in diversity, let’s recap the top Hong Kong actors who have left an indelible impression with their performances on the Hollywood silver screen.

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Bruce Lee (李小龍) in Enter The Dragon (1973)

Possibly one of the first—and most important—actors to put Hong Kong’s film talents on the global map, Bruce Lee starred in the joint American and Hong Kong production Enter the Dragon in 1973. Released within the same year of the unfortunate death of the icon, it was boosted by worldwide distributor Warner Brothers and its Hollywood budget.

In the film, Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist who agrees to spy on a reclusive crime lord, using his invitation to a tournament as cover. Many scenes were shot on location in Hong Kong—it thus captures the imagination of our shores and most of Asia. Having received rave reviews, it catapulted Lee to worldwide fame and made all the subsequent record-breaking martial arts movies following in his footsteps possible.

Jackie Chan (成龍) in Rush Hour

As the first instalment in the comedic Rush Hour franchise, this Hollywood blockbuster counts Jackie Chan amongst its leads. The mismatched duo of Chan’s Inspector Lee and Chris Tucker’s verbose Agent Carter teams up to rescue a Chinese foreign diplomat’s kidnapped daughter, all the while trying to arrest a malicious crime lord along the way.

The blend between East and West leads to unbelievable flares and sparks, as well as ludicrous antics, carried by the wide cultural gap between the two protagonists and awe-striking action choreography. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Tucker’s loudmouth brand of comedy, you have to agree that Chan’s distinguished and well-loved style of action-comedy spreads out in full in Rush Hour, propelling him to an A-list action star in Hollywood and a household name worldwide.

Gordon Liu (劉家輝) in Kill Bill Vol. 2

Local martial artist and actor Gordon Liu is known for playing the white-eyebrowed Shaolin grandmaster Pai Mei—who likes stroking and fondling his beard a lot—in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2. The film follows the Bride as she continues her quest of vengeance against former boss and lover Bill, as well as his gangs of assassins.

Tarantino’s personal obsession with Hong Kong kung fu films and Liu’s filmography history drove him in casting the established actor as the legendary master of Bak Mei and Eagle’s Claw styles of kung fu. Playing against Uma Thurman, Liu’s character teaches the Bride the fatal movement known as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, which eventually helps her defeats her enemies. As an accomplished martial artist in real life, Liu is thankful for Tarantino for bringing his “clan’s martial arts to the world.”

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Chow Yun-Fat (周潤發) in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Back in 2007 when Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End hit the big screens, perhaps one of the most unanticipated elements of the film was the casting of Chow Yun-fat as Captain Sao Feng (albeit he’s shown on the leftmost corner of the promotional poster). 

The plot follows Captain Barbossa, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swan as they sail off the edge of the map to search for Captain Jack Sparrow and they must make their final alliances for one last decisive battle. It is when the crew travels to Singapore that they meet Chow’s Sao Feng, a character modelled on the notorious Hong Kong pirate Cheung Po-tsai.

When the scarred, long-bearded, and bald Chow made his entry amidst steaming smoke, splaying his comically-long nails with an utterance of “Welcome to Singapore” in the most malevolent and mesmerising way possible, not everyone took kindly to it. The image falls in line with Hollywood’s stereotypical approach of demonising the Chinese, a fact much scorned by Chinese censors, resulting in half of Chow’s scenes getting slashed. 

Negativity aside, the film is an entertaining feat with timely gaiety, state-of-the-art special effects, and a grandiose showdown. If you think about it, Chow’s character is actually quite brilliant, considering the actor’s prolific history of playing gangsters who can shoot with precision even with his eyes closed. Here, he portrays a fearsome Chinese pirate lord.

Edison Chen (陳冠希) in The Dark Knight

It’s a well-known fun fact that The Dark Knight had a small portion of it filmed in Hong Kong. One scene sees Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox visits Gotham City mob boss Lau’s company in Hong Kong, LSI Holdings, after Lau flees back to the 852. The vice president of the company, played by local singer and actor Edison Chen, greets Fox in the company tower lobby and tells him to leave his phone with the security on the ground floor.

Chen was originally slated to have a larger role in the film, but due to a notorious scandal, his scene was cut short. In the finished theatrical release, he appears only briefly as mentioned. Although his scene is rather insignificant, it nonetheless reminds Hongkongers of the scandal that made millions of headlines across town over a decade ago.

Jet Li (李連杰) in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the third instalment of the famous trilogy featuring Brendan Fraser. It assembled a cast that encompasses an unprecedented amount of four prominent Asian actors, one of which is the famed martial artist and actor Jet Li, and the other three being Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Wong, and Isabella Leong. 

The film follows Alex O’Connell, the son of famous mummy fighters Rick and Evelyn (played by Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello), as he unearths the mummy of the first Emperor of Qin. Cursed by a devious sorceress, China’s ruthless Dragon Emperor (portrayed by Li) and his vast army were buried in clay for millennia before awakening to take over the world. 

Although the plot is a bit lacklustre and the film tanked amongst critics, Li’s fight sequences have been hailed as scene-stealing. One scene that sees Li fight against Malaysian action heroine Michelle Yeoh’s Zi Yuan is particularly gripping.

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Donnie Yen (甄子丹) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Dubbed the universe’s strongest, Hong Kong martial artist and actor Donnie Yen stars as Chirrut Îmwe, the monk who joins the Rebels’ mission to steal the plans to the Death Star. In the first standalone film from the Star Wars franchise, the Ip Man star reportedly suggested the role be blind as “the character could use some more distinctive characteristics.” 

He was also given the freedom to choreograph most of his stunts in the film, coming off somewhat as if you’re watching Ip Man’s exhilarating fight sequences, only within a galaxy far far away—and the fact that he’s going against millions of stormtroopers (not that we have any problems with it). Despite Yen’s initial hesitation of taking the role, fearing separation from his family for an extended time, he has expressed that he feels a great sense of achievement to be celebrated as part of Star Wars lore.

Angelababy (楊穎) in Independence Day: Resurgence

The inclusion of Hong Kong superstar Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence—the sequel to iconic Independence Day released in 1996—caused quite a media fuss back in 2016. The sequel takes place two decades after the events of the first film, where our dear Earth faces yet another extraterrestrial threat. The world, thus, has to harness the power of secret alien technology to resist a second invasion.

Acting alongside The Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth, Angelababy plays Rain, a tough Chinese fighter pilot whose parents died during the preceding alien incursion. Having a total of 23 lines in the film—a high number compared to Chinese superstars Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing, both of whom have made appearances in Hollywood blockbusters—some argue that Angelababy is particularly recognised by the Hollywood industry. 

However, others debated that even if her character were omitted from the story, the plot would not be affected and that the casting choice was based on commercial considerations for the Chinese market. Well, we’d say to watch the film and decide for yourself.

Daniel Wu (吳彥祖) in Warcraft: The Beginning

Here comes the not-so-usual one. If you’ve watched Warcraft: The Beginning, were you able to spot the handsome American-Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu? Highly anticipated by gamers around the world, this was the first film adaptation of the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. The film centres around an orc horde’s invasion of the planet Azeroth via a magic portal. Human heroes and dissenting orcs, who form the resistance against this trespassing force, set out to stop the evil mastermind behind the war.

Wu plays the vicious orc shaman Gul’dan, whose hideous appearance makes the visual connection to the actor an especially puzzling one to figure out. It’s also Wu’s first time shooting a film with motion capture and CG special effects—an experience deemed unique by the actor, although he was required to stand bent over during half of the film’s shooting to play the hunchbacked Gul’dan. A round of applause to the post-production and make-up teams that helped Wu morph completely into the CGI character!

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Tony Leung (梁朝偉) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

If there’s a bigger way to make your entrance into Hollywood than in a Marvel film, we’d love to see it. Tony Leung Chiu-wai finally decided to make his foray across the pond to star in the first MCU picture to feature a majority East Asian cast. The film follows Shang-Chi, a man whose past catches up to him when he must travel back to his homeland to face his father (played by Leung), the fearsome leader of the Ten Rings organisation.

Playing the menacing patriarch, Wenwu, Leung dazzled the cast, crew, and audiences alike with his performance. Universally considered one of the best villains Marvel has offered thus far, Leung brought depth to his role beyond a cartoonishly evil figure, highlighting the humanity and sensitivity behind Wenwu. Although it’s still uncertain whether he’ll make more Hollywood films, Leung has certainly already left his mark on its cinematic landscape.

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Gigi Wong

Junior editor

From Hollywood blockbusters to indie flicks, Gigi loves just everything about films. Aside from rock & roll, she is also partial to jazz and vintage music. You can find her indulging in all sorts of books, eating out, discovering vinyl albums, and playing Blu-ray movies on her TV.

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