Interview by Han Li
As I walked into the interview room, lights brightly illuminating the room’s four corners from its centre, I was led in by a polite entourage of young men and women with ear pieces and billboards.
As one of the cameramen walked towards me, I saw Donnie Yen sitting across an empty chair that was meant for me. My heart lifted with excitement. There he was, the man who fought off foreign invaders and instructed Bruce Lee; the hero of an extinct ancient order that helped save the galaxy from an evil empire; and the rogue agent who challenged the American National Security Agency in which Donnie’s face the character’s witty persona is still somewhat resembled as he stood to shake my hand.
The introduction was a welcoming one as I greeted him in Mandarin. We spoke fondly about an all-time classic Hong Kong film many of us will remember from the 90s: Dragon Inn. Donnie chuckled when I mentioned the name. After all, what’s there not to like about playing the head of the dominant eunuch faction of the Ming imperial government, who not only invented target tracking arrows to wipe out his opponents at court, but also battled across the Western Chinese desert around an inn notorious for serving human meat buns.
Breaking the ice, I was pleased to find out that the cold winds sweeping through London from northern Europe that day did not change Donnie’s positive image of the city. Donnie said his roots in Hong Kong actually helped him appreciate London. He loves Hong Kong for its “modernisation,” “high energy” and vibrant lifestyle. He said that London has all these qualities, along with a touch of sophistication. He assured me that London remains one of his “favourite cities.”
Donnie and I then broke words about his recent successful hits. Amazing as he was, moving from playing a kung fu master in a Hong Kong film with an all-Chinese cast to saving the world with a multi-national team on the international movie stage is no easy transition. I must admit, I was moved by his answer when I asked him what it was like working with such a diverse cast in the Return of Xander Cage and Rogue One. “For me it’s just doing another role, in another film with my fellow actors.” He then went on to say how great it was that big international movies are becoming multicultural and that it was perhaps overdue. “If you think about it, something should have happened a long time ago,” Donnie said firmly, “we are making movies for everyone on this planet.” Absolutely, I thought to myself as Donnie concluded his answer saying how he hopes we will see greater ethnic diversity similar to his current projects. Actors do not choose who their colleagues are. True professionalism is showing respect to their peers and maintaining dedication to their work. But pushing for greater diversity might just benefit everyone.
I proceeded to ask Donnie, and seek advice indirectly, about a topic that many Chinese diaspora in Britain might find personal. I wanted to know what he had to say about succeeding in the Western world as individuals of Chinese ethnicity. Here, Donnie took a more serious tone but was ever more encouraging. Although I had asked in the context of Asian actors or aspiring actors, what Donnie said really transcended the simple binaries that sets apart careers, trades and occupations.
Donnie told me about the challenges he faced as a Chinese actor throughout his career over the decades.
“There have been many, many obstacles that I faced as a Chinese,” said Donnie as he reflected on his long acting career.
He went on to say that the improvements in this sector are recent and took place “only in the last few years”. I looked down at my notepad and had a moment of self-reflection. Holding a variety of jobs before my entry into law and growing up in three different continents, I was no stranger to racial bigotry nor stories of them. “But,” said Donnie stoically after a very short pause, “you just keep on striving.” He said with an enthusiastic smile, “I know that this is a philosophy that probably everybody understands, but there is no other way around it.” I nodded in agreement – nothing better than an international superstar reminding you about the importance of perseverance in the formula of success. For there are somethings that we simply cannot change nor do we wish to in the slightest. “We are just as good as anybody else,” Donnie continued, “you have to show your talent, as yourself, as an individual.” He emphasised the persistence required to prove to the industry one’s talent and to do so “constantly and continuously.”
We ended the interview with him wishing Nee Hao Magazine and the British Born Chinese Facebook Page a happy (Chinese) new year and that it be a peaceful and successful year.