There are a lot of stories about Chan Wai-man. They say he was a real gangster, a Triad insider, long before he became an actor. That he was a genuine brawler, a streetfighter who never backed down from a challenge even after he was famous. That he was a professional boxer who won fourteen bouts by a knockout. And that he was one of Bruce Lee‘s best friends. Amazingly, the stories are true.
Chan (also known as Chen Hui-min or Michael Chan) was born in Hong Kong in 1946. He studied Chinese kung fu as a kid, specializing in Northern Shaolin style. But he was more interested in effective fighting moves than traditional forms, and he eventually switched to boxing and kickboxing. Like his pal Bruce Lee, who was also studying in Hong Kong at the time, Chan became a connoisseur of combat. He also probably became involved with the Triads at this time, acquiring impressively extensive tattoos that later would give an indelible stamp of authenticity to his gangster roles. In an interview with Bey Logan for the magazine Martial Arts Illustrated (read the interview here), Chan revealed that he joined the Hong Kong police force when he was eighteen, but was kicked out when his Triad background became known.
His reputation as a fighter continued to grow. In 1972, he took the top prize in a major Southeast Asian kung fu fighting tournament. Rival masters soon learned not to disparage Chan and his disciples, since any insult would result in a challenge match that inevitably led to a beat down. Meanwhile, the success of Bruce Lee’s films meant that producers in Hong Kong were out scouting for more martial artists who could be persuaded to act. Chan was approached by someone who had seen him fight in a televised match. He starred in a number of low budget gangster films from 1972 on, but the one that brought him early notice was JUMPING ASH (1976), a gritty police actioner co-directed by Josephine Siao and Leong Po Chih. I first remember seeing him in a string of late 70s period martial arts films by the Shaw studio director Sun Chung: JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN (1977), THE PROUD YOUTH (1978), and THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979).
Chan Wai-man (right) with Norman Chu in THE CLUB.
Even in the wigs and elaborate robes required by historical films, Chan was coldly menacing. Classic kung fu-style choreography may not have been his favorite approach to screen fighting, but check out his impeccable weapon work in films like THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD. He also worked with director Chang Cheh at Shaws, most notably in FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).
In 1981, first-time director Kirk Wong (TWIN DRAGONS, THE BIG HIT) cast Chan Wai-man in THE CLUB, a brutal Triad expose that was loosely based on Chan’s early life (see a clip here). Chan also stepped in to handle the realistic knife choreography. In general, he seems more comfortable portraying modern-day gangsters – maybe not so much acting as re-living earlier life experiences! Surprisingly, Chan is also quite capable of kidding his hardcase image. His comic work includes CARRY ON YAKUZA (1989) and a cameo in THE INNOCENT INTERLOPER (1986), directed by Wang Lung-wei. Through the 1980s and 90s, Chan worked with all the top film people: Jackie Chan, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Wong Jing, Leung Kar-yan, Michelle Yeoh, Ronnie Yu, Michael Hui, Johnny To, Wilson Yip…the list goes on and on.
Chan Wai-man has made a lifelong career of playing the “dai lo,” or gang boss. Just about every major Hong Kong director who has shot a Triad film has called on him at one time or another to reprise that iconic role. He continues to make films, most recently appearing in Sylvia Chang’s RUN PAPA RUN (2008), playing (what else?) a gang boss. He’s one tough guy, and, believe me, it’s not an act.
A video documentary in Chinese about Chan Wai-man’s kickboxing career.