It is a January night in Beijing and Jackie Chan is in the back of his Bentley Mulsanne. And cars, fast and luxurious cars, are on his mind.
A cloak of leather, dark glass and white steel is all that keeps Chan from a world of adoring Chinese fans on the urban melee beyond. Mayhem would ensue if his fans clocked it was the action hero cocooned in the mammoth Mulsanne.
There's no security detail with us as we cut through a squirming sea of traffic. Destination: a charity auction where Bentley have donated a Flying Spur for the benefit of Chan's charities.
Tonight the martial arts hero will tell the media he's stepping back from making only action films. He's broken bones and beaten up his 58-year-old body enough. Moviemaking is still his future _ his latest film The Chinese Zodiac opened across Asia late last year _ but he is increasingly focused now on philanthropy. He gives US$5 million (about 150 million baht) a year to charity and China's billionaires are handing him millions in cash and cheques for him to assign to causes.
It's a watershed day and Chan is thoughtful. His screen action heroics and his life have been, at times, indistinguishable. A self-confessed petrolhead, he learned to stunt drive in a rental car on Hong Kong streets, for instance.
"I got into cars from the movies. When I was young in the martial arts school, we didn't know about cars. And when we get in the film business then... you know modern film, the old day film, [they all had cars] so I wanted to learn how to do stunts. But I'm 16 and I don't have a licence. I have to rent a car with another man. We pay the money and he rents the car. After that, we start driving it like crazy, doing 360-degree handbrake turns... Afterwards we send the car back and it's useless!"
Chan grew up in Hong Kong and Australia, where his parents worked in an embassy. But martial arts and movies were his obsession. In turn, moviemaking financed his new found passion for the automobile.
"When we were filming there you see all the big stars, they're driving [nice cars]. I remember this famous actress _ she drove a 450 Mercedes-Benz, another famous girl driving a Mustang. Then I start buying cars but also crashing cars. But I love cars. I love cars... I just love cars," he grins.
Not content with getting his adrenaline fix on set, Chan looked for other ways to get a buzz. Hong Kong was under British control at that time and the city's spectacular tunnels and mountain roads made for a perfect urban track for young drivers.
"In the old days I always drove crazy," he says, his eyes twinkling. "At night. Four o'clock. I check around, I know the road. In Hong Kong _ we don't have a racing club track. So with some friends, we drove around on the highway."
It was talk-show host Jay Leno who once declared Chan the most famous man on the planet. Chan's garage might be a little more modest than Leno's but it is still impressive. It includes everything from one of the ultra-rare street-legal versions of the Paris-Dakar Mitsubishi Pajeros to Ferraris, a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley Continental GT.
The Pajero is about to go into a Jackie Chan museum in Shanghai, but most of his other cars, including a Mitsubishi GTO and a Jackie Chan edition Evo, remain in the garage of his Hong Kong mansion. An Evo was in his film Who Am I? but his most famous driving role was also one of his earliest, as one half of the team driving a gadget-laden whistling Subaru GL in the 1981 coast-to-coast film Cannonball Run.
Would he like to try the Cannonball Run in this Mulsanne? Chan grins.
"I'd like to," he says. "Time is the problem. No time." Chan has raced in touring cars and enticed other celebrities to compete in a race at the Macau GP event where the likes of Michael Schumacher cut their teeth.
Earlier in the day, Chan showed off his driving prowess by powering the Mulsanne through the hills above Beijing on which the Great Wall of China sits. He played the paddle shift like an accomplished pianist tinkling the ivories. He spends a lot of time in the back of luxury cars, but relished the chance to jump in the front.
"It's quiet and fast, but you don't feel it," he commentates as he tillers it with neat precision. "In it you are talking, driving, listening, boom! One second _ you end up where you are..."
He delivers his lines as if he is acting, with gestures and the rat-a-tat-tat of an action hero sequence. His driving is what an Edwardian English gent might have called "press-on" motoring. He likes the right pedal.
Cars and charity are his passions. Tonight they come together.
In Beijing we are close to the venue for tonight's auction. The great and the good of China's capital turn out to support Chan and expectations are high to turn the car into cash.
As the flash guns blitz, he says bye-bye, bracing himself with a big public smile and leaping, with a hint of action hero, into the fray.
His charm offensive and star turn worked. By evening's end, the Flying Spur had gone for $1 million. Such is his horsepower.
About the author
Writer: Jeremy Hart