To trace Celina Jade’s career, indeed her life, a good place to start is her father’s big break in film.
In 1977, American martial artist Roy Horan was invited to Hong Kong by film producer Ng See-yuen to fight in what was billed as a ‘death match’, as a publicity stunt for a Taiwanese film that Horan had a small part in. No one died: the duel was called off by police. But instead, Ng offered Horan a role in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, a kung-fu masterpiece starring Jackie Chan. He met and married Hongkonger Christina Hui. In 1985, Celina was born.
Like her dad, Jade (a stage name) has caught the acting bug, and she’s followed in his footsteps with action roles. In 2007, martial arts actor Wu Jing cast her as the lead in his directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, because she had fighting skills. It was Jade’s first film, and she was a novice actor. ‘Ten years ago, Wu Jing convinced me to attempt acting on the basis of his intuition,’ she says. ‘He believed in me back then, and it was his belief that gave me my career in acting.’
The two stayed friends over the years. On a trip to Italy last year, Jade bought him tomato sauce in reference to a joke they shared on the set of Legendary Assassin: she had suggested he use the real Italian ingredient in his dish of eggs and tomatoes. Then Jade, living in Hong Kong, got a call from Wu. ‘He said he needed a lead actress he could trust and he needed one that night,’ she recounts. ‘I read the script on the plane and went to shoot my first scene as soon as I landed. Jing and I didn’t talk terms. I just went with a suitcase and my six cans of organic tomato sauce. I never would’ve thought this would become the biggest film in the history of China. Talk about a good return on investment.’
That film was Wolf Warrior II, an action thriller that has earned US$870 million (HK$6.79 billion) worldwide, becoming the highest grossing Asian film ever. Directed by and starring Wu, it follows the heroic exploits of a former People’s Liberation Army officer who singlehandedly rescues a Chinese business enclave in an unnamed African country torn by civil war and epidemic. Jade, who plays a humanitarian doctor in the film, has seen her career catapulted to new heights.
In fact, Wu already had Jade in mind when he prepped for the original Wolf Warrior, but she was still shooting US television series Arrow, in which she played the archer Shado over three years. Although many of her roles have been tough fighters, Jade has tried to avoid being typecast. ‘There are a lot of stereotypes of Asian female characters in Hollywood. For example, there’s the idea that all Asian women fight. I like to joke that I kicked my way out of my mum’s womb, but my sarcasm is lost on some,’ she says. ‘I guess because I am a mixture of cultures and ethnicities, I don’t believe in the separation of people through their background.’
Her multicultural background and language abilities – she is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English – have opened doors for her in Hong Kong, mainland China and the US. But her role in Wolf Warrior II, which brought her back to this side of the Pacific, particularly pleased her mother: ‘My mother was very sick with cancer, and the news of the role gave her so much hope. She said she had a reason to battle cancer now: to watch Wolf Warrior II when it came out and join me at the premiere.
‘She said to me, “Don’t ever forget your roots. You were raised by a Chinese. I sent you to Chinese school and you have Chinese virtues. Don’t just work in Hollywood. You have to contribute back to your country someday. Don’t be an export.” Even though she didn’t make the premiere, I know she is showering down her blessings and proud that her half-Chinese daughter is now recognised as one of their own in China.’
Anyone who talks to Jade will notice her father’s influence in her life, too. Not only did he train her in martial arts at an early age, but his life also infused an adventurous spirit in her. ‘He’s my superhero. He was drawn to Asian philosophy and thinking after his arctic explorations in his 20s. He decided to re-explore life in the arctic after my mum passed, at the age of 67!’ Jade is well travelled, counting among her favourite destinations Lisbon, Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya, Hangzhou, Big Sur in California, Croatia’s Hvar, Capri in Italy and Phuket.
Filming Wolf Warrior II broadened her horizons further, taking her to numerous scenic places in South Africa and China. ‘Cape Town is one of my favourite places in the world now,’ she says. ‘During filming we had such close encounters with safari animals, and it’s not something a regular tourist would be able to experience. Port Edward in Durban was a beautiful seaside place, and I explored many canyons around there. Tianmo desert in Zhangjiakou had absolutely breathtaking views that did not fall short of those I saw in South Africa. I spent many of my off days getting lost in the grasslands.’
Jade is proud to call Hong Kong home; it’s where she grew up. But work has often meant living out of a suitcase and catching sleep on red-eye flights, making home an elusive place – and work has poured in since the success of Wolf Warrior II. To stay grounded, Jade turns to meditation. ‘A few years ago, a dear friend and swami (an Indian monk) gave me a card in which he had written, “Home is where the heart is”. So now, whenever I get homesick, I focus on my breath and let it take me inwards – a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz clicking her red heels.’