03/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
IT'S BREAKFAST TIME IN KOWLOON City, Hong Kong, and Chow Yun-Fat, one of the region's hottest movie heroes, is enjoying something he can't do in many places in Asia: taking a public stroll without a bodyguard. At the tiny local restaurant where he stops off for fish balls and noodles, Chow's entrance rates but a glance. Later, at the food market, the veteran of more than 70 films waves to his friend the fishmonger, chats with the florist and compliments an old woman on her bright silk dress. It's not that no one recognizes an emperor of the Asian box office, but here in his own neighborhood, explains Chow, 42, "people treat me like their brother."
Now that Hollywood wants to adopt him, Chow may have to adjust to the full star treatment. The actor is teamed up with Mira Sorvino for his American film debut—and first English-speaking role—in the just-opened The Replacement Killers, a more-death-than-dialogue action flick in which Chow plays an assassin who, after a moral crisis over his job, becomes a target himself. It's the kind of role that made him a legend in Hong Kong: a hit man with a heart, who can empty a Beretta from each hand without dropping a bead of sweat. But Hollywood has more than gunslinging in store for Chow. Though he began studying English only two years ago, he's already slated to star in a police drama, The Corrupter. A remake of the 1946 classic Anna and the King of Siam and a romantic comedy with his old partner, Face/Off director John Woo, are also in the works. "His acting skills are international," says Woo. "Women find him elegant and charming, and men look up to him as a hero."
Though he can count Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino among his admirers, Chow would rather spend his downtime swimming with granny bathers, as he calls them, in the South China Sea (a morning ritual) than schmoozing with starlets in the Hollywood Hills. On the set of The Replacement Killers, Chow, who is Buddhist, not only burned incense every day but frequently offered to help crew members move lights and heavy equipment—a novelty for Hollywood, perhaps, but not for Chow. "In Hong Kong we shoot like crazy," says Ringo Lam, who has directed Chow in five shoot-'em-ups. "I always forget lunch, and he always complains on behalf of the crew." Lam credits that genuine thoughtfulness for Chow's onscreen appeal: "His expressions come from inside. He has so many layers."
They were built up over a lifetime. Born on the small Hong Kong island of Lamma, the third of four children, Chow spent his early years in a house with no electricity, rising at 4 a.m. to help his mother, a vegetable farmer, serve dim sum to islanders before school. When he was 10, the family moved to Kowloon. (His father, an oil tanker seaman, stayed mostly at sea and died in 1974.) Chow quit school at 17 and worked as a bellboy and salesman before taking $7-a-month acting lessons at a local TV station in 1973. During the next 14 years, he appeared in more than 1,000 episodes of TV soaps and dramas and made a slew of dud films, while his personal life spun out of control. In 1982 he was rushed to the hospital after reportedly drinking household cleaners in an attempted suicide over a broken romance with a Chinese actress. "I think at the time I screwed myself up," he says now, in careful but imperfect English. "I was under a lot of pressure, and I had love-affair problems." The following year his six-month first marriage to Hong Kong socialite Candice Yu ended in divorce. "Both of us," he explains, "were very young."
Chow's luck changed in 1984, when he met his second wife, Jasmine, 38, through a mutual friend. "It was love at first sight," he says. "She was just very pure and innocent." They married in 1986. Jasmine handles Chow's business affairs, a job that has grown steadily since the 1986 release of A Better Tomorrow, his first film with Woo and the hit that made him a star.
These days his early traumas seem a distant memory. In the $9.5 million Kowloon home he and Jasmine share with their five dogs, Chow relaxes by tending his fruit trees or tinkering with his four cars. But beyond the 9-foot stone wall that surrounds their estate, the teeming streets of Hong Kong are a constant reminder for Chow of how far he has come. "When I was young, I was poor," he says. "Even though I've become famous, I'm still the same person. I still feel humble."
ANDREA PAWLYNA in Hong Kong