Born in 1977, Jason mimicked Bruce Lee as a kid and observed nunchakus on the Malaysian streets of Kuala Lumpur, his hometown. When Jason moved to Denmark with his mother at 8-years-old, he started his mar:al arts career at the age of 13 and went on to become a professional Thai boxer, winning several of Denmark’s Championship gold medals in Thai boxing and jujitsu. In 2019 he started Buddha Fight Academy in Copenhagen with his son to help kids facing difficultes in their lives.
Now, some twenty years later, Jason confronts the difficulties of his own past, taking his skills on set for Copenhagen Cowboy — his first screen role. Here, Jason exposes his unfathomable story, making him all the more authentic for NWR’s latest neon-drenched series in which he plays a local crime lord who governs his kingdom with violent authority…
I grew up in the slums of Malaysia in a one bedroom apartment. I remember my mother made me sleep on a concrete floor throughout most of my early childhood. I mainly stayed with my aunt because my mother, who was a nurse, and had to travel to Saudi Arabia in order to work. To get by, my aunt hosted illegal gambling clubs where, sometimes, twenty people would gather in our tiny apartment. One night the police kicked in the door and arrested every single person. I vividly remember hiding under the table before my aunt picked me up and carried me with her. I was three years old and it was the first time I visited a police station…
At the age of eight, I moved with my mother and her new husband to Denmark. He was Swedish and became my adoptive father. My first impression of Denmark was seeing snow for the first time. This place was so foreign to me, I felt like I had entered another dimension. Things, however, didn’t change at home. Until the age of thirteen, my mother physically abused and tortured me. If, by accident, let’s say I broke a glass and couldn’t give a proper explanation why, she would beat me. It was an accident — how could I possibly explain it? I was a kid and kids make mistakes! But my mother didn’t see it that way. Sometimes her punishments went on for days or over the course of an entire weekend. Sometimes she would use unique strategies, like depriving me of sleep. I had to stand in the living room all through the night and if she found me sitting or leaning, she would explode. Once, I was grounded for an entire year; not allowed to play and given only one meal per day. She even measured the time it took for me to return from school each day.
School was hell. Imagine being the only Chinese kid in a Danish school thirty years ago… I was beat up constantly! No wonder I later became a martial artist; I had to learn how to defend myself. In Malaysia they teach Taekwondo in school because it is part of the culture, but in Denmark my mother wouldn’t let sign me up for classes or anything combat-related out of fear that I would fight back. So she signed me up to play handball. After a while, I would sneak off to take karate lessons instead. A friend of mine’s mother was kind enough to offer me his old clothes and I paid the course fee by sweeping the floor. When my mum discovered where I’d been going, there was no more karate for me. I never told anyone how I was treated after that. My mother had to take more serious measures to punish me — using hard objects like a guitar to abuse me. That me in my life, I endured the worst of her persecution. But I thought it was normal. I tried to be strong. And eventually, I was so hardened by her relentless mistreatment, that nothing hurt.
One day, I broke down. I had been beaten so badly the school pulled me aside and discovered what I had been going through. From that day on, I never returned home. I was put in an institution for kids like myself, and in a sense, I was free. But also painfully alone…
Ironically, I have a good relationship with my mother today. We have worked through things, and to be honest, I am happy it was me and not my brothers that she victimized. I did miss my brothers terribly during the following years where I had no connection to my parents or family at all. It was a very difficult place, mentally, to be in, because I had this newfound freedom; imagine coming from such confined conditions and then suddenly the only rule was that I had was to be home by 9pm. I had too much energy, and of course I was a troublemaker. As it turned out, I ran away from every institution, school or foster home I was put in — be it on an island or a ship — I was impossible to control. I ended up on the street, sleeping in a shut down acid factory on Copenhagen’s southside. Life became a matter of survival. And when you are fiSeen and have no op?ons, where do you turn? Crime.
You don’t just enter the world of organized crime. You gradually slide into it — and I had all the right prerequisites. My criminal record began with minor things like stealing. When you seek trouble, you naturally attract trouble. Eventually, I was taken under the wings of high ranking criminals and I trained myself like a solider in order to rise in the ranks, in search of their approval. In Chinese culture, there are very strict power dynamics of hierarchy. Honor, respect and adhering to authority was mandatory and I knew how to manipulate it in this context. I was and still am a perfectionist, I could push myself to extremes. Soon I led a triple life; I was a Thai boxing coach, a family man (Jason become a father at the age of 18), but at night… I descended, I was another person entirely.
I can’t go too much into detail about my past, but taking on the role of Xiang (a Chinese mafia boss) in Copenhagen Cowboy has, in many ways, felt like a twenty-year flashback. I tapped into my past, and, in some scenes, there are moments that are very close to my real life experiences. I could have lost my life on several occasions, and acting in Copenhagen Cowboy has definitely unearthed those experiences. Sometimes when we were filming, I felt a literal rush surging through my body, and after a day of shooting I often had to sit for several hours and reboot myself.
I live on my own and that suits me best. Having lived a life where you constantly have to be alert, where sleep is not exactly favorable for business, and where your so called friends are the same people who will turn around and stab you in the back… is damaging, it’s something that can’t be undone. I do sleep well at night now, and I have a great relationship with my son, but I am most at ease when I am on my own, just focusing on myself.
I’ve moved on for good, and I live to do better now. As a coach, I make it a priority to talk to the kids and encourage them to stay on the right track. Many of the people I used to know have either been killed, fled the country or ended up as drug addicts. I know how easy it is to sink into crime if you come from a troubled background. There were times where I thought the underworld was my destiny. But it was always more of a lifestyle than my family.
Change didn’t happen fast. Over the course of seven years, in my late twenties, I slowly removed myself from my criminalties. I was ill, in and out of hospitals during this period, and being weak in a world where weakness is not an option, it puts you in a very vulnerable position. It’s an eye for an eye. When you are successful everybody is your friend; when you are weak you are an easy target and the same people will put you out of business. Realizing this from my sickbed put my life into perspective. The transition was also, in part possible, due to protection from “above” with some powerful people who held their hands over me. They taught me absolute loyalty and that is one virtue that will always stay with me.
In any case, you have to be a fighter in every sense. My whole life I had to fight to defend myself just to survive. And looking back, it manifested quite early. When I was just a little boy I stood in front of the TV mimicking Bruce Lee. I bought VHS tapes with Thai boxers and later the movies of Jean Claude van Damme. Today, I have pushed myself to my limit, but have achieved perfection. And yes, it comes at a price: I have metal plates in my back, bolts in my hips, a reconstructed knee and one blind eye. I have suffered a blood clot in my brain. Still, I would fight Mike Tyson today if I had the opportunity. After all, it only takes one good punch to knock out your contestant.
In order to be a good fighter you have to be fearless. I know people who will fight anyone at a club but who go blank in the ring. Likewise, I know people who are champions in the ring but no good in a street fight. A true fighter never quits. Not in the ring. Not in life. Never. Taking this mentality on screen has been a good experience for me; I especially enjoyed the kung fu-inspired scenes where I helped prepare Angela (the female lead who plays Miu) for her fight work. Women can be excellent fighters, and in my opinion all women and young girls should learn some basic self defense. It builds confidence like nothing else.
The biggest challenge has been accessing emotions on screen. There is a particular scene with the little girl (Emilie Xin Tong Han who plays Ai) where I do a monologue on love and broken trust. That was very difficult. But I like a good challenge, and I am grateful for this acting opportunity which has come at just the right moment in my life. Working with Nicolas has been thrilling; he is a perfectionist too and we share a similar mindset. Initially, I was approached as a consultant because I knew Chinese culture and the closed world Nicolas drew inspiration from. I was originally “cast” as an insider, not an actor, but one day on set I was asked to be in a scene and the rest is history.
Kimberly Willming is behind all things at byNWR – she’s been working at the company for the past five years as a producer for byNWR Originals, exclusive productions under NWR’s company, as well as directing and overseeing byNWR.com. A writer, producer, and filmmaker herself, she’s been actively working in Los Angeles in the entertainment industry since 2009.