In 1970 a certain Bruce Lee was in talks with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers film studio. Dissatisfied with his supporting roles in Hollywood, Lee wanted to create a Chinese kung-fu superhero to showcase his skills to American executives.
Lee was requesting terms that weren’t too onerous in Hollywood terms – $10,000 per film and the right to pick the scripts he liked. But these sounded ridiculous in Hong Kong at the time. Shaw Brothers’ movie boss Run Run Shaw refused outright.
Golden Harvest, a rival founded by Shaw’s former right-hand man Raymond Chow – who had quit the year before in pique over some personnel changes – was less fazed by the actor’s terms. He jumped at the opportunity and scooped Lee up for a two-movie contract.
Both the kung-fu flicks were colossal successes, making Lee a star in Hong Kong and helping Golden Harvest to dethrone Shaw Brothers as Hong Kong’s dominant film producer.
By 1976, five of the top 10 grossing movies in the city’s history were produced by Golden Harvest. Shaw Brothers accounted for only one.
The mistake in letting Bruce Lee slip away was a rare misstep in Shaw’s showbiz career. Over the course of more than 80 years, Shaw had a knack for anticipating trends, usually being one step ahead of pop culture and the spread of new communications technologies.
He died last week aged 107.
Shaw was one of the first to popularise the kung-fu genre in Hollywood. His King Boxer (or Five Fingers of Death) was released by Warner Brothers in the United States in 1973, setting box office records and igniting a martial arts craze. (Quentin Tarantino ranks King Boxer, which partly inspired Kill Bill, as one of his favourite movies.) Although it didn’t feature Bruce Lee himself, it helped to fuel that icon’s subsequent successes with American audiences, and also led– not entirely accurately – to Shaw’s reputation as the “father of the kung-fu film”. (In fact, the earliest kung-fu flick, The Story of Wong Fei-Hung, was made in 1949.)
Shaw Brothers stopped making movies in 1987. Bitter rival Golden Harvest carried on but in a market where cinema-going was beginning to decline. Shaw had already shifted the bulk of his energies into a more powerful mass media. In 1967, he helped to found TVB, one of Hong Kong’s two free-to-air TV broadcasters. Shaw assumed chairmanship of the channel in 1980 and grew it into a virtual monopoly, a position that remains steadfast to this day.
The numbers validate Shaw’s strategic shift. In 1999 a catalogue of more than 700 Shaw Brothers’ movie titles was sold for HK$600 million ($77 million). But when Shaw sold his 26% stake in TVB in 2011, it was worth nearly HK$10 billion. The move from cinemas to TV screens looks astute.
Born in 1907 to a family of Shanghai textile merchants, Shaw was the youngest of six brothers. His given name was Renleng, which sounds like “Run Run” in English (especially spoken in the dialect of his hometown, Ningbo).
When the Shaw brothers began their first movie venture – Tianyi Film – in the 1920s, Chinese films didn’t even have sound or colour. In 1927 aged 19, Shaw went to Singapore, where he started a cinema chain and distributed Tianyi’s productions, using the Shaw Brothers brand for the first time.
Making movies in Shanghai could be dangerous. After an incident in November 1933 – when anti-Communist activists raided a left-wing studio – Tianyi moved its production base to Hong Kong. Shaw couldn’t dodge the Second World War. Following the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, studios were forced to choose between shutting up shop or producing propaganda for the invaders. Tianyi closed down and never recovered, even after 1948 when operations were resumed under the Shaw & Sons brand.
Shaw’s operations in Singapore (where he remained during wartime and was said to have buried $4 million worth of family gold and jewellery) weren’t so badly hit. By 1956 he had grown his movie business into southeast Asia’s biggest cinema chain, with more than 130 theatres and a massive real estate portfolio. And in 1958 Shaw took over his brothers’ Hong Kong firm and started building the territory’s first mega studio, opening Movie Town in Hong Kong’s rural Clearwater Bay. It would become one of the busiest studios in the world, producing 40 movies a year, many of them featuring kung-fu storylines or plots about triads.
At TVB, Shaw later set up an acting academy, which cultivated some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Nearly every celebrity in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry has worked for Shaw at some stage in their career, including Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Stephen Chow (the comedic genius behind the movie Shaolin Soccer) and Tony Leung (Hong Kong’s best character actor and star of Lee Ang’s Lust, Caution).
Shaw also organised the beauty contest Miss Hong Kong, a hugely popular franchise locally in the 1970s and 1980s – in large part to source starlets for his productions. Perhaps the most prominent to emerge from the competition was Maggie Cheung (she was actually a runner-up). Cheung went on to become one of China’s best-known actresses, and starred in the internationally-acclaimed In the Mood for Love).
One of Shaw’s most famous remarks was about his leading ladies too. Thirty years ago an interviewer alluded to the casting couch, suggesting to Shaw that he must have enjoyed female company given how many starlets were under his employ.
Unfazed by the audacity of the question, Shaw responded: “I am romantic not a sleaze.”
Aside from his achievements in the media industry, Shaw was knighted by the British in 1977 and received Hong Kong’s highest honour award, the Grand Bauhinia Medal, in 1998, after the territory returned to Chinese rule.
As he grew older Shaw also became increasingly well known for his longevity, living for well over a century and retiring as chairman of television station TVB, only in 2011 at the age of 104. Once asked how he managed to stay so healthy, Shaw talked about practicing qigong, which he began in his fifties.
Then there was his philanthropy. In 2004 Shaw established an international science award, the Shaw Prize, to give $1 million every year to three scholars in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and medical science.
After his death last week, the biggest talking point in the Chinese media was his charitable work. Local media reported that there are a total of 6,013 buildings and schools named after him in China.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.