Run Run Shaw: The Last Emperor of Chinese Movies

The Hong Kong movie mogul, TV baron and philanthropist dies at — 107?

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Kin Cheung / AP

Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong in 2010.

In 1964, astronomers at China‘s Purple Mountain Observatory discovered a small main-belt asteroid between Mars and Jupiter. They named it 2899 Runrun Shaw, in honor of a Hong Kong movie-studio boss.

Shao Yifu, known worldwide as Run Run Shaw, was no minor planet. Among the bosses of any film industry, in Asia, Europe or Hollywood, he was the sun and the moon, and the launcher of many stars, including Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung. Shaw’s entertainment empire stretched from Taiwan to Malaysia, and from the silent era to the present — nearly 90 years in all. With his death today, at the astounding age of 107 (The New York Times says 106, but we’re not quibbling), one can bid farewell to the last emperor of Chinese movies.

(READ: Chow Yun-fat stars in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

The Shaw Brothers logo — the “SB” initials on a scallop-shaped shield — appeared on many of the biggest hits in the first golden age of Hong Kong cinema. The studio’s top stars of the ’60s were women. Linda Lin Dai graced Li Hanxiang’s blockbuster opera film The Kingdom and the Beauty and the four-hour love-and-war epic The Blue and the Black. Vivacious Cheng Peipei, Chan Ping and Lily Ho played the lovelorn trio in Shaw’s lively, MGM-style musical Hong Kong Nocturne, directed by the Japanese import Umetsugu Inoue. But Cheng Peipei steered Shaw in a new direction when, at the age of 20, she played a solemn warrior goddess in King Hu’s seminal wuxia film, Come Drink With Me.

With the success of Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, which triggered a martial-arts craze in Hong Kong, the company’s focus switched on a dime from femme to macho, and Run Run Shaw became the kung-fu mogul. The 1972 King Boxer / Five Fingers of Death, starring Lo Lieh as the man with the Iron Fist, was the first martial arts film to be widely released in the West; in America it earned more than 12 times its $300,000 production cost, a year before Bruce Lee’s breakthrough Enter the Dragon. In 1978 Chang Cheh introduced a quintet of new stars in The Five Deadly Venoms. A quarter-century later, Quentin Tarantino would blend the ferocious action of the Chang Cheh movies with the implacable heroine of Come Drink With Me in his two-part Kill Bill — which began with the Shaw Brothers scallop and trumpet fanfare.

(READ: The 1973 story “The Men Behind Kung-Fooey” by subscribing to TIME)

The pictures produced by Run Run and his sibling Runme from the 1950s to 1985 set the colony’s standard for opulence, vigor and splash in a dozen genres. But for decades Run Run refused to put his old films on video, or even allow film museums to show them. The studio’s action classics were seen, if at all, in muddy bootlegs that often chopped or squeezed the wide-screen panoramas down to TV shape and dubbed the Mandarin dialogue into an Anglicized cacophony of kung fu grunts and maniacal giggles. In 2000 Shaw corrected that crime against cinemanity with an $84-million deal for video rights to the studio’s 760-film complete library; the buyer was Celestial Pictures, a subsidiary of the UTSB media conglomerate owned by Malaysian tycoon Ananda Krishnan. Thanks to this Shaw-bank redemption, cinephiles could again see what Run Run wrought, in the glorious original colors and breathtaking ShawScope.

Shaw’s empire extended beyond movies. He was the founding owner of Television Broadcast Ltd. (TVB), by far the most popular Hong Kong television channel for 45 years. He made his billions in entertainment and gave back nearly as much in philanthropy, especially for medical and scientific research; it sometimes seems as if half the public buildings in Hong Kong have his name on them. But he didn’t get rich by being a softie. A 1960 TIME story, titled “What Makes Run Run Run?”, described him as “a mixture of Barnum & Bailey and Todd-AO. He willfully holds conferences at 2 a.m., buys and sells talent like cattle. He is the master of the Asian hard sell.” And what he sold, Hong Kong, China and the world bought.

(READ: TIME’s 1960 story “What Makes Run Run Run”)

Born on Oct. 10th or 14th in 1906 or ’07, Shao Yifu was the sixth of seven surviving children born to Shao Yuh Hsuen, a Shanghai textile manufacturer. (Hence Run Run’s later nickname, Uncle Six.) The family is said to stretch back 14 generations to the Ming Dynasty. Learning English in private schools and at the YMCA, Run Run interrupted his studies at 19 to join his three elder brothers: Zuiweng (later Runji), Cunren (Runde) and Renmei (Runme). Family legend has it that the nicknames came from their father’s English wordplay on the word “rickshaw.”

The brothers changed their surname when Papa disapproved of their entering show business. Strapped for cash in 1925, and forced to abandon either their home or a theater the family owned, they sold the house and moved into the theater. Runji, a lawyer, wrote a play to be staged there, and the Shaws quickly made a film of it: A Man Came to the World and He Made Good. They founded the Tianyi (Unique) Film Company, one of the three major producer-distributors in the fledgling Chinese film business. Runji and Runde worked in Shanghai, Runme and Run Run in Singapore.

In 1934 Runde opened a branch in Hong Kong. Buying theaters to showcase their product, the Shaws built a business that by 1939, according to John A. Lent’s book The Asian Film Industry, “included [139] theaters, nine amusement parks and legitimate theaters in Malaya, Singapore, Thailand, Borneo and Java.” In 1940, with the Japanese occupying Shanghai and threatening Singapore, Tianyi moved its operations to Pak Tai Street in Kowloon, Hong Kong, changed its name to Nanyang and made Cantonese films for the local market. “During the Japanese control of Southeast Asia,” Lent writes, “Shaw theaters were confiscated and Run Run was imprisoned on charges of subversion. But after the war they were back in business at full strength, thanks to the hoard of jewels Run Run had hidden.”

(READ: The Empire of Run Run Shaw)

In 1947, the brothers re-opened their Singapore film studio and released their first postwar film, Singapore at Night. The studio produced 167 Malay films before it closed in 1967; the last film was Nora Zain Female Agent 001, one of many Shaw films to exploit the James Bond craze. Throughout his career as a studio boss, Run Run borrowed every occidental movie trend, lending each the special Shaw glamour and pizzazz.

In 1950, Nanyang reclaimed its Hong Kong production facility, renaming it the Shaw Brothers Studio, and calling the company Shaw and Sons Company Ltd. (Perhaps their father had become reconciled to financial success.) To challenge the dominant MP & GI studio, Shaw expanded in 1957, bringing Run Run and Runme from Singapore to head a new company, Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong) Ltd. From the Crown government, for 45 cents per sq.ft., Run Run bought a 46-acre plot in Clearwater Bay, Kowloon. He shaved 60 feet off a hill, to even the land, and built Movietown, which opened fully in 1961.

(READ: The wild and free Hong Kong stock market, 1960)

Run Run developed a studio system along Hollywood lines but with a Hong Kong work ethic: 20-40 films a year produced on 12 sound stages that operated in three eight-hour shifts, with employees signed to eight-year contracts that paid about HK$2000 a week plus room and board. Many lived in four dormitories Shaw built on the lot. In the mid-’60s such future stars as Yueh Hua, Lily Ho, Chan Ping, Jenny Wu, Li Qing and Cheng Peipei were all on the same floor. “We look to their living quarters, their comfortable living, their dresses, their social problem,” said the paternalist Run Run in an interview he gave in English in 1964. “The only thing that we cannot control is their loving [sic] affairs.” Everyone worked 60-hour weeks; it is said that some found the only way to supplement their incomes was to become involved with the local triads.

The studio became known as Hollywood East — and earned that appellation. As the 2003 documentary Cinema Hong Kong: The Beauties of the Shaw Studio notes, “Shaw had built the biggest film studio in what was then the third largest film industry in the world,” after the U.S. and India. “Each of the Shaw brothers evolved and set up separate companies within the Shaw empire,” wrote critic Stephen Teo, who describes Run Run as “a shrewd promoter and Cecil B. De Mille-type showman who was no less an aesthete and a true connoisseur of film.” TIME reported that “when The Brothers Karamazov, starring bald Yul Brynner, played the Shaw circuit, Run Run organized a head-shaving contest with a prize for the shiniest pate [and] started a teen-age craze for bald heads.”

Shaw pictures, which typically cost about HK$100,000 (five times the industry average), set the colony’s standard for opulence, vigor and splash in a dozen genres—not just the martial-arts epics for which the world knows old Hong Kong movies, but opera films, period farces, tragic romances, sex comedies and effervescent musicals. Shaw also published two film magazines, Hong Kong Movie News and Southern Screen, distributed across Southeast Asia. Though the local language was (and is) Cantonese, something like 90% of Shaw’s films were in imperial Mandarin, meaning that many natives of Hong Kong had to learn another language to enjoy the most popular films made there.

(READ: A Hong Kong Roundtable chaired by Michael Elliott)

In the ’50s and ’60s Shaw created and nurtured a galaxy of female stars: Li Lihua, Lin Dai, Lin Cui, Le Di, Ling Bo, Li Jing, to name just the actresses with “L” names. “We have at least 50 actresses, 24 actors,” said Run Run in a 1964 interview. “In Hong Kong the actresses are more important than actors, because we have more beautiful girls.” From The Beauties of the Shaw Studio: “Shaw believed that for his actresses to be married was bad box office. He exercised enormous control over their lives. If an actress wanted to leave for a rival studio he could be quite ruthless.” Tanny Tien Ni, who starred in Shaw’s spate of erotic dramas in the ’70s, recalled: “I had a Taiwanese passport. The Shaw studio had always sponsored my work permit. So they used this as a weapon. Suddenly, without warning, they withdrew their guarantee. If this had happened, I would have been forced to leave the country.” To stay in Hong Kong, Tien Ni kept busy: she made 51 feature films in six years.

Raymond Chow had been Shaw’s first head of publicity and then, as vice-general manager, the supervisor of production. In 1970 Chow left to form Golden Harvest, which soon rivaled and then overtook Shaw. Run Run’s dominance bred arrogance — or maybe it was the other way around — and a midlife calcification. When Bruce Lee, born in San Francisco to a prominent Chinese opera star and his wife, returned to Hong Kong after co-starring in the ABC-TV series The Green Hornet, Shaw lowballed him with a contract offer of HK$10,000 a film. Chow beat the offer and Golden Harvest reaped the reward of Lee’s international stardom before his 1973 death. Chow also outbid Shaw for one of the many martial-arts actors hoping to be “the next Bruce Lee” — and voilà, Jackie Chan proved to be the biggest worldwide star the colony had ever produced.

(READ: Liam Fitzpatrick pays tribute to Bruce Lee

Shaw Brothers didn’t fold; it continued to feed the great Chinese diaspora throughout Southeast Asia, occasionally penetrating Europe and North America with the wuxia films of Chang Cheh, King Hu, Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang. The erotic spectacles directed by Li Hanxiang, slumming after his opera films, also filled the studio’s coffers. In the mid-’70s Shaw had a few international co-production deals: with Hammer Films (Dracula and the 7 Golden Vampires) and with producers from Spain (Bloody Money), Italy (Supermen Against the Orient) and West Germany (Mighty Peking Man). Run Run also helped finance Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — a flop on its 1982 release, a science-fiction classic soon after.

Raymond Chow was succeeded as the production chief by Mona Fong Yat-wa, a former minor actress (she can be seen singing “Have Fun Tonight” in the 1957 Mambo Girl) and one of the few women to run a film studio in that era; she also kept company with Run Run after working hours. Fong is said to have been jealous of pretty actresses, thus was happy to keep Shaw films an all-male preserve. In 1983, Sir Run Run (he was knighted by the Queen in 1977) shut down the studio, reviving it briefly in 1995 with five films produced or distributed by Shaw.

He concentrated on TVB, which began transmitting on Oct. 12, 1967 as the first commercial station in Hong Kong. It regularly attracted 70%-plus of local viewers with predecessors of American Idol (song contests) and The Sopranos (longform drama). Its Cantonese-language Jade channel was supplemented by the English-language Pearl channel. Shaw also stayed active in Hong Kong as the owner of office blocks, malls, hotels, apartment houses and an amusement park. And in 2002, when Celestial released the first 10 features of its Shaw Brothers library, Run Run, ever vital at 95, presided over a star-laden party reuniting many of the directors and actors who had worked, and lived, under his knowing eye.

(READ: Corliss on the 2002 rerelease of Shaw Brothers classic films)

Run Run’s 50-year marriage to (Lady) Lily Shaw, a Malaysian, produced two sons, Vee-ming and Harold, and two daughters, Violet and Dorothy, none of whom cared to join the family business. Lily died in 1987, and 10 years later, in Las Vegas, Run Run married Mona Fong. He stayed nimble by practicing Chi Gong exercises each day. Into his second century he kept showing up, relatively fit, at TVB anniversary functions, and didn’t surrender control of the company until 2011. Spotted a few years ago at the Hong Kong airport in a wheelchair steered by his housekeeper, Shaw claimed his health was fine. He was just hitching a ride.

Now Uncle Six is on his last journey — as short as the grave, or as far as the asteroid 2899 Runrun Shaw.


MORE: King of Kung Fu: The Film Legacy of Sir Run Run Shaw