Sir Run Run Shaw: An Obituary

Run Run Shaw passed away this week at the age of 106. He is known for the his great kung fu movies, and his contributions to the Hong Kong movie industry. However, to me, the impact of Run Run Shaw and his brothers were far wider even than this.

It was Run Run and his three brothers who set up their first film company, Tianyi Films, in Shanghai 1925. To expand into the South-East Asian market, they set up Shaw Brothers Ltd in Singapore for distribution, and Nanyang Studios in Hong Kong to increase film production. Between these two companies they took advantage of the British colonial network of banking and shipping routes, established business relations with many diaspora Chinese businesses, invited expertise, supplies from Guangdong, Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and succeeded in setting up a transnational entertainment business.  It was Run Run Shaw who bought out the studios from his brother Runde, moved away from its conservative approach to instill the kind of glamour, vibrancy and charm we all know it for today. He renamed it Shaw Brother Studios.

Not only did Shaw Brothers Studios provide their talented actors like Ivy Ling Po, Cheng Pei Pei, Lily Ho, Ti Lung and David Chiang, and directors such as Chang Cheh, King Hu and Li Han Xiang, ample training and opportunities; the creative talent it nurtured actually contributed to the making of Chinese language films throughout the world, for generations to come. Shaw actors like Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu, directors like John Woo, Andrew Lau, choreographers like Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping have made their way into Hollywood. Run Run’s trusted advisor Raymond Chow even set up his own company, Golden Harvest, which would go on to make iconic films.

Run Run Shaw was the first to begin to achieve what his predecessors only dreamd of, to make Chinese language films world-class cinema. He recognized movies as what they primarily are, entertainment. There is so much more to the range of Shaw movies than kung fu. In entertaining generations of cinema-goers across Asia Shaw molded and shaped their tastes. With their lavish historical epics, they comforted all the Chinese around the world with dream-like, idyllic visions of their homeland. For the struggling lower middle class, Shaw gave them courage as they saw characters like themselves triumph in life against many odds. For liberated women, Shaw gave them plenty of role models in action heroines, female warriors and glamorous, independent girls.

I do feel a personal sadness at the death of Run Run Shaw. Shaw Brothers Studios get bonus points from me, for working with Hammer, one of my favourite film studios, to produce Seven Golden Vampires; and the technical support and expertise they provided to Bladerunner, one of my all time favourite films, adapted from the works of one of my favourite Sci Fi authors.

As a Chinese cultural commentator I sometimes find it upsetting that the Chinese don’t appreciate China for what it is. Morale was exceptionally low for the diaspora Chinese who had not only lost their homes, but for one reason or another, were denied citizenship in other countries. Run Run reached out to them with what he called the 中国味道 “zhong guo wei dao” or Chinese flavour. He wanted the world to “understand China and Chinese culture”, and always emphasized the authentic “Chineseness”, especially when promoting films abroad. Sadly, the 60s and 70s was not the ripe time in the West for people want to understand, let alone enjoy, oriental culture. Now, when it is, most Chinese companies sadly only want to make films to accommodate an imagined western taste.

Perhaps it’s time for filmmakers to re-evaluate Shaw’s legacy, and consider the importance of “zhong guo wei dao“.

Christine Ni’s talk, Shaw Sisters: The Fighting Females of Hong Kong Cinema, debuts at ReadCon on 5th July 2014.



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