Jonathan Clements remembers a giant of Asian cinema
Shao Renlung, who died today aged 106, was born into a very different world. Born in Ningbo to a Shanghai haberdasher in 1907, he grew up in a China that was still ruled by the Last Emperor. Biographers remain eternally confused about his birthday, since he was born on the 14th day of the tenth lunar month – it would be several years before imperial China adopted the Western calendar, and an intricate calculation to work out that this was actually what we would call 23rd November. He is usually known as Run Run Shaw, switching his names into English order, and showing the remnants of a Shanghainese accent, even in his adopted home of Hong Kong.
The youngest of six brothers, hence his nickname Uncle Six, he went to help with the family business in Singapore. His elder brother Runme Shaw (1901-85) had developed an interest in the new-fangled medium of cinema, and set up a company to sell silent movies. The brothers had hoped to capitalise on the vast overseas Chinese community in South-East Asia, but had to contend with local factionalism between their own Shanghainese brethren and immigrants from other parts of China, speaking different dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew. But “silent” film united all linguistic groups, and by 1927 the brothers had leased a timber movie theatre in Singapore, and began making the films to show in it. They worked in Shanghai, movie capital of Asia, where they made the first Chinese talkie, before fleeing to Hong Kong in 1934 ahead of the Japanese invasion. Run Run scripted and directed at least one film, Country Bumpkin Visits his In-laws (1937), but remained largely involved in operational areas of the film business. After the war, he spent much of the 1940s and early 1950s establishing cinemas in Singapore and Malaysia. In 1958, he returned to Hong Kong, where the family business was now known as Shaw Brothers – a name and a logo modelled on that of Warners in the US.
The Shaw Brothers involved themselves in every part of the movie-making process. They owned the production facilities at Hong Kong’s Shaw Studios. They made the films there. They owned the distributors that shuttled the cans to theatres, and they owned the theatres themselves. In a single country, such vertical integration might have looked suspicious, but their ventures were spread throughout the Chinese-speaking world, and crossed multiple borders. At their production peak, Shaw Studios made 50 films in a single year (1974), and were the largest facility in East Asia. In the 1960s, they sanded down some of the historical elements in their epics, concentrating instead on acrobatics and heavier violence. This, in turn, made them more palatable or at least accessible to non-Chinese audiences, and inadvertently stoked the fires of what would become known as the Kung Fu Boom. Shaw himself has over 300 producer credits in the IMDB, on films such as Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, many instalments of the Shaolin cycle, and classics such as the musical The Love Eterne (1963), largely unknown in the West, but a veritable Casablanca for a whole generation of Chinese movie-goers.
By the 1970s, however, their influence was fading. They offered sanctuary to refugees from China’s Peking Opera schools (with early stunt careers for unknowns like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung), but China itself was largely closed to them as a market, and they faced competition from upstarts like Golden Harvest. Even as the world embraced “kung fu” as a genre, with Harvest’s legendary star Bruce Lee, Shaw Brothers’ martial arts epics and historical sagas were waning in popularity. Undaunted, Shaw moved into television, setting up Television Broadcasts (TVB), Hong Kong’s first free-to-air TV channel, and cornered the market in TV dramas, kung fu and history. The crucible that forged future stars like Chow Yun-fat and director John Woo, TVB also allowed Shaw to diversify into overseas movie production – most famously, he was one of the producers of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
As a subject of the British Crown, Run Run was knighted in 1974 by the Queen. As a resident and focus of Hong Kong’s movie community, he received a Lifetime Achievement gong at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2007, the year of his 100th birthday. He was also a canny investor and an extravagant donor to many charities, giving away billions of Hong Kong dollars to noble causes, and becoming for a time the vice-president of the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 21st century, he was able to witness the passing on of his legacy to a new generation. Celestial Pictures acquired and re-released much of the Shaw Brothers catalogue, while in a knowing tribute, Quentin Tarantino dusted off the Shaw Brothers logo to begin his extended homage to Asian cinema, Kill Bill. TVB courted controversy, and gained a remarkable achievement in weirdness bingo, when its serial based on Huang Yi’s A Step into the Past caused the People’s Republic of China to officially ban time travel.
In later life, Sir Run Run maintained a busy working schedule, ascribing his longevity to early nights, ginseng and tai chi. A man of simple tastes, his favourite TV show was said to be Mr Bean, one of the last inheritors of the silent movie tradition that first made his fortune.