by Tan Bah Bah
Run Run Shaw’s death brought to close an era of giant East Asian film-makers. Reports rightly describe the most productive period of the legendary Shaw brothers as part of the Golden Age of Hong Kong films. They also pioneered Malay film production in Singapore and Malaysia.
We may never see the likes of these unusual giants, as today’s more successful businessmen seem to be cut from the same cloth of property investments, oil-trading and corporate takeover manoeuvres. I can’t imagine any major private risk-taker putting his money into producing a film like The Titanic or Blade Runner (which incidentally was a Shaw production).
But guess who people will remember years down the road. Not your typical property tycoon but creative people like the Shaw brothers, Loke Wan Tho (Cathay Studio) and Raymond Chow (Golden Harvest). All have brought such pleasure and hours of cinema escapism to millions of film buffs in Asia.
For the record, there were four Shaw brothers. Runje Shaw started it all in Shanghai in the early 1920s. He was later joined by Runde and Runme and then Run Run. Runme was behind the launching of their chain of cinemas in Singapore. Runde went over to help organise their cinema business. Run Run subsequently arrived in 1957 to build a new Shaw studio. Thus began the Golden Age of Hong Kong films.
The rivalry between Cathay and Shaw and between Shaw and Raymond Chow fuelled the production of some of the best and most memorable martial arts films the world is ever going to see. Shaw popularised the genre. Among the films were The One-Armed Swordsman, Five Fingers of Death and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Jimmy Wang Yu was the standout swordfighter hero of the day until the entry of that king of all kungfu fighters – Bruce Lee.
Bruce was the superstar who propelled Raymond Chow, who used to work for Shaw, into an orbit of his own. Shaw ventured into TV production and had its highly successful TVB, the first wireless commercial TV station in Hong Kong. Some of the biggest filmstars and entertainers of Hong Kong cut their teeth on TVB.
Run Run Shaw and his brothers were remarkable for their impact on the lives of so many millions. From what I have read and known, they began with nothing more than a dream. They seemed to have an interesting mix of joie de vivre, frugality, ambition and a sense of wanting to give back to the community.
With ambition, they built an empire but they were never showy in that they did not need monumental structures to remind others of their achievements or status. I was a film reviewer when I was with the SPH group and I used to visit one C. Y. Chen, who was the Shaw’s media liaison person at that time. The office was a nondescript building in Robinson Road. The rooms inside the building were even more normal. Everything was functional.
Run Run, in particular, obviously enjoyed his job. He was ever willing to pose for photo-taking with his bevy of film stars.
In their quieter ways, the Shaws should be equally known for their generosity. The Shaw Foundation has dispensed millions of dollar to deserving charitable and other causes.
Perhaps the era of the Shaws may never return. These are boardroom-run days. Everything is operated on hard-headed consensus. What do you think will be the reaction should the deputy chairman of the board one day put a plan on the table and ask: “I have this plan to build a studio in outer space.”
He will be probably be kicked out at the next meeting.
But I ask: Why not? We have a scion of a local billionaire who has gone into film production and done well at that. He should have the resource to build a studio and make his lasting mark on the film industry.