A legend in his own lifetime

By all accounts, Sir Run Run Shaw worked hard. As a young man sent from Shanghai to the tropics in the 1920s to help his brother distribute movies, he braved the heat and mosquitoes and travelled to rubber plantations, lumber camps and tin-mine settlements - armed with projectors and reels.

As business boomed, and the brothers built up a cinema chain across South-east Asia, they were known to work till 3am in their office in a Robinson Road shophouse in Singapore, said the Shaw Online website.

By the 1960s, Mr Shaw had set up a movie empire in Hong Kong to rival Hollywood, and was still keeping long hours, six days a week.

Usually, before he arrived at his studio in his Rolls-Royce at around 8am, he would have read one to two scripts at home, said Life magazine.

At work, he surveyed the sound stages and sets, making his way through the palaces, gardens and streets that formed the backdrop to his films.

He then went through movies, rushes and more screenplays relentlessly to see which needed to be reworked and which did not.

Even his Sundays were largely spent watching other people's movies, to check out the competition.

When he turned 100 in 2007, he was still going to meetings twice a month as chairman of the TVB television group, which he founded in 1967.

Staying busy, he once said, was one of his secrets to longevity.

Mr Shaw, a legend in his own lifetime for building an entertainment empire through the Shaw studio and TVB, died in his home in Hong Kong yesterday morning. He was 106.

Over an eight-decade career, he ushered in the golden age of Hong Kong film and TV.

From melodramas to musicals to gongfu flicks, the 1,000-plus Shaw movies may not always have been great art but they were big business.

The 1963 musical fantasy The Love Eterne, starring Ivy Ling Po and Betty Loh Ti as doomed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, for example, was stupendously popular in East Asia, particularly in Taiwan, and some claimed to have to seen it between 100 and 500 times.

In the 1960s, the studio was Asia's busiest, producing more than 40 titles a year - including Yang Kwei Fei (1961), starring Li Li-hua, and The One-armed Swordsman (1967), which made Wang Yu a superstar and introduced a new style of wuxia films. In 1974, annual production peaked at 50.

Mr Shaw popularised the gongfu genre in the West with movies such as Five Fingers Of Death (1972), starring Lo Lieh, and The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978), starring Gordon Liu.

He also invested in international films such as the 1982 sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott.

He launched TVB in 1967, and in 1980, he switched his attention from the film studio to the station, making it the world's biggest producer of Chinese-language programmes.

Most of all, he was a larger-than-life success story himself.

Mr Shaw was born in Ningbo, eastern China, in 1907 - the 33rd year of the Guangxu reign of the Qing Dynasty - the sixth of seven children of a well-to-do family.

His father, who made a fortune out of dyes, was a conservative Chinese parent and did not want his sons in show business.

But four years after Shaw senior died, Run Run's oldest brother Runje (1896-1975), a lawyer and playwright, plunged into moviemaking and adapted one of his plays for the screen in 1924.

The silent comedy, The Man From Shensi, was a hit that made an impression on Run Run.

As he said to The Perspective magazine much later, in 1974, "moviemaking is the most moneymaking, it's exciting". Soon, he and his brothers had set up Unique Film Productions in Shanghai.

His oldest brother Runje and second brother Runde (1899-1973), stayed in China as general manager/movie director and accountant /writer.

Third brother Runme (1901-1985) came to Singapore to find new markets for their films as distribution manager/writer. Run Run, the youngest of the four brothers, was 19 when he left the Shanghai YMCA school to join brother Runme in the tropics, said Shaw Online.

In the brave new world in Singapore in 1927, the brothers started with one rented, ramshackle wooden cinema, The Empire in Tanjong Pagar.

When audiences could not go to the movies, the movies would go to them, in travelling outdoor shows that the brothers took to rural areas in South-east Asia.

Ever so shrewdly, the Shaws would build halls where the shows did well (and buy more land than they needed in investments that would make handsome profits).

By the time Run Run returned to Shanghai to report to Runje in 1939, there were 139 Shaw cinemas in South-east Asia, said Shaw Online.

But the curtain fell on the brothers' winning first act when World War II and the Japanese landed in Singapore in 1942.

For three years, the Shaws had to work for a Japanese company and play Japanese propaganda films. Run Run would make a comeback after the war, in his second act as movie king.

What with the Sino-Japanese conflict and political changes in China in 1949, when the Communists seized power, movie production had moved to Hong Kong by the 1950s.

As the Chinese market was closed behind the Bamboo Curtain, South-east Asia was then the main market for Hong Kong films.

The stage was set for a showdown between Shaw and Cathay, another cinema chain from South-east Asia.

The Shaws had set up Nanyang studio in Hong Kong in the 1930s, which was run by Runde.

During the post-war years, as his younger brothers revived their halls in South-east Asia, he supplied their chain with movies.

The trouble was, the films were not any good. Legend has it that Runde was too much the accountant and unwilling to spend money to make money.

It did not help that Cathay boss Loke Wan Tho had set up a Hollywood-style studio, MP & GI, in Hong Kong in 1955 and stolen the limelight.

MP & GI had a new system in which several films were shot at the same time to save time and expenses, featuring new writers such as Eileen Chang and new stars such as Lin Dai.

So in 1957, Run Run decided to go to Hong Kong and give MP & GI a run for its money.

After he arrived, he bought 19ha of land at Clearwater Bay from the government to build what would be the world's largest private studio at the time, Shaw Brothers Studio.

The land was close to the Chinese border - and the Red threat - and it did not cost him much, only 45 cents a square foot, said Shaw Online.

Soon, Run Run made his presence felt. After he put in a Hollywood-style studio system, he released big-budget epics Diau Darling (1958) and Kingdom And The Beauty (1959).

Diau Darling was made for a jaw-dropping HK$1 million, 10 times the usual budget for a Mandarin movie then. Both films were directed by Li Han-hsiang and starred Lin.

Bent on beating MP & GI, Shaw Brothers competed to sign the same stars and make the same movies.

Too many times, after MP & GI announced it would adapt a famous story into a film, Shaw Brothers rushed out rival versions, including The Dream Of The Red Chamber (1962), starring Loh, and The Love Eterne (1963).

As the competition became cutthroat, Mr Loke struck back by investing in a new company for Shaw director Li and luring him away to Taiwan.

The rivalry came to an end in 1964, though. Mr Loke died in an airplane crash on his way back from the Asian Film Festival in Taiwan.

His studio eventually closed down in 1971.

In the battle between Cathay and Shaw, Run Run ultimately won by outliving his opponent.

Maybe he realised this because he began to work on his longevity in the 1970s.

China's past emperors had their elixirs of life and Run Run had his ginseng phase, said Hong Kong reports. For a few years, he reportedly ate ginseng soup regularly and sucked on sliced wild ginseng.

Altogether, he reportedly spent the present-day equivalent of HK$3 million (S$490,000) a year on the precious root.

He came off ginseng in 1977, however, when he started practising the Chinese exercise of qigong with a master.

He kept up two-hour practices every day, it was said, and when he was well into his 90s, he declared that qigong "makes the body younger".

His movie empire declined in the 1980s, after he turned down Bruce Lee, who shot to superstardom at former Shaw deputy Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest. Golden Harvest overtook Shaw Brothers in box-office receipts in 1975.

But Mr Shaw kept going. He had TVB, which produced a new generation of stars such as Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. (He sold his stake in TVB in 2011.)

He travelled to China, gave millions to charity and enjoyed his collection of Rolls-Royces, paintings, ceramics and jade, said Shaw Online.

And at age 89, he had a new wife, former singer Mona Fong, who was in her 60s then.

They married in Las Vegas in 1997, about 10 years after the first Mrs Shaw, Lily, died.

In Singapore, the Shaw Organisation runs seven cinemas and the Shaw Foundation gives millions of dollars to charity every year.

Mr Shaw, whose family is famously private, is survived by his second wife, his sons Vee Meng and Harold and his daughters Violet and Dorothy.

LIFE AND TIMES OF RUN RUN SHAW

1907 Run Run Shaw was born in Ningbo, eastern China

1924 The Shaw brothers, Runje, Runde, Runme and Run Run, founded Unique Film Productions in Shanghai

1926 Run Run joined Runme in Singapore to distribute Unique films

1927 They started screening silent films in The Empire cinema, a sub-leased wooden building in Tanjong Pagar

1937 Run Run married first wife, Lily (photo)

1939 By then the Shaw cinema chain had 139 halls in South-east Asia

1942-1945 Run Run and Runme were made to work for a Japanese film company in Japanese-occupied Singapore

1957 Run Run moved to Hong Kong to set up Shaw Brothers Studio

1967 He co-founded TVB station in Hong Kong

1969 Hired former singer Mona Fong, who would become deputy chairman of TVB

1977 Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II

1980 Became chairman of TVB


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