Hong Kong movie mogul and widely-renowned as the person who brought kung fu films to the world, Run Run Shaw died on Tuesday, according to a statement from Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), which he helped found in 1967. No cause of death was given. Shaw was 107 years old.
Shaw’s prolific studio helped bring kung fu films to the world but he also passed on the chance to sign one of the biggest names in that genre — the young Bruce Lee.
The missed opportunity was a rare misstep for Shaw, who led TVB until retiring as chairman in December 2011 at the age of 104. He is survived by his second wife and four children from his first marriage.
Shaw was born near Shanghai to a wealthy textile merchant. His exact birth date is unclear, and different Shaw-related websites say he was born in 1906 or 1907.
One of his six siblings, elder brother Runme Shaw, set up a silent film studio, Unique Film Production Co. Shaw and a third brother, Runje, went to Singapore in 1923 to market films to Southeast Asia’s Chinese community and eventually opened 139 movie theatres across the region.
After surviving World War II, the company was faced with growing competition from rivals in Hong Kong and Singapore, so Shaw moved to Hong Kong in the late 1950s to modernise the company. He shifted focus from exhibiting films to producing them and renamed the company Shaw Brothers.
The result was a library of nearly 1,000 movies such as The One Armed Swordsman and The Five Fingers of Death, the latter being one of Shaw’s most successful in the United States.
The studio’s logo — the initials SB on a shield — was inspired by the Warner Brothers emblem, in a nod to its Hollywood aspirations. It came full circle when Quentin Tarantino appropriated the Shaw Brothers logo for use in his two Kill Bill movies, which were in homage to the studio and other Hong Kong martial arts movies.
“For a year, I’d watch one old Shaw Brothers movie a day if not three,” Tarantino told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2003, discussing his preparation for filming.
While Shaw didn’t create the kung fu movie, he was quick to capitalise on the genre’s trendiness and used a modernised studio system and centralised production techniques to pump out films quickly, beating out rivals to satisfy audience demands.
In their heyday, Shaw films were reportedly seen by 1.5 million people a week, many of them in the cinemas owned by Shaw and his brothers in Southeast Asia.
The movie mogul failed to spot the potential of an up-and-coming Bruce Lee, who had returned to Hong Kong after a stint in Hollywood. Lee wanted a bigger salary and creative control of his films. But Shaw wouldn’t budge from the standard contract given to all his actors.
Lee signed instead with rival upstart Golden Harvest. Other up-and-coming stars like Jackie Chan also spurned Shaw’s factory-like approach.
Movie audiences moved on to grittier, more realistic or contemporary action fare, though Shaw movies still have a solid cult following globally. The Shaw film library was eventually sold in 2000 to Celestial Pictures, which has been restoring them and re-releasing them digitally.
Film production ceased in 1983, but by then Shaw had switched his focus to television. In 1973 he took control of TVB, which remains Hong Kong’s dominant TV station. It served as the launching pad for the careers of talents including Chow Yun-fat, Wong Kar-wai, heartthrob Andy Lau and comedian Stephen Chow.
The broadcaster’s Chinese language channel is also popular in southern China and its Chinese programs, many dubbed into other languages, are seen by 300 million households around the world. Shaw, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, was also a philanthropist. In 2002, he founded the annual Shaw Prizes, Asia’s version of the Nobel Prizes. The honour offers $1 million annually to winners in mathematics, medicine and astronomy.
Shaw preferred to stay out of the spotlight and rarely gave interviews, even about his philanthropy. A journalist for the South China Morning Post newspaper recounted mentioning during a 1984 interview that a medical team fighting leprosy in Southwestern China had trouble traveling over the rugged, mountainous terrain. On hearing this, Shaw immediately decided to donate off-road vehicles but demanded there be no publicity.