In 1923, three brothers bought a decrepit Shanghai opera hall with the intention of turning it into a theater. For their first production, they decided to stage a Robin Hood-type story, The Man From Shensi, written by the eldest brother, a lawyer who’d long harbored dreams of going into the entertainment business. On opening night, the rotting stage gave in under the lead actor’s feet. The audience exploded in laughter.
The brothers weren’t humiliated by this opening-night mishap. Instead, they wrote the fall into the script, and had the actor repeat it every night. The play became a hit. A year later, the brothers pooled their savings to buy a movie camera and turned The Man From Shensi into a film. Then they made another film, then another. By 1925, they’d founded Unique Film Productions and were producing a feature every month. By 1927, they’d established an international distribution base in Singapore, and, in 1931, they made Spring On Stage, the first Chinese film with an optically recorded soundtrack. Five years later, production moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong.
These three brothers were Runje, Runde, and Runme Shaw, and they were soon joined in the movie business by their younger brothers, Runfun and Run Run. Together, they helped create an industry—in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, where they counted the country’s greatest filmmaker, P. Ramlee, among their stable of directors.
Though Runje had pushed the family into the film industry, he stayed behind in Mainland China after the Chinese Revolution and retired. By the 1950s, youngest brother Run Run had emerged as the family’s savviest businessman. In 1958, he opened a new company in Hong Kong and established what would eventually become the largest privately owned film studio in the world. He called it Shaw Brothers Ltd.
The Shaw Bros. clamshell logo and fanfare graced the opening credits of hundreds of films: musicals, melodramas, comedies, period dramas, and, most famously, kung-fu and wuxia films. It was, in many ways, the last major studio where the “genius of the system” still existed, with a flashy house style—the films, shot almost exclusively in anamorphic widescreen, were colorful and full of off-kilter compositions—that guaranteed that even a middling Shaw Bros. movie would be interesting to watch.
Along with his brother Runme, Shaw helped create the modern wuxia film by working (and occasionally clashing) with inventive filmmakers like King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Lau Kar-leung. He produced many of classics of the genre, including The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, The Five Deadly Venoms, The Bells Of Death, Come Drink With Me, Mad Monkey Kung Fu, My Young Auntie, Return To The 36th Chamber, and the sublime Dirty Ho. At its peak, Shaw Bros. would have as many as a dozen films in production at once, with a new one starting every nine days.
Run Run Shaw made only a few attempts at working with the Western film industry, producing a handful of crossover genre titles (the Hammer co-production The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, the blaxploitation sequel Cleopatra Jones And The Casino Of Gold) and personally putting up a third of Blade Runner’s budget. He did, however, work repeatedly with Japanese filmmakers, bringing directors like Kô Nakahira and Umetsugu Inoue to work in Hong Kong, and producing Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-Fei.
In addition to his film studio, Shaw also founded Hong Kong’s largest television network, TVB, a media powerhouse that developed a reputation as a showcase for young talent in the 1980s. Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Stephen Chow, and Andy Lau all started their careers at TVB, as did Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To. Following Runme’s death in 1985, Shaw concentrated almost exclusively on TVB, eventually stopping production at Shaw Bros. and handing its studios over to the network. He remained TVB’s chairman until retiring at the age of 104, having led the company for 44 years.
Shaw’s nearly 90-year career made him a billionaire, and in addition to his film studios and television network, he owned stakes in theater chains, real estate, and amusement parks. At one point, he was the largest shareholder of Macy’s (reportedly saving the company from bankruptcy). In his later years, Shaw donated extensively to science and education causes in China and abroad, and founded a public university, Shaw College, in Hong Kong. In 2002, he established the Shaw Prize, an annual $1 million award, modeled on the Nobel Prize, given to achievements in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. He remained active well past the age of 100, and credited his longevity to his strict diet and adherence to qigong.
Shaw died at home Tuesday at the age of 106. He leaves behind one of the most storied legacies in the history of film and television and a media empire he helped guide from the silent-film era into the age of the Internet.