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R.I.P. Raymond Chow, Hong Kong film pioneer

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Raymond Chow Man-Wai, the prolific Hong Kong movie producer who helped introduce martial arts legends like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and more to the world, has died. According to the Straits Times, Chow was 91.

Originally a disciple of the legendary Shaw Brothers, Chow broke out on his own in 1970, when he launched rival studio Golden Harvest. Recognizing the rising stardom, popularity, and talent of Green Hornet star Bruce Lee, Chow successfully outbid the Shaws to sign Lee to a contract, promising him creative control far beyond that offered by the more restrictive and conservative Shaws. In 1971, Chow produced The Big Boss, Lee’s first starring film, which quickly became the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong film industry history, and cemented Lee as a martial arts superstar. Each subsequent Lee film—Fist Of Fury, Way Of The Dragon, and Enter The Dragon, which Golden Harvest produced in association with Warner Bros.—topped the previous ones, establishing Golden Harvest as one of the biggest names in Hong Kong film production.

After Lee’s sudden death in 1973, Chow and Golden Harvest continued to diversify its roster of talent. Sammo Hung had worked as a fight coordinator for Chow since the studio’s beginning; when Golden Harvest decided to attempt to salvage the incomplete Game Of Death five years after Lee’s death, it was Hung they turned to to plan out the duplicates and fights. The studio also had successes outside martial arts movies courtesy of the Hui Brothers comedy team, producing several hits throughout the 1970s.

But it was in the early 1980s that Golden Harvest managed to secure the loyalty of the next international martial arts superstar, when it managed to lure Drunken Master star Jackie Chan away from rival producer Lo Wei. (Lo was so pissed off by this coup that he supposedly hired gangsters in an effort to blackmail Chan into coming back.) Chan would go on to make a great many films with Golden Harvest, breaking through into international popularity with the help of the Police Story franchise.

Although his name was synonymous with Golden Harvest throughout his producing career, it can be difficult to tease out how much impact Raymond Chow had on the 178 individual films that eventually carried his name. His eye for talent was undeniable, though; he hand-picked—and managed to hold on to, in an extremely competitive market—some of the most famous martial artists in the world, creating an environment where they were not only well paid, but free to exercise their creative impulses. He helped carve inroads into Western markets—Golden Harvest co-produced all three live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies in the ’90s—while encouraging (and profiting off of) independent directors looking to redefine what Hong Kong film could be. And then there’s this: There’s a world that exists somewhere where Bruce Lee died a well-liked, but only regionally known, martial arts performer, kicking along in more traditional kung-fu fare. If nothing else, Raymond Chow helped to bring that legend to life.