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Run Run Shaw, movie mogul dies at 106

Hong Kong media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
Hong Kong media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw.

Run Run Shaw, the colorful Hong Kong media mogul whose name was synonymous with low-budget Chinese action and horror films — and especially with the wildly successful kung fu genre, which he is largely credited with inventing — died on Tuesday at his home in Hong Kong. He was 106.

His company, Television Broadcasts Limited, announced his death in a statement.

Born in China, Mr. Shaw and his older brother, Run Me, were movie pioneers in Asia, producing and sometimes directing films and owning lucrative cinema chains. His companies are believed to have released more than 800 films worldwide.

After his brother's death in 1985, Mr. Shaw expanded his interest in television and became a publishing and real estate magnate as well. For his philanthropy, much of it going to educational and medical causes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with public expressions of gratitude by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

Mr. Shaw enjoyed the zany glamour of the Asian media world he helped create. He presided over his companies from a garish Art Deco palace in Hong Kong, a cross between a Hollywood mansion and a Hans Christian Andersen cookie castle. Well into his 90s he attended social gatherings with a movie actress on each arm. And he liked to be photographed in a tai chi exercise pose, wearing the black gown of a traditional mandarin.

Asked what his favorite films were, Mr. Shaw, a billionaire, once replied, "I particularly like movies that make money."

Run Run Shaw was born Shao Yifu in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, in 1907. As a child, he moved to Shanghai, where his father ran a profitable textile business. According to some Hong Kong news media accounts, Run Run and Run Me were English-sounding nicknames the father gave his sons as part of a family joke that played on the similarity of the family name to the word rickshaw.

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Evincing little interest in the family business, Run Run and Run Me turned instead to entertainment. The first play they produced was called "Man From Shensi," on a stage, as it turned out, of rotten planks. As the brothers often told the story, on opening night the lead actor plunged through the planks, and the audience laughed. The Shaws took note and rewrote the script to include the incident as a stunt. They had a hit, and in 1924 they turned it into their first film.

After producing several more movies, the brothers decided that their homeland, torn by fighting between Nationalists and Communists, was too unstable. In 1927 they moved to Singapore, which was then part of British colonial Malaya.

Besides producing their own films in Singapore, the brothers imported foreign movies and built up a string of theaters. Their business boomed until the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula in 1941 and stripped their theaters and confiscated their film equipment. But according to Run Run Shaw, he and his brother buried more than $4 million in gold, jewelry and currency in their backyard, which they dug up after World War II and used to resume their careers.

With the rise of Hong Kong as the primary market for Chinese films, Run Run Shaw moved there in 1959, while his brother stayed behind looking after their Singapore business.

In Hong Kong, Run Run Shaw created Shaw Movietown, a complex of studios and residential towers where his actors worked and lived. Until then, the local industry had turned out 60-minute films with budgets that rarely exceeded a few thousand dollars. Shaw productions ran up to two hours and cost as much as $50,000 — a lavish sum by Asian standards at the time.

Mr. Shaw went on to plumb the so-called dragon-lady genre with great commercial success. Movies like "Madame White Snake" (1963) and "The Lady General" (1965) offered sexy, combative, sometimes villainous heroines, loosely based on historical characters. And by the end of the 1960s, he had discovered that martial-arts films in modern settings could make even more money.

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His "Five Fingers of Death" (1973), considered a kung fu classic, was followed by "Man of Iron" (1973), "Shaolin Avenger" (1976) and many others. Critics dismissed the films as artless and one-dimensional, but spectators crowded into the theaters to cheer, laugh or mockingly hiss at the action scenes. To ensure that his films were amply distributed, Mr. Shaw's chain of cinemas grew to more than 200 houses in Asia and the United States. "We were like the Hollywood of the 1930s," he said. "We controlled everything: the talent, the production, the distribution and the exhibition."

Other Hong Kong producers, directors and actors called Mr. Shaw's methods iron-fisted. In 1970, Raymond Chow, a producer with Mr. Shaw's company, Shaw Brothers, left to form his own company, Golden Harvest, which gave more creative and financial independence to top directors and stars.

Mr. Chow's biggest success, and Mr. Shaw's most notable loss, was his decision to bankroll Bruce Lee. Mr. Lee initially approached Shaw Brothers, which turned down his demand for a long-term contract of $10,000 per film. Golden Harvest then offered Mr. Lee creative control and profit-sharing.

"The Big Boss," better known as "Fists of Fury" (1971), was Mr. Lee's first film with Golden Harvest, and it broke all Hong Kong box-office records. Other big-name actors and directors flocked to Golden Harvest, breaking Shaw Brothers' virtual monopoly.

But Run Run Shaw had already expanded beyond the film industry. His investments in the new phenomenon of Asian television were to prove even more lucrative than his movie productions. In 1972 he began Television Broadcasts (TVB), and he soon gained control of 80 percent of the Hong Kong market. TVB churned out 12 hours of its own programming a day, much of it soap operas and costume dramas that riveted Chinese television viewers on the mainland and throughout Southeast Asia.

As his fortune grew, Mr. Shaw donated generously to hospitals, orphanages and colleges in Hong Kong, for which he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974 and a knighthood in 1977. In 1990 he donated 10 million pounds to help establish the Run Run Shaw Institute of Chinese Affairs at Oxford University, where his four children had studied. In 2004 he established the Shaw Prize, an international award for research in astronomy, mathematics and medicine.

As Hong Kong's days as a British colony dwindled, Mr. Shaw stepped up his philanthropy in China. He contributed more than $100 million to scores of universities on the mainland and raised money in support of Chinese victims of floods and other natural disasters. Chinese leaders toasted him for his generosity at banquets in Beijing.

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Mr. Shaw's philanthropy did not extend to the United States, but he was once viewed as a white knight in New York. In 1991, when Macy's was on the verge of bankruptcy, he bought 10 percent of its preferred shares for $50 million, becoming one of the largest shareholders in R. H. Macy & Company.

The investment had a personal aspect. Ten years earlier, Mitchell Finkelstein, the son of Macy's chief executive, Edward S. Finkelstein, had married Hui Ling, a Shaw protégée who appeared in many of his movies. Mr. Shaw met the older Finkelstein at the wedding, and they became friends.

In later years, the aging mogul himself seemed in need of help to keep his media empire intact. Concerned with the rise of cable and satellite television, he sold a 22 percent stake in TVB to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in 1993.

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Mr. Shaw had intended to maintain control over his media business by balancing his one-third share in TVB against Mr. Murdoch's 22 percent and the 24 percent held by Robert Kuok, one of Hong Kong's richest entrepreneurs. But the balance of power shifted when Mr. Murdoch sold his equity to Mr. Kuok shortly afterward. Then, in 1996, in Hong Kong's first case of a hostile takeover, Mr. Kuok forced Mr. Shaw to sell him his shares in TVE, the lucrative publishing, music and real estate subsidiary of TVB. The deal reduced Mr. Shaw's TVB stake to 23 percent.

Mr. Shaw's business situation was also hindered by his inability to groom credible successors. His sons, Vee Meng and Harold, were at one time heavily involved in the family enterprises, but their relationship with him had become strained.

Even after turning 90, Mr. Shaw maintained a powerful presence in the Hong Kong film world through his control of Shaw Studios. But a newer generation of independent producers came to dominate the Hong Kong market with their own violent brand of police and gangster films.

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