Sir Run Run Shaw: The legend with a heart of gold

Sir Run Run Shaw was world-renowned for his movie-making exploits, but his philanthropy and work with the Red Cross showed his humanity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 5:18am

In 1966, the Red Cross was in trouble. It had no money and even less blood. The organising committee was desperate.

"Can we ask Run Run to help?" someone asked.

A call went out to Sir Run Run Shaw at his movie city in Clear Water Bay. He knew little about the Red Cross.

Typically, he threw his energy and influence into the effort, staging a gala charity premiere with entry set at HK$1,000 per couple. The committee was stunned. Who could afford such an extravagant price to see a film?

Sir Run Run held a party at his palatial home on a crest above the studios.

Paying HK$1,000 for a good cause was not really all that expensive, he explained to the guests. The theatre was packed.

That solved the immediate money problem. But then he started asking questions about the Red Cross.

When he discovered that ingrained superstition and feudal belief deterred many people from donating blood, he became chairman and made blood collection a personal cause.

Swordfight heroes and film starlets trooped out before the cameras to personally donate blood. So did wealthy businessmen and their wives.

So did a swelling number of the public as a publicity drive persuaded Hongkongers that giving blood was part of their commitment to society.

In 1966, a mere 20,435 units of blood were donated in the city, largely collected from British soldiers. Last year, about 170,000, mostly local, donors gave 247,007 units of blood, the highest total on record.

Sir Run Run, who died at his Hong Kong home yesterday, is survived by two sons and two daughters - Vee-Ming, Harold, Dorothy and Violet - and by his second wife, the former Mona Fong, who he married in 1997.

When Sir Run Run Shaw came to Hong Kong in 1957 and bought land for a studio at Clear Water Bay, he almost single-handedly resurrected the ailing Hong Kong movie industry. It is estimated that over the next 25 years, Shaw Brothers made 900 films. He created entire new genres - swordfight dramas, lurid ghost stories and kung fu fighting were Clear water Bay staples.

The movie and other entertainment businesses were vital to the life and business enterprises of the tiny, bird-like man.

They were the core of his business life. But he was much, much more than a movie tycoon.

He felt a commitment to those less fortunate. Cultured and educated, he felt obliged to try to bring the better things of life to the masses.

He was on the committee that in 1969 set up the Community Chest. He was a guiding light for the establishment of the Arts Festival in 1973 and an active chairman, persuading some of the most prestigious cultural groups in the world to play in Hong Kong's humble venues.

As a philanthropist, Sir Run Run was hugely generous. In 1985 he estimated he had already given away HK$1 billion.

But as an astute entrepreneur, he was careful how he gave. He wanted to see that flood of money put to good use. He targeted education, health and other basic causes that would not merely bring short-term relief to a few people, but create building blocks for the long-term good of Hong Kong and all China.

He poured billions into The Sir Run Run Shaw Charitable Trust and The Shaw Foundation.

They promoted education, scientific and technological research, medical and welfare services and art and culture. Among his more recent ventures was the establishment of the Shaw Prize in 2002, an endowment paying US$1 million prizes to three people picked annually for innovation in astronomy, life science and medicine and mathematical science.

The first of these prizes awarded to pioneers in their fields was given in 2004. Since then, 54 prominent scientists have received the prestigious awards that have been described as the Asian version of the Nobel Prize.

Sir Run Run, or Shao Yi Fu, as he was named, was born in Shanghai in 1906 (or 1907 according to some records).

He graduated from the Shanghai YMCA School, an institution which taught him his excellent English.

With his older brothers Runme and Runje he made a flickering silent film in 1924 about the success of a hard-working businessman. It spawned what became the Shaw entertainment empire.

Sir Run Run made no secret when he reminisced about how much he loved his life.

In his sprawling mansion above Clear Water Bay he would keep guests enthralled for hours as he chatted about his adventures in movie distribution in Southeast Asia.

"There were no theatres and many of the Chinese were poor migrants working in tin mines or logging camps in remote places," he once recalled.

"They couldn't go to the movies, so we took films to them."

Complete portable cinemas, benches, screens, projectors, generators and the latest film made by Runje in Shanghai, were packed into rickety trucks and driven over nightmarish roads into the interior.

As appreciative labourers and their families watched the show, Run Run and Runme would scout out the land. If there was a good supply of customers, the brothers would build a theatre.

Shrewdly, they always bought more land than they needed for a cinema. They figured that a thriving movie house would attract a lot more people to the area, forcing up real estate prices.

This astute assumption laid the financial basis for much of the sprawling Shaw empire.

But it was show business that Sir Run Run loved. He recalled the first Cantonese language film ever made, a musical called White Dragon which featured two stars of the Guangzhou stage.

A half century after it was first shown, Sir Run Run bubbled with glee in a 1985 interview as he talked about the film.

"It broke all records and people queued for hours to see people talking in Cantonese and singing Cantonese love songs," he exclaimed. "It cost HK$5,000 to make and in its first run in Canton alone it made HK$590,000."

Vernacular movies were box office boomers. The lesson was soon learned and Shaw Brothers made the first Bahasa language movie, which drew huge audiences in British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

When Run Run went home to Shanghai in 1939 to make a progress report, he could proudly report back to his family about the 139 Shaw Brothers cinemas and surrounding real estate that dotted the map of Southeast Asia.

Invasion destroyed that commercial empire as surely as it conquered Southeast Asia. "We lost everything," he recalled.

But he was fortunate. He kept his head. As the Japanese military government clamped its brutal rule on Singapore, the secret police hunted through the island for the man who had distributed films showing the vicious invasion of China. He was found sheltering in the home of a friend, dragged to a police station and interrogated for 10 days.

Then a senior Japanese official made an offer Run Run could not refuse - he was asked to reopen cinemas to show films for their soldiers.

Peace did not bring prosperity. Public tastes were changed dramatically by the war and political developments.

People wanted to watch slick Hollywood and European productions. Good-quality theatres showing Chinese films stood empty. The reason, Run Run considered, was down to the appalling quality of Chinese language films.

In 1957 he headed for Hong Kong, paid 45 cents per square foot for land at Clear water Bay (Shaw movie town now stands there) and started a cinematic revolution. Over the next quarter century, he made "maybe 800, maybe 900, I can't remember" movies there.

First, they were romances set in ancient dynasties. This wave was followed by swordfight slash-and-gash dramas, and for a while stories on demons and ghosts were popular.

Then came the genre that rocketed Hong Kong moviemaking into the big time - kung fu films.

The Clear Water Bay studios were like an ants' nest, with up to three movies being shot simultaneously on the same set on a 24-hour-a-day celluloid production line.

He became chairman of TVB and was director of dozens of companies.

Sir Run Run was photographed with stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. He rubbed shoulders with other tycoons and financiers and with politicians.

But his greatest joy was knowing that the vast fortunes he gave away were doing good for humanity.


Sir Run Run Shaw delighted in recalling the first movie he ever made. It was a real-life drama as enthralling as any swordfight saga.

Soon after elder brother Runje dispatched him to Singapore in 1928 to handle movie distribution, China trembled on the brink of great change.

In that same year Chiang Kai-shek led his largely Cantonese and Guangxi armies on what history knows as the Great Northern Expedition.

When the news reached Singapore, and unknown to his brother, the young Run Run hired the burliest Chiu Chow labourer he could find.

With his new-found assistant carrying a weighty French cine camera, the pair boarded the first ship bound for Tianjin . Miraculously, they got to the outskirts of Beijing and set up their camera just as Chiang, mounted on a white horse, led his victorious forces into the capital.

Spliced with earlier film of strutting warlords and the Kuomintang's march north, the short film was a sensation, shown repeatedly - and very profitably - in every cinema in China and every Chinatown on earth.

Six decades after this great coup, Sir Run Run laughed: "Never make a film about news - that's what they say in the movie business."

He never did again.


1906 Sir Run Run Shaw, or Shao Yi Fu, was born in Shanghai, the sixth child of Shanghai textile merchant Shaw Yuh Hsuen - leading to him being nicknamed Uncle Six

1924 He co-founds Unique ("Tianyi") Film Company in Shanghai with his brothers, which later becomes Shaw Studios

1928 He goes to Singapore, which was then part of British colonial Malaya, with brother Runme Shaw to open up a new market by making films and setting up a chain of cinema theatres

1937 He marries first wife, Wong Mee-chun, who dies in 1987

1957 Moves to Hong Kong and founds the 650,000 sq ft Shaw Brothers' Studio in Clearwater Bay, Sai Kung, the largest privately owned film studio in Asia at the time which goes on to produce more than 1,000 films over the following decades

1967 Establishes Hong Kong's first free-to-air television station Television Broadcasts, also known as TVB

1974 Made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth

1977 Knighted by Queen Elizabeth. People then also call him "Ah Sir"

1985 Donates HK$110 million to Chinese University to found the fourth constituent college at the time - Shaw College

1990 Chinese Academy of Sciences names an asteroid after Sir Run Run as "Runrun Shaw" to recognise his contribution to the development of China's education

1997 Marries second wife Mona Fong Yat-wah

1998 Receives the Grand Bauhinia Medal from the Hong Kong government for his contribution to the city

2002 Establishes Shaw Prize for research scientists in astronomy, mathematics, and medical science. First prizes awarded in 2004

2007 He is granted the China Charity Award by the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the Chinese government for his contribution to China's charities

2011 Sells his entire 26 per cent holding in TVB for HK$6.26 billion and steps down from all posts there

2014 Dies peacefully at home aged 107. Survived by two sons, two daughters and second wife.