Chinese film and television tycoon Sir Run Run Shaw died last Tuesday morning at 107.
It is hardly exaggerating to say that Sir Run Run was one of the most influential men in modern China. His company's dominance in Chinese film and television for at least half a century has shaped imaginations and reminiscence of traditional China of millions of people at home and abroad. Perhaps not so much so in mainland China until the early 1980s, but certainly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and countless Chinese communities spreading across Southeast Asia and North America since the 1950s.
There is no point to deny that I have grown up being fed with TVB's melodramas, in particular those in ancient costumes. Only a toddler who hardly knew how to speak eloquently, I was addicted to watching Chinese Folklore, short dramas based on popular Chinese folklore that lasted no more than five episodes for each story. In retrospect, the series was most likely my first lesson in Chinese literature. Perhaps this is also why I never had any serious problem memorising all those similar plots of classical fiction and drama for my Chinese literature class more than 10 years later.
Folklore aside, what I found most addictive was martial arts drama, especially those adapted from the bestsellers by Louis Cha. The Legend of the Condor Heroes starred by Barbara Yung and Felix Wong was my all-time favourite, although the original novel is far from being so. Only until the early 1990s when I had a better chance to learn about the golden age of post-war Hong Kong cinema did I realise that TVB's success was essentially built on the solid foundation of Shaw Brothers, which earned its reputation for its martial arts and Chinese folklore in huangmeidiao genres.
To me, the remarkable success of Sir Run Run's film and television empire is more cultural than economic. From my personal experience, his productions have defined, if restricted, my imaginations of traditional China in one way or another. Make-up and costumes, for example, are the most visible. If I never had any interest in history, I am most likely to be one of those many who believe what they see on television is a truthful account of the past, or at least pretty close. More importantly, when I watched foreign productions of the same genre, many of them look like a sore in the eye at the first glance, simply because they are very much different to the Shaw model, if I may. This is too obvious when comparing any TVB's martial arts drama based on Louis Cha novels with those produced in mainland China. It has nothing to do with the lavish sets and costumes, screenplay and cinematography adopted by more recent, mainland Chinese productions. The flavour is indeed very much different. Only until then did I realise that I have taken the Shaw model for granted for too many years, and thus have to make an extra effort to battle my prejudice in order to truly appreciate foreign works of the same genre.
Some visitors to this blog are very spot on to comment that his cultural success is more coincidental than anything. I can’t agree more. Indeed, Sir Run Run was a businessman inside out. Offering what appeals to the audience to maximise profits seems to be his paramount concern. Comparing Shaw Brothers’ films to those of MP&GI, Shaw Brothers’ major competitor in Mandarin cinema during the 1950s and early 1960s, their differences are too obvious to be ignored. Both companies have attained remarkable commercial and cultural success, but few would agree that their works actually differed in fundamental, artistic terms such as aesthetic taste, temperament and values.
Although personally I do not feel strongly about the demise of the old man, which could have happened any time, I do feel compelled to thank him for whatever his entertainment empire has achieved, for better or worse. Thank you, sir. May you rest in peace. You will be remembered not by how much you owned, but how many lives you have shaped or changed in post-war Hong Kong and beyond.