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Legendary Producer Run Run Shaw Dies at 106

Sir Run Run Shaw - H 2014
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
Sir Run Run Shaw

The influential mogul was one of the founding fathers of the Hong Kong entertainment industry.

Legendary media mogul Run Run Shaw has died. He was 106.

Born on Nov. 23, 1907, in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, in the waning days of China’s last imperial dynasty, Shaw was the youngest of six sons of textile merchant Shaw Yuh Hsuen.

By the late 1960s, Shaw had risen to the status of media mogul unrivaled in Asia, growing his family’s theater chain, film studio and television network Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB) into a multibillion-dollar empire that helped launch the careers of some of today’s biggest Chinese stars, including Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat.

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In addition to amassing the world’s largest library of Chinese films and helping to ignite a global kung-fu craze in the 1970s, Shaw also backed Hollywood hits such as director Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction classic Blade Runner and had untold influence on directors ranging from Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) to Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix).

"With his vision and energy, he had built the station to become Hong Kong's premier television station and a world leader in the Chinese-language television industry," TVB said in a statement.

Raised in China, Shaw received his education in American-run schools. In 1925, his elder brothers founded Tianyi Film Productions in Shanghai with the movie New Leaf. At age 19, during his 1927 summer vacation, Shaw followed his third elder brother, Run Me Shaw, to Singapore to start a film market and establish a Southeast Asia distribution base.

Recognizing the strength of the Chinese diaspora, they set about distributing Chinese opera films from Shanghai. By 1934, the elder Shaw brothers had established a Tianyi office in the British colony of Hong Kong, calling it Unique Film Productions, where Run Run would not assume control of production until 1957. Shaw Brothers was founded in 1958 with Run Run Shaw as president.

In 1966, Life magazine published an article on Shaw’s Movie Town studio, and in 1967, Shaw Brothers had a true hit when The One Armed Swordsman fought its way to the top at Hong Kong’s box office -- then the region’s richest -- to become the first movie to earn more than HK$1 million in local ticket sales, propelling star Jimmy Wang Yu to fame.

Seeing room for growth, Shaw immediately established TVB, the first over-the-air commercial station in Hong Kong, on Nov. 19, 1967.

In 1973, Five Fingers of Death, starring Lo Lieh, set U.S. and European box office records, igniting a kung-fu craze around the world that would propel stars like Bruce Lee to global fame.

By the mid-1970s, Shaw Studios was producing 40 movies a year, and some 250,000 people per day went to see them at 143 Shaw-owned theaters from Hong Kong to Jakarta, plus thousands more in Chinatowns around the world.

Soon Shaw Brothers was co-producing films with Warner Bros. (Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) and putting $16 million into MGM’s production of the film version of James Clavell’s best-selling novel Taipan, shot in Hong Kong at Shaw Studios in 1986.

Through the late 1970s, Shaw often made movies for $300,000 each without a soundtrack, dubbing them later into English, Italian, French and Mandarin Chinese. Often films were shot in three versions: the racy “hot” one for the U.S., Japan and Europe; a “cold” one, showing no flesh at all, for Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan; and a “medium” one for the Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong audience.

Shaw had four children with his first wife, Wong Mei Chun, whom he married in 1937. Wong died at age 85 in 1987, and Shaw Studios stopped filming in the same year. Ten years later, in 1997, Shaw remarried, taking Mona Fong Yat-wa as his bride in Las Vegas. Fong became a deputy chairman of TVB in 2000.

Also in 2000, Shaw agreed to the sale of his unique library of 760 classic Chinese movie titles for $77.37 million to Celestial Pictures Ltd., a Hong Kong-based company owned by Astro All Asia Networks of Malaysia.

In the early 2000s, Shaw Studios entered a new era with Shaw’s own majority investment (made through his various holding companies) in the $180 million Hong Kong Movie City project, a 1.1-million-square-foot, full-service studio and production facility in Tseung Kwan O in eastern Hong Kong.

In 2007, coinciding with his 100th birthday, Shaw was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Although his direct involvement in film had diminished, his legacy lived on in the careers of many stars he helped launched through TVB’s steady stream of beauty pageants, soap operas, variety shows and dramas. The annual TVB Music Awards remains one of the most widely watched television events around Asia.

Also in 2007, TVB posted revenue of $559 million. That same year, Forbes estimated the worth of the Shaw media empire at $3.5 billion.

Reflecting at the peak of his fame in 1976, Shaw told Time magazine, “A small screen can never compare with a big screen. Movie houses will carry on. People like to go out, they like to be in a crowd...as long as the Chinese population in Asia is big, I will get back my investment. Besides, I make movies only for entertainment, never politics.”

In December, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) presented a special award to Shaw in recognition of his outstanding contribution to cinema.

Not one to hoard his wealth, Shaw donated billions of dollars to charity over the years, most recently contributing $13 million for disaster relief after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. His name adorns many hospital and school buildings in China and Hong Kong.

In 2004, 40 years after Chinese astronomers named an asteroid after him, Shaw established an annual international science award, the Shaw Prize, giving $1 million each to three people doing promising research in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and life and medical science.

Shaw is survived by four children and nine grandchildren. Shaw’s granddaughter Soo-wei Shaw was appointed head of the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2008.