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Show Business: What Makes Run Run Run?

5 minute read

All over Southeast Asia, an emblem with the gold initials SB on a dark-blue shield is as familiar as the U.S. dollar sign. It stands for the Shaw Brothers, sole owners of the largest show-business empire in Asia. Their chain of 120 moviehouses and ten amusement parks in a half-dozen countries draws tattooed headhunter warriors in Borneo, svelte Chinese beauties in Hong Kong, betel-chewing peasants in Cambodia, wisp-bearded mandarins in Viet Nam, combative Sikhs in Singapore. No one knows better than the SBs how to turn a profit from this varied audience. At a recent Singapore cocktail party, a rival movie magnate was asked who the two gentlemen in sharkskin were. Replied the rival: “Those aren’t gentlemen in sharkskin they are sharks in Shawskin.”

Business & Pleasure. The China-born Shaw Brothers have only one thing in common: a desire to make movies and money. Run Me Shaw, short and stubby, handles finances, avoids the limelight. Run Run Shaw, tall and thin, is a mixture of Barnum & Bailey and Todd-AO. He willfully holds conferences at 2 a.m., buys and sells talent like cattle. He is the master of the Asian hard sell. When The Brothers Karamazov, starring bald Yul Brynner, played the Shaw circuit, Run Run organized a head-shaving contest with a prize for the shiniest pate, started a teen-age craze for bald heads.

Run Me collects race horses, names them after movie paraphernalia (CinemaScope, Projector I, Vista Vision II). At his Singapore mansion, he keeps rare orchids and tropical fish, plus four man-killing Alsatian hounds to discourage thieves. Lacking some of his brother’s more exotic tastes, Run Run likes to mix business with pleasure, recently put up a twelve-story building in downtown Kowloon, with a nightclub on the first floor, offices on the third, living quarters for starlets on the eighth, and a luxury apartment for himself on the ninth.

Foreign Devils’ Lens. The sun rose on the Shaw Brothers in Shanghai in 1923, when Run Run and Run Me, down to their last penny, held a somber parley with their two other brothers, Run Ji and Run Di. At issue: whether or not to sell their last remaining family possession, a dilapidated theater. They decided to sell their house instead and live in the theater, managed to put together a cumbersome stage melodrama called Man from Shensi, which inexplicably became a hit. One reason: the first night, the hero leaped into the air, fell through rotten floor boards. The audience laughed so hard that the brothers made the crash part of the play.

When American silent movies arrived in Shanghai, the brothers bought a movie camera—the “foreign devils’ magic lens” —and helped build up China’s huge movie market. Before long, civil war and revolution wrecked the box office. Whenever they opened a moviehouse in some warlord’s domain, recalls Run Run, “the warlord’s private army would invade the theater without paying, watch the film and rape the women customers.”

Stymied in China, the brothers moved into Southeast Asia in 1925, their eyes on some 4,000,000 overseas Chinese. Run Me went by steerage to Singapore, carrying three of SB’s latest productions in a fiber suitcase. When he found that no theaters existed to buy his films, he scraped up enough capital to build his own.

Heroin for the Hero. World War II produced the next crisis. The brothers converted their capital into gold and jewels, buried them beneath the air-raid shelter in their Singapore garden, subsequently fled (in their pajamas) just ahead of a Japanese raiding party. After war’s end, they found their treasure intact—or so they say. Only the pearls, complains Run Run, had turned a little brown.

Today—minus Brother Run Ji, who was trapped by the Communists in Shanghai in 1949 along with $5,000,000 in SB assets, and Brother Di, who retired—the firm grinds out 60 Chinese and ten Malay films a year. Their Singapore and Hong Kong studios lack soundproofing or air conditioning, are located near airfields, where land values are low. Scenery is used over and over again, and so are the stories, most of them straight reproductions of Cantonese operas—historical dramas filmed in lush color but hopelessly complicated and slow-paced. (In a typical saga, princesses may suffer kidnaping and slavery, unwittingly kill off their family, undergo famine and disease in hour after hour of misery.) An actor usually stands on a chalk line in front of the camera and for two or three hours moves little more than his lips. Although stars get only $3,000 to $6,000 per picture, their temperaments make Hollywood stars seem undemanding; one famed performer refuses to go on unless he is regularly supplied with heroin by the studio.

If quality is missing from many SB productions, extravagance often is not. SB is sinking $1,000,000 into a color spectacular called Beauty of Beauties, plans eleven more before the year is out. Although a large part of the Southeast Asian market is now threatened by mounting nationalist pressure against the overseas Chinese, the SBs mean to make up for it by invading the Western market. Also, the brothers have just finished building a $2,000,000 marble theater in Singapore, are building a $5,000,000 studio in Hong Kong. But they refuse to say by how much they have multiplied that buried treasure in the garden. With three separate bookkeeping departments to keep earnings well concealed, Run Run says only: “It’s enough for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.”

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