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Asia's Movie King Turns 100

Asia's movie king recently celebrated his 100th birthday. For decades, legendary film and television tycoon Run Run Shaw dominated Hong Kong's movie industry, turning the city into a Hollywood of the East and popularizing kung fu movies around the world. Claudia Blume looks back at Hong Kong's golden movie era and the man who shaped it.

Action-packed martial art movies and historical epics were the hallmark of Hong Kong's Shaw Studios. In the 1960's and 1970's, the film studio produced about one thousand movies, many of which are now Chinese cinema classics.

The founder of Hong Kong's old dream factory is a man with more than 80 years of experience in the film business. Run Run Shaw was born the sixth son of a Shanghai textile merchant in 1907. As an 18-year old, he helped his brothers set up a film company in Shanghai. The brothers later produced and distributed movies to a chain of cinemas they owned across Asia as well as in Chinatowns around the world.

In the late 1950's, Run Run Shaw founded what was then the world's largest privately owned film studio, in Hong Kong. Lau Kar-leung, a former director at the Shaw Studios, says the studio soon dominated the Southeast Asian film industry.

"Run Run Shaw created the kingdom of Southeast Asia's film industry," explained Lau. "The studio was the number one in the region."

Li Cheuk-to, a board member of Hong Kong's International Film Festival Society, says the Shaw Studios' movies were especially popular with Chinese overseas communities.

"The Chinese overseas have a certain nostalgia for ancient China, Chinese culture - those can be found directly or indirectly in those Shaw productions," Li said.

The Shaw Studios' movies, particularly the kung fu films, also found many fans in the West. The movie Five Fingers of Death, for example, set U.S. and European box office records in 1973. A number of contemporary filmmakers, such as Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino, have been deeply influenced by the Shaw Studios' martial art movies.

Li says one of the reasons for the studio's success was that Run Run Shaw was both an astute businessman and a passionate movie lover.

"It is well known that he watches at least a few movies each day, even when he is very old, after he retired, he watches a lot of movies," Li said.

Despite Shaw's business sense and nose for new talent, he famously turned away a young actor who later became the world's greatest kung fu legend: Bruce Lee. Shaw lost him to a rival studio because he would not budge from his rigid system of fixed rates for new actors.

The Shaw Studios were a veritable film factory until production stopped in 1985. Movies were mass-produced using assembly-line methods. A former director at the studios, John Chiang, says everyone had to work on very demanding schedules. To cope, most stars and technical crew lived in dormitories on site.

"Usually we have to work every day. I make about five pictures every year, every two months, make one picture - two or three months," he explained. "Well, we see each other every day anyways in the studio, we work in (the) studio, we eat in (the) studio, we live in (the) studio."

Lily Lee, one of the Shaw Studios' most famous stars, says it was like living in a close-knit, extended family. But she says the work could be extremely tough.

"During those years you needed a very strong physique if you wanted to survive," she recalled. "The reason - there was no air-con in the studios. It was really hard to act in those costumes."

The rigid studio system did not give the actors and directors a great amount of artistic freedom. But director Chiang says Run Run Shaw never interfered directly with his work.

"He never said anything in the set. He came to the studio every day - we can see him every day. But he won't say anything, lets the director do anything. He looks very authoritative but we know that he is very kind. He loved all of us," Chiang said.

Since 1985, Run Run Shaw has focused on television, creating Television Broadcast Limited, Hong Kong's largest TV station. TVB produces television dramas that are very popular in Hong Kong and in overseas Chinese communities. Many of the Shaw Studios' former stars now work for Run Run Shaw's TV empire.

Shaw, whose entertainment and property investments made him a billionaire, also is known for charity work. He also set up the Shaw Prize, which has been dubbed Asia's Nobel Prize. It rewards excellence in mathematics, astronomy and science.

But it will always be Hong Kong's golden movie era by which he will be best remembered.