It is with sadness that we learned that Run Run Shaw – entrepreneur, investor, filmmaker, philanthropist – died Tuesday in his home in Hong Kong at the age of 107. There are few men in modern China – anywhere actually – with the stature, reach, and heart of Run Run Shaw. People who don’t pay attention sometimes may associate Shaw with just low-budget Chinese action and horror films, or just kung fu movie flicks, when in truth, his impact is much broader. As Neda Ulaby of the NPR recently noted:
A world without Run Run Shaw would’ve meant a world without Quentin Tarantino…
Or the Wu Tang Clan…
Or “The Matrix.”
That global pop culture vernacular came from a Hong Kong media mogul who dominated the industry for decades.
Whether by design or not, Shaw actually helped to create if not inspire modern action genre as we know it today.
As Ulay observed citing Asian film expert Grady Hendricks further explained:
ULABY: In Asia, the Shaw Brothers studio was like Paramount, Warner Brothers and MGM all rolled up into one. It handled every aspect of the business and it changed movies forever. Before the Shaw Brothers, the biggest Asian movie stars were women. But starting in 1967, Hendricks says they introduced macho martial arts films with a massive hit called “One-Armed Swordsman.”
HENDRICKS: Guys with bare chests, you know, mutilation of the male body, the swordsman gets his arm cut off, these guys are greased down and slick.
ULABY: Social unrest rocked the globe and this story about questioning authority popped in pop culture everywhere.
HENDRICKS: It was angry young men kicking over the old men holding them back. It was nihilistic. It was bleak. I would say really almost all modern day action movies sort of spring from this fountain.
However big Shaw’s impact is on modern-day action genre, his biggest impact may be in philanthropy. What sets Shaw apart from other big donors – and he is a big-league donor – is how personally involved he is in philanthropic activities.
Recently in a South China Morning Post article titled “Sir Run Run Shaw: The legend with a heart of gold,” we read for example about how Shaw single-handedly changed Hong Kongers’ attitude on giving blood:
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.
Another thing that sets Shaw apart as a philanthropist is how keenly he always have his sights on making a real long-term impact on the people he wants to help, not just on making publicity.
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 promot[ing] 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.
Shaw’s actions even moved Queen Elizabeth in 1977, when Hong Kong was still a colony, to knight him for “his public service as a long-time backer of the Red Cross,” when most British looked down upon ethnic Chinese.
The world will sorely miss Shaw. I hope many more will be inspired by him and continue to carry the spirit and legacy that was taken from the world yesterday.