One memorable moment in Sir Run Run Shaw’s later life – the only part of it most of us mere kids have lived through – came in a press interview. The venerable movie mogul was asked which of the 1,000 or so films his studios had produced was his favourite. His instant reply: “The one that made the most money.” He could get away with that. Like having starlets on each arm in his 90s, or founding the quasi-Nobel Shaw Prize, he did amusing kitsch rather than sour cynicism.
He didn’t make his fortune by ripping everyone off. He didn’t pretend all those movies and, later, TV shows had artistic merit; they were cheap and cheerful and churned out to satisfy easily-amused Southeast Asians and what we now call ‘New Hongkongers’. He didn’t short-change customers: if a film was advertised as 60 minutes long, it lasted a whole hour. While he no doubt enjoyed the benefits of industry dominance, he doesn’t seem to have depended on rigged markets or collusion with government.
He would warrant all the glowing eulogies anyway (they are pouring in from the world over). But in Hong Kong, the lavish front-page praise is double-edged, alluding to a vivid contrast. Run Run Shaw created much of the popular culture of our age, from kung fu to TVB to Blade Runner, to name just a fraction of all the silly but harmless fun. He gave people stars and fantasies and laughs, which they will remember fondly throughout their lives. The unspoken comparison is with our humourless property tycoons – peddlers of real-estate pyramid schemes with their supermarket, energy and other monopolies. Their main contribution seems to have been a ruinous, speculative instant-money ethos. When they go, they will be remembered only for taking.