Of all the film studios across the world few have made the impact that was made by Shaw Brothers. It began back in 1925 when the three Shaw brothers—Runje, Runme, and Runde—founded Tianyi Film Company (also called Unique) in Shanghai. From there they established a film distribution base in Singapore where Runme and the youngest brother Run Run Shaw managed the precursor to the parent company Shaw Organization. The Shaw Brothers took over the film production business of its Hong Kong-based sister company, Shaw & Sons Ltd., in 1958 and the rest is history!
In their time they nurtured some of the most influential directors and stars of martial arts cinema. They even helped fund Bladerunner and influence the now world famous Wu-Tang Clan!
Over the years Shaw Brothers produced some 1,000 films, before film production was suspended in 1987 to concentrate on the television industry, through its subsidiary TVB. Film production resumed in 2009.
Prior to their involvement in the film-making business, the Shaw brothers were interested in opera and owned a theatre in Shanghai, and their father also owned a cinema. One of the plays in their theatre, The Man from Shensi was very popular. The Shaw brothers then bought their first camera and Runje Shaw made this play into a silent film which turned out to be a success. Runje Shaw and his brothers Runde and Runme formed a film production company in 1924 in Shanghai called the Tianyi Film Company (also known as Unique). The company’s earliest films, New Leaf and Heroine Li Feifei, were shown in Shanghai in 1925.
A rival studio, Mingxing Film Company formed a syndicate with 5 other Shanghai companies to monopolize the distribution and exhibition markets and to exclude Tianyi films from being shown in theatre chains in Shanghai and Southeast Asia. The brothers therefore became interested in forming their own network, and Runme Shaw, who was then the distribution manager, traveled to Singapore to establish a movie distribution business for Southeast Asia. Runme incorporated the Hai Seng Co, which later became the Shaw Brothers Pte Ltd) to distributed films made by Tianyi and other studios. In 1927, they operated their own cinema in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore, expanded in Malaya and opened four cinemas there. The number of cinemas owned by Shaw chain in South East Asia would eventually reached 200 by the 1970s before it declined. In 1928 Run Run Shaw moved to Singapore to assist Runme.
In 1931, the Tianyi Studio in Shanghai produced what is considered by some to be the very first sound-on-film Chinese talkie, Spring on Stage. In 1932, they teamed up with Cantonese opera singer Sit Gok-Sin to make the first Cantonese talkie, White Golden Dragon. This film proved to be very successful, and in 1934, they established the Tianyi Studio (Hong Kong) in Kowloon to make Cantonese films. The move to Hong Kong was accelerated as the Nanjing government had issued a ban on martial arts films as well as Cantonese films, and two years later, they moved the entire film production operation from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Tianyi was reorganized into Nanyang Productions with Runde Shaw as the studio head. They also started making Malay films in 1937 in Singapore under the studio named Malay Film Productions which, apart from a period of interruption due to Japanese invasion, lasted until 1967.