The Yellow Carpet

If you are ever lucky enough to watch a Shaw Brothers martial arts movie from the 60s or 70s, be sure to keep an eagle eye out for the yellow carpet:

“Somewhere during his film commentary on Heroes of the East, kung fu movie expert Bey Logan points out a magnificent yellow carpet that is used to dress a set. He mentions that some fans (he thinks they were Dutch) pointed out to him that this same carpet is used time and again in Shaw Brothers movie sets. I first listened to Logan’s excellent commentary years ago now; his comment about the carpet stuck in my mind. It stuck in my mind because he, and those sharp-eyed Dutch fans, were right. That carpet can be seen adorning Shaw Brothers sets again and again… Once you notice it the first time it’s hard to miss: it’s a rich yellow tastefully set off by dark blue patterning. It can be seen in countless martial arts flicks being trodden on by emperors, warriors, courtesans, merchants, sifus, priests, and evil eunuchs… anywhere an opulent room is required that yellow carpet will be there, quietly glowing underfoot. Obviously, it was toted around by Shaw Brothers’ corps of set dressers, from film production to film production.” ~ Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios.

The Magic Blade
Still from The Magic Blade

Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios made wonderfully entertaining martial arts movies. They made a lot of them – some 320 or so in 25 years. These films were highly profitable for the company, hauling in huge box office receipts not just in Hong Kong but anywhere in the world a sizeable, and nostalgic, Chinese diaspora lived. Not only were they profitable, but, compared to many of the films made by their competitors, they also set a new benchmark in terms of production standards. A number of them were downright lavish. Of course, this played a part in keeping audiences coming back for more. Shaws were able to position themselves as leaders in their field. Already a successful entertainment company by the end of the 50s, with businesses in amusement parks, commercial real estate, cinemas and film distribution, Shaws were able to dominate the film production and distribution industries from the 60s until the 80s.

So what does all this have to do with the yellow carpet? This piece of set dressing is a clue as to how Shaws achieved this success. The Studios implemented a film production process that was geared towards keeping costs down, resources optimally used, output regular, and quality consistent. Sets, costumes, actors, crews, even storylines were recycled from film to film. The result were films that were predictably entertaining and reliably good:

“The least original, most run-of-the mill Shaw Brothers martial arts movie was still a handsome film compared to those of Shaws’ competitors at the time. As a collective body of work, Shaws’ martial arts movies set an important industry benchmark for how films in this genre could look. Many of the Shaws films may not have been innovative, but they did constitute an improvement. That this was achieved demonstrates the efficacy of Shaws’ production model, with its pooling of resources and tightly controlled processes. Opportunity to experiment or risk failure was constrained in such an environment; when innovation did happen, it was all the more remarkable.” ~ Ask for the Moon.

The trade-off was that the films looked a bit same-ish. And while many of the filmmakers who churned out these films were undeniably creative in their approach, not all of them were able to find the time or other resources to innovate with their filmmaking technique.

Their collective achievement in lifting standards in film production, and creating a huge body of work that was culturally significant for Hong Kong, is laudable. But the constant appearance of the yellow carpet, along with all of the other props, sets, costumes, and familiar faces, in Shaws’ films is a reminder that improvement is not always equal to, or causative of, innovation.

The directors at Shaws who were able to innovate did something more than just work hard and efficiently. They were able to manipulate conditions so that they could find the space and agency within Shaws’ tightly controlled production processes to experiment and take creative risks. Their endeavours in doing this can tell us as much about the nature of innovation in large and complex organisations as it does about the needs of artists.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
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Raymond Chow: Innovative Producer

The past month has been a sad one for martial arts culture fans, for it brought us the deaths of Yueh Hua, Jin Yong, and Raymond Chow (obituary here).

Surely many western fans of Hong Kong cinema owe their awareness of it to Golden Harvest (now known as Orange Sky Golden Harvest), which produced and distributed the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung, among others.

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Image from hkmdb.com

I wrote about Golden Harvest in my book about Shaw Brothers Studios because they were not only Shaws’ most potent competitors but also because they were founded by Leonard Ho and Raymond Chow who, before they started the company, had been two of the most valuable executives working at Shaw Brothers.

What interested me, when I was researching the business and production models of both Shaw Brothers Studios and Golden Harvest, was how differently they were structured and how this, in turn, informed their relationship to the filmmaking talent they worked with.

Chow and Ho developed a business model that was particularly good at satisfying the needs of creative talent as well as cannily identifying ways of capturing profit. Their business model was as different from that of their primary rival Shaw Brothers as you could get: where (Shaw Brothers’) Movietown was huge, the Golden Harvest headquarters were tiny; where Sir Run Run Shaw rigidly controlled just about everything to do with the making of his films, Chow and Ho were very strategic as to what aspects of filmmaking they controlled and they weren’t afraid to delegate.” ~ From Chapter 10 ‘Bitter Harvest’ in ‘Ask for the Moon’ by Meredith Lewis

In other words, Chow and Ho developed an approach to filmmaking that allowed innovative talent like Lee, Chan, and Hung space to do their thing, while Sir Run Run’s approach made finding this space harder for any innovative filmmakers at Shaw Brothers.

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Image from hkmdb.com

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Sir Run Run found out that Ho and Chow were leaving his company and going into competition against him. Chow had started his working life as a print journalist and then branched out into television and radio producing. Sir Run recruited him to work for Shaw Brothers in 1959, with Leonard Ho joining not long after. These two men learnt about the film industry at Shaws, and their experience there must have been invaluable to them when they branched out on their own. How interesting, then, that they created an organisation that functioned in ways so radically different to those employed by their former master.

Their approach worked. Golden Harvest’s list of productions contains many of the most popular and / or seminal films in the history of Hong Kong cinema from the early 70s up until today (you can look at Raymond Chow’s filmography and a short bio here at hkmdb.com).

So, no wonder so many martial arts film fans felt a sense of loss when they heard of the passing of this remarkable entrepreneur and creative visionary. We are lucky that we have so many of the films he was involved in to enjoy.