Researching Shaw Brothers

One of the most challenging, but, paradoxically, most enjoyable aspects of writing Ask for the Moon was conducting research. Out of respect for both my readers and the filmmakers about whom I was writing, I took great care in assembling reliable information on which to base the stories and ideas I was presenting.

As a long-time fan of martial arts movies I always knew where to start, having parsed relevant books in the State Library of Victoria as well as enjoying online resources such as web archives, blogs, and YouTube clips. As a producer and disseminator of cultural product, Shaw Brothers Organisation has had a huge impact on countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and others in South East Asia. Therefore, when I settled on Shaw Brothers as a suitable subject for my book I knew that I would be able to access a range of materials to help me with my research. Scholars writing about culture, filmmaking technique, history, geopolitics, and business practice in Asian cinema have written many learned texts from which I could draw. Because Shaws was so effective at marketing, there is a huge range of archival promotional material extant and available as well. Academics, fans, entertainment writers, film critics, and ex Shaw’s employees have all created or curated material – blogs, books, articles, audio visual clips and interviews, collections of ephemera, memoirs – that can be easily accessed and explored.

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Lobby card for ‘The Delightful Forest’ (1972)

A special boon was the work of Chinese scholars, film writers, or the cast and crew of the films themselves. For an English speaker like myself, the cultural nuances articulated in these particular materials were especially valuable.

Overall, I tried to access information from a healthy range of credible sources and, if possible, to use more than one source to verify facts.

In the book itself, the bibliography is six pages long and I have included 326 end notes (possibly I went overboard…) In this blog, I have included a short list of my very favourite research materials. Listed below are items that furnished me with the special ‘a-ha!’ moments or were essential in some other way.

Articles, papers, and blogs:

‘Moguls of the Chinese Cinema: The Story of the Shaw Brothers in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, 1924-2002’ by Stephanie Po-Yin Chung is an excellent paper that charts the history of the growth of Shaw Organisation from its earliest days, and discusses the familial business culture that influenced Runme and Run Run Shaw. It can be found in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul. 2007), pp. 665-682.

Another good paper to read for information about Shaw Brothers’ early history is ‘The Shaw Brothers’ Wuxia Pian: An Early Identity and Business-Cultural Connection for the Chinese in Malaya’ by Ngo Sheau Shi. This paper helped me understand the nostalgic allure of early Shaw Brothers’ swordplay films for homesick Chinese expats. It can be found in Kajian Malaysia, Vol. 29, Supp. 1, (2011), pp. 75-93.

Books:

I simply love the way that David Bordwell writes about Hong Kong cinema. He combines the glee of a true fan with the intellectual rigour and deep expertise of an academic. His Planet Hong Kong is a fantastic read not just for historical fact and analysis of film making technique for Shaws’ films, but other Hong Kong cinema as well.

Bordwell’s blog is well worth a look too. I found his blogs ‘Another Shaw production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong’ (October 2009) and ‘Lion, dancing: Lau Kar-Leung’ (2 July 2013) to contain excellent commentary on filmmaking technique.

In my book I wanted to focus on some of Shaws’ important individual filmmakers. Luckily, memoirs exist for a couple of them. Chang Cheh’s A Memoir (translated by Teri Chan and Agnes Lam. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2004) seems to be out of print but I was able to track down a copy of it in a library. Ching-ling Kwok and Grace Ng’s Oral History Series 3 Director Chor Yuen was available from its publisher’s (Hong Kong Film Archive) website.

Poshek Fu has edited and contributed to China Forever: the Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (University of Illinois, 2008) which contains an interesting array of perspectives on Shaws. And, of course, anything by Stephen Teo on Hong Kong cinema will always furnish useful insights and information.

Web based materials:

The Hong Kong Movie Database is a great sprawling website created by fans of Kong Kong Cinema. As well as reviews, it contains detailed lists of cast and crew for 1000s of films, and the filmographies of many of them. This was an invaluable reference tool.

A lovely web archive is the Linn Haynes Memorial Collection, which has digitised copies of Shaws’ own in-house magazines, printed in the 1970s and 1980s and distributed to fans worldwide. Just being able to ‘flick’ through the scanned pages of these publications gave me a great sense of how Shaws wanted to brand itself. Kudos to Shaolin Chamber 36 for hosting this important collection.

Oral histories provide important accounts of lived experience. Albert Odell, who worked for Shaws in the late 50s has a (candid) oral history stored on the National Archives of Singapore website.

Another interesting oral history – that of beloved kung fu movie star Gordon Liu – is contained on the Hong Kong Memory website. An English language translation of the transcription is available.

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Image by Rebecca Stewart

 

 

News and An Opportunity

Opportunity to win my book

The excellent Kung Fu Movie Guide website is giving away a copy of my book as their monthly prize. All you have to do is sign up for their excellent monthly e-mail bulletin here.

The Kung Fu Movie Guide is a treasure trove of articles, reviews, and a podcast. They are great for keeping up with the latest news about the genre and essential for any serious fan of the genre.

Support the Gutterthon

I was happy and proud to contribute a copy of Ask for the Moon as a reward in this month’s Gutterthon. The book has already gone as a reward but, if you like “thoughtful writing about disreputable art”, you should still definitely head on over to the Gutterthon and support it. The Cultural Gutter is chockers full of great writing about all kinds of genres – sci-fi, horror, Bollywood, comics, fantasy, videogames, romance. There are many great rewards still on offer for the next 24 days, and you will have the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes out of supporting a website to pay its contributing writers.

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Artwork by Rebecca Stewart

Start Dis Podcast Interview Coming Up

Later this month I will be interviewed for the Start Dis Podcast, which describes itself thusly: “The StartDis podcast is for people of conscience, who value education and who love to learn a little bit about everything.”

The “little bit” I will be contributing to the interview will be musings about the nature of creativity, using the activities of Shaw Brothers filmmakers as an example. Stay tuned for further details.

And speaking about podcasts, you can check out an interview I did for the Bedrock Games podcast. Due to internet problems on the day the audio quality isn’t great, but I really enjoyed responding to the thoughtful questions I was asked. More information here.

Follow us

By the way, if you are on twitter, you can follow me at either @DangerousMere or @FuThoughts. The Kung Fu Movie Guide can be found at @KFMovieGuide, Cultural Gutter at @CulturalGutter, Brendan Davis (and his blog and podcast) at @Bedrockgames, and the Start Dis podcast at @StartDisPodcast.

The Illustrations

Ask for the Moon has wonderful illustrations and cover art, created especially for the book by Rebecca Stewart. Prior to working on this book I had never collaborated with an illustrator before and I found the process both fascinating and rewarding.

Why illustrations? Why not just stills from Shaw Brothers films?

It felt important to have images in a book about a visual art form like film but, working with a tiny budget, I was concerned that I couldn’t afford to pay fees for copyright licences to use stills from the films. Perhaps, more importantly, Rebecca and I both agreed that it just didn’t make sense to populate a book that had innovation as its overarching theme with reproduced images. We felt that illustrations that were an original response to the book’s content would better honour that overarching theme.

Choice of illustrator.

I was delighted when Rebecca offered to illustrate the book. In many ways she was the ideal artist for this project. I have known Rebecca for years, and we have collaborated before but in completely different roles and on a completely different project, never as writer and illustrator.

I have long enjoyed looking at Rebecca’s artwork and knew her to be an extremely talented artist, with a particular passion for illustration. Pertinently, for a book dealing with a kinetic art form like martial arts movies, she has an instinct for drawing movement: Rebecca is a mad keen fencer, training and competing regularly, and, prior to this project, I had seen many of her dynamic sketches depicting fencers in training.

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Rebecca’s illustration inspired by Come Drink with Me.

Rebecca also started off her professional career as an animator and is highly film literate, so she quickly got the ways in which the filmmakers I was wanting to talk about in the book – Lau Kar Leung, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Chang Cheh – were exceptional.

The Process.

Rebecca came on board a few months before the completion of the writing of the book. She read the second draft, we had quite a few meetings to discuss the ideas I wanted to write about as well as the aesthetics of Shaw Bothers films, and I supplied her with a collection of images that I felt typified these aesthetics. These included screen shots from the films themselves, digital images of marketing collateral harvested off the internet such as posters, lobby cards, and Shaws’ own fan magazines.

Rebecca did her own research, unearthing gems such as some terrific photos of Sir Run Run Shaw which inspired her caricatures of him in the book. Of course, she watched DVDs – I was gratified to find that The Magic Blade went down particularly well – and found clips from the movies on YouTube. I remember her telling me that, as a preparatory exercise to get her eye in, she was working through a fight scene from The Five Venoms on YouTube by stopping it every few moves and doing some sketches, when she had an epiphany as to just how beautifully complex the choreography in these films can be and realised what had been inspiring me about this aspect of martial arts filmmaking for years.

Every few weeks Rebecca showed me some of these preparatory sketches to check if I was happy with the way the illustrations were shaping up. I was intrigued, and excited, to see that Rebecca was modifying her own style to ensure that the illustrations for this specific book were complementary to the tone and aesthetics of Shaws’ films. Check out Rebecca’s Instagram page to see the style of other drawings in comparison to the work she did for Ask for the Moon.

So, all in all, the process of working with an illustrator was a wonderful process, both for the creative companionship such a collaboration can bring as well as having a suite of images that add another layer of meaning to the book.

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Interview on Bedrock Games Podcast

Brendan from Bedrock Games recently interviewed me about my book for the Bedrock Games podcast. We did the interview via Skype and struggled with the internet connection somewhat (like most Aussies, I was quick to lay the blame on our woeful internet speeds) but otherwise it was a really fun conversation. Brendan really knows his wuxia and shared some great questions and insights.

If you are a fan of the martial arts movie genre then the Bedrock Games blog and podcast is really well worth checking out.

If you want to listen to the podcast, then you can find it here.

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Brendan is a big fan of Cheng Pei Pei, as I am. This illustration by Rebecca Stewart was for the chapter about ‘Come Drink With Me’ in my book.

Why ‘Ask for the Moon’?

“The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing.”
~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen

Someone recently asked me why I called my book Ask for the Moon.

By Rebecca Stewart
Cover design by Rebecca Stewart

Ask for the Moon is part film criticism, part history, part musings on the nature of innovation. It describes a daring adventure in filmmaking, both creatively and in terms of business and production models. Entrepreneurialism, as demonstrated with such flair by producers Run Run and Runme Shaw, and martial arts movie making, as demonstrated with equal flair by the likes of filmmakers like Lau Kar Leung and Chor Yuen and others, might seem like odd bedfellows, but at Shaw Brothers these two seemingly disparate things came together in a venture that saw benchmarking films massed produced. This venture was a success – Shaws films are vastly entertaining and have left a rich legacy in terms of filmmaking and social history in Hong Kong. As a business, the studio was equally successful: Shaws dominated their industry both as producers and distributors for more than two decades and made money hand over fist.

Shaw Brothers Studios constituted a daring experiment in filmmaking, and an experiment that worked. One clever thing that Run Run Shaw did when developing the Studios was to pool good resources so that they were handy to support his filmmakers; as the above quote from Chor Yuen points out the resources he and his fellow filmmakers could draw on were “amazing”.

I am not good at titles, and actually only came up with the title for this book shortly before we started typesetting it. Illustrator and typesetter Rebecca Stewart had to keep reminding me that we needed one!

In the end I am really happy with this title. While it does allude to that amazing level of resourcing that Shaws were able to provide, I think it also captures the aspirational nature of what was being undertaken at Shaw Brothers Studios, by entrepreneurs and filmmakers alike. Shaws films are exercises in confident filmmaking and unmistakeable in aesthetic – they are bold, imaginative, dynamic affairs. Mind you, there was a downside for creative people who were working under Run Run Shaw’s tight and all-seeing direction at his studios, and I discuss this in the book as well. But the aspirations to make great entertainment were always there, and I’m glad I thought of a title that could pay tribute to that.