Shaw Brothers Studios, Clearwater Bay
Shaw Brothers were once the major company in film production in Hong Kong. Throughout the sixties, seventies and even as recently as the eighties, they were literally churning out film after film from their Clearwater Bay back-lot. They did many genres from comedy, musicals and romance but are probably most well-known for the huge amount of classic wuxia and kung fu films that launched many of today’s (and yesterday’s) television and film actors.
Many well-established (and even more of those now faded into the mists of time) names in Hong Kong started off their life as actors for the Shaw Brothers stable: Lau Gar Fei (aka. Gordon Liu), Ti Lung, Fu Sheng, the list goes on. I used to have a few on video when I was younger and some have become classics amongst the genres fans: “Legendary Weapons of Kung Fu”, “The Five Deadly Venoms” and “Shaolin Temple” to name just a few.
Shaw Bros even did a few collaborations with Western film companies when riding on the 70′s kung fu boom – one such example being Hammer Films, famous for their horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who co produced “The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires” starring none other than Peter Cushing ( as Van Helsing, of course) and Shaw stalwart, David Chiang.
Shaw Brothers eventually found their competition (from the likes of Raymond Chow’s “Golden Harvest”, too great and ceased film production in the mid-80s. The back-lot on Clearwater Bay Road, which also houses Sir Run Run Shaw’s luxury villa, continued to serve film production purposes for quite some time afterwards but its main focus moved into television and the famous TVB company. The old lot name changed from Shaw’s “Movietown” to become TVB City.
The most recent turn of events in the Shaw studio history was the acquisition of a new site in nearby Tsueng Kwan O to move its TVB facilities to. This move and the shenanigans associated with it eventually led to Golden Harvest ceasing their film work (there Hammer Hill lease had come to an end and they could find no alternative site) and of course paved the way for the old Shaw site to be earmarked for redevelopment (at least, so the rumours go).
At the front of the old Shaw Movietown studio is the iconic Shaw Building, which used to be Sir Run Run Shaw’s office. It’s a strange building in terms of aesthetic, with what seems to be art-deco perhaps even some cartoon-like flourishes, and of course the iconic Shaw Bros shield emblazoned across the front. I have no idea when the place was built but I am guessing it must have been sometime around 1958 – 1960, when the studio first started operating. It is still in use, although no longer by Shaws. Celestial Pictures are the company now based there. When Shaws stopped making movies, they sold their extensive back catalog (about 750 films) to Celestial, who have spent the last few years painstakingly restoring the masters and releasing them onto the DVD market with a whole bunch of extras. Great stuff and still lots of work to be done. Unfortunately there is no public access to Shaws anymore, in fact there is a big sign outside saying “No Visitors”, and no amount of pleading with the guard at the gate could convince him to let us through and take some photos outside of the building (so if anyone has any contacts that can get me inside for a look-see I would be most appreciative).
You can actually still access a private road to the left of the complex, and it leads up a hill to a chained gate at the top, but this is still worth looking at because on the left hand side of the road are all the old apartment blocks that once housed the contract Shaw actors and actresses. A recent Shaw doc had an interview with Cheng Pei Pei (of “Come Drink With Me” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame) who recalls living in these purpose built blocks when she first started out at Shaws in the 1960′s. The blocks themselves are, these days, pretty decrepit but still show signs of life inside. I have no idea who would live in them now, perhaps employees of Shaws or Celestial? Either way, no doubt they will eventually be demolished when the rumoured luxury apartment complex is built and the studios finally disappear.
As a postscript to this, it has recently been announced (1st May 2009) that the complete Shaw Bros archive (the celluloid master tapes, that is) has been successfully moved to the archive rooms of the Hong Kong Film Archive. This sounds to me like a precursor to the backlot being demolished so go and have a look while you still can.
Anyway, why am I here? The reason is three-fold. First, it is like visiting a piece of my childhood. Many many films I saw were filmed around here, either in the stages or on the slopes of the coastline at the back (Shelter Island in Port Shelter can be seen prominently in the background of many Shaw films, and I have dived around that island many times). The other is related to the Bruce Lee HK Locations project I am involved in.
It is known that Bruce was originally offered a standard contract to work for Shaws, but turned it down for a more lucrative offer from Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest (incidentally, Raymond was a producer at Shaws before heading out with Leonard Ho to form Golden Harvest). The rest is history.
Finally, of course the building is great to look at, very iconic and from an classic film era, and thankfully it’s still being used rather than being demolished (but I wonder how long it will be until that also becomes a reality?).
Shaw Bros film fans will find the following site very good: Shaw Brothers Reloaded
Celestial Pictures: http://www.celestialpictures.com/
Shaws Website: http://www.shawstudios.hk/
Jason Blogs about a personal tour there: http://jasoninhongkong.blogspot.com/2007/09/miracles-can-happen.html
HK Cinemagic website also takes a tour (lucky buggers!): http://www.hkcinemagic.com/en/page.asp?aid=248&page=1