Comunicar Journal Blog

Early forms of globalization – Hong Kong film

From the very beginning of its development, Hong Kong film industry has been facilitated and furthered to full blossom by forces from different directions. These forces, monetary, manpower, creative power and technologies, accidentally, forcefully or under explicit plans, converged in Hong Kong to make film and cinema a lucrative business. A number of modes of Hong Kong film development have been pointed out: national cinema (as part of Chinese cinema), local cinema, regional cinema (e.g. influence in Southeast Asia) and global cinema (e.g. connections with the western world). It is Hong Kong’s unique geopolitical and economic status that nurture the Hollywood in the East, the dream factory for a phenomenal number of film talents and film merchants throughout the century. A hundred-year’s history of Hong Kong film industry reveals a sub-history of inbound-outbound culture and resource interchange.

As early as 1920s, Shaw brothers originated from Shanghai moved their filming business to Hong Kong and continued to explore potential markets in Southeast Asia. among the four Shaw brothers, Run Run and Runmei were sent to Malaya and Singapore to expand business network. At that time, the major cinema market in Malaya and Singapore was in the hands of migrations from South China, divided into different cultural circles according to their dialects such as Cantonese, Chiu Chow dialect and Hakka dialect. With assistance from some prominent figures who were also Chinese emigrants, in 1927, they settled down in Malaya, renting theaters to exclusively screen Tianyi productions (the film company by Shaw family). In 1940, they opened their first overseas studio in Singapore and started to make Malay-language films starring Malay Cantonese opera superstars[1]. From the mid-1930s and 1940s, the Shaw brothers bought amusement parks from Chinese Malayans. By that time, the Southeast Asian entertainment business founded by Run Run and Runmei was constituted with a sizable theater chain and two amusement parks. Without doubt, they had laid the foundation stone for Tianyi’s further development in overseas market[2]. This network was even extended to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesian Java with over a hundred theaters and ten amusement parks. As early as the 1930s, the inception of Shaw family’s ambition of territorialization could already be spotted.

After the anti-Japanese war, facing the rise of strong competitors, Run Run Shaw was appointed to move back to Hong Kong from Singapore, to revive the shrinking filming business. When Run Run arrived in Hong Kong in 1957, he purchased a huge land in Clear Water Bay to establish a studio and started to found the Shaw Brothers film company. Different from the traditional practice, Run Run mimicked Hollywood system, focusing on both the quality and efficiency of film production by recruiting versatile talents to look over different functional sectors and introducing a centralized streamline-based production system. By that time, the entertainment network constituted of cinema chains, amusement parks and cabaret had reached to a wide range of territories from Hong Kong to south sea, with a full blossom of film business: cross regional distribution, cross-genre, cross-language (including Hokkien and ChiuChow language), and multiethnic (Chinese, Malay and Indian). Even under the shadow of the cold war, the prosperity of Shaw family’s business had ceaselessly revealed the process of territorialization and even globalization[3].

There is no other place in the world that the film industry of a city is ranked equivalent to a national level. In film history, we have British films, French films and Indian films. Hong Kong films are never equal to Chinese films. Hong Kong film is Hong Kong film per se.

Described by a Filipino young adult, he encountered “Hong Kong” for the first time in his life via “Kung Fu movie”. A mysterious but exciting encounter at a wooden hut which was run by Chinese emigrants bridged this young man with a place he even did not know the exact location. Twenty years later, this young boy pursued his further study in Hong Kong, bringing his childhood memory to reality.


When I was around 7 years old, my mother would give us 5 pesos to watch kung fu in what was a house where the living room was transformed into a makeshift theater in the  afternoon. This was between the late 80s and early 90s. To me, it was the only incentive for walking to our store and my grandfather’s corn mill from where our house was. It always happened in the afternoon, around the same time we gave our yayas (nannies) a headache for not taking a tap.

Perhaps that was my first encounter with Hong Kong films — although at that time I really did not care where the kung fu movies came from. The swordplay, the flying long hair-men dressed in silk robes, and the fight scenes that almost always started with conversations over bowls of noodles and wine-drinking were simply “Chinese” to me. Everything that sounded Chinese to me as a kid was simply China, never Hong Kong nor Taiwan. In fact, our fascination with Chinese kung fu films went to as far as us mouthing gibberish that at least sounded (but was never at all) Chinese every time we mimicked kung fu fight scenes.” (

[1] Yu Mo-wan, 1997, History of Hong Kong Film (Vol 3) – 1940s 香港電影史話 (第三卷) – 四十年代, p.25.

[2] Chung, Po-yin, 2003, “The Industrial Evolution of a Fraternal Enterprise: The Shaw Brothers and the Shaw Organisation 兄弟企業的工業轉變- 邵氏兄弟和邵氏機構”, in Wong, Ain-ling (Ed.). The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study 邵氏電影初探 (pp.1-13). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive; Chung, Po-yin, 2011, “Connect Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore: The story of Shaw Brothers (1920s-1950s) 連接上海、香港和新加坡:邵氏兄弟的故事”. In Yeh, Y. Y. (Ed.). Rethinking Chinese Film Industry: New Methods, New Histories華語電影工業:新歷史與新方法. Beijing: Beijing University Press.

[3] Yung Sai-shing, 2008, “Territorialization and the entertainment industry of the Shaw Brothers in Southeast Asia”, in Fu Poshek (Ed.). China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (pp.133-153). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.