Classification as a Grade One historical structure by the Antiquities and Monuments Office—the highest awarded by the government body—may prove insufficient to keep the Shaw Brothers Studios in Clear Water Bay safe from the wrecking ball.
As the AMO sits down to consider revising of the site’s historical grades, the hallowed halls that once housed Hong Kong’s Hollywood edge closer to destruction—alongside the public’s faith in Hong Kong’s commitment to historical preservation.
Although unbeknownst to most, up on a windy hill on the eastern shore of Hong Kong is a site which played a pivotal role in the development of Hong Kong’s film industry. Built in 1961 by the Shaw Brothers, this massive moldering movie studio complex was operated by the Shaw Brothers under the guidance of the late Sir Run Run Shaw.
In its heyday, it was considered to be the world’s largest privately owned movie production studio with around 23 buildings laid out across the 46 acre site. With residential buildings for actors and crew as well as private homes, it was somewhat of a movie sweatshop, and it came to be known as Movietown.
The development of Movietown was synonymous with Sir Run Run Shaw’s rise to power in Hong Kong. After World War Two ended, Sir Shaw spotted a potential market in Hong Kong which was at the time dominated by foreign films and mediocre local productions. He decided to move pre-existing operations from Singapore and Malaysia to the city, and the local studio was soon at the apex of the tide of what many called the ‘Golden Era’ of Hong Kong cinema. Some say the studio almost single-handedly set up the Hong Kong film industry themselves.
Movietown was a living entity. The huge facility was fully equipped to produce all manner of films. Some of the most famous releases to come out of here included The Magnificent Concubine (楊貴妃 1962) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十六房 1978). But most of the thousand or so films produced here were largely forgettable as Movietown was considered at times to be somewhat of a film factory – churning out movies on a mass scale with actors limited to those hand-picked, trained and linked to Shaw.
This autocratic style of film business was akin to the operation of Hollywood studios in the early 20th Century which involved movies being made by big studio executives purely for commercial gain with little regard for artistic merit.
Like Italian-made Spaghetti/Macaroni Westerns, at Movietown films were often shot without sound and then later dubbed into whatever language was required as they had a good global distribution network. Stories were often lifted straight from Western films with minimal adaptation, a practice the Cantonese called ‘reheating yesterday’s cold rice.’
However, the pressure on actors was strong, which, according to media reports, caused many to break down or even commit suicide such as Linda Lin Dai (林黛) and Lam Fung (林鳳).
In the 1980s this ‘Golden Era fell into decline and the number of productions to come out of Movietown dropped considerably. The last solely-produced film from the site came out in 2003. The complex now sits vacant, guarded and fenced off to the outside world, as it has been since 2007, with operations having shifted to a new US$180 million plot nearby. But the new site is mainly a post-production studio featuring sound stages and dubbing rooms.
Back at the original premises, back-and-forth negotiations have been taking place between the landowners and the Town Planning Board who have been struggling to decide on what to do with the vacant lot. In late 2014, there was a decision to completely level the premises to build housing and commercial properties, but this was thankfully reversed by the Antiquities Advisory Board who at the last minute in March managed to rate Movietown as a Grade 1 Historical Site – the highest grading of its kind.
This forced the unscrupulous property developers to ditch their original plans. They are now planning to retain certain buildings in their original state. But only time will reveal exactly to extent Movietown will be preserved – and whether this conservation will honour Hong Kong’s turbulent film culture.