Unique Film Productions was founded in Shanghai by the brothers in 1924 - four years after their father's death. The company was at first located on the narrow Donghengbin Road in Shanghai but increasing output demanded more space. It was eventually moved to the 68 Huade Road.
Operations at Unique Film Productions was headed by the eldest of the Shaw brothers, Runje (1896 - 1975). The company was founded on a capital of $50,000 and Runde was appointed as accountant and screenwriter while Runme was the distribution manager. Runje, as general manager, never left China and continued making movies there until the Communist Revolution.
Prior to film business, Runje was a gifted lawyer (in the Shanghai district court and joint hearing office) with a successful career that included managerial positions at both Hsin Hwa Foreign Firm and the prestigious Chinese-French Chen Ye Bank. His entrepreneural streak was evident from the various business 'sidelines' which he got himself involved in. One successful venture included the Huayou Egg Factory which had branches in both Ningbo and Tianjin. But his passion lay more with the performance arts. As a hobby, the multi-talented Runje was already writing plays for home grown opera theatres in Shanghai.
Later, together with his brothers, Runje acquired an opera theatre - The Laughter Theatre (1923) - and began operations, more for pleasure than anything else. The success of this theatre spawned two more - The Hsiang Theatre and Hangzhou Popular Theatre in 1928.
In fact, the first 'silent' film produced, distributed and exhibited by the Shaws was an adaption of one of Runje's more popular plays at The Laughter Theatre - 'The Man From Shensi'.
This play, with a rough Robin Hood storyline, had a unique beginning. On opening night, the hero fell through the stage's rotten planks, causing the audience to roar with laughter. Sensing a winner, the Shaws incorporated the mishap into successive performances and the play became a smash hit.
Bitten by the entertainment bug, the Shaws bought their first camera with their meager savings and converted the play into a 'silent' film. Existing actors and actresses of the play were drafted into its production. Run Run himself was still in school (Young Men's Association) in those days but he remembers the astonishing profits and impact of this first of many Shaw movie successes. Soon other 'silent' films such as "New Leaf" (1925), "Heroine Li Fei Fei" (1925), "Pearl Pagoda" (1925), "Humanities" (1926), "Madam Normal Snake" (1926), "Journey to the West" (1926) and "The Love Eternal" (1926) followed from their Shanghainese studio. These quickly won over audiences in China.
Le Parvo of Debrie camera, 1920s
By 1925, the output of Unique Film Productions had jumped to one film per month. It was also a stroke of good fortune that Runje married one of the popular starlets of the silver screen, Chan Yoke Mui, as his second wife.
Threatened by the success of these young upstarts, Star Film Company, Great China, Youlian, Huaju, Minxin and Shanghai Film Company - the established players of the day - began consolidating their operations into the Liuhe Film Company (Shanghai). The brothers soon found themselves shut out from the exhibition circuit belonging to the members of the cartel. This period is known in film history as the 'Liuhe encirclement'. With nowhere to show their films, the Shaw brothers began to look toward the growing South East Asia market as their land of opportunity.
Runje Shaw and family