Raymond Chow Man-wai, the Hong Kong movie producer who helped launch the careers of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, died today at the age of 91.
Often referred to the “godfather of Hong Kong film industry,” Chow had more than 600 films to his credit as a producer, mostly made through his Golden Harvest studio. It was through Golden Harvest that Chow nurtured the careers of many actors and directors who would go on to become international stars including Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Chung.
Born in Hong Kong on October 8, 1927, Chow graduated from St John’s University in Shanghai in 1949 with a degree in journalism. After working various reporting jobs, including a stint with Voice of America in Hong Kong, Chow joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 as a publicist. Having working his way up to head of publicity he was made a production chief after complaining that it was hard to promote the studio’s films as he felt that they were bad. Eventually tiring of the factory-like atmosphere that Shaw Brothers operated under, Chow, along with Leonard Ho, left to establish his own studio, Golden Harvest, in 1970.
Chow’s first big discovery came while he was watching a television variety show and saw a martial artist and budding actor named Bruce Lee. Lee had already had a modicum of success as an actor in the United States, co-starring as Kato in 1966 The Green Hornet television series. Chow was able to out maneuver Shaw Brothers and signed Lee to a three-picture contract. The three films that Lee made for Golden Harvset – The Big Boss (1971), Fist Of Fury (1972) and Way Of The Dragon (1972) broke box office records in Hong Kong and propelled Lee to international stardom. Chow would team with Warner Brothers for what would be Lee’s last film Enter The Dragon. Lee died shortly before the film’s release, but it would go on to be one of the biggest box office grossers of the year.
In the years immediately following Lee’s death, a number of actors tried but never managed to succeed at filling his shoes on screen. That changed when Chow signed young star Jackie Chan to Golden Harvest in 1983. Chan had started his film career with an attempt to position him as a Bruce Lee successor in 1976’s New Fist Of Fury, but it was when he was allowed to play a character with some humor in 1978’s Drunken Master that Chan’s career skyrocketed.
Chan’s popularity was the driving force behind the explosion in worldwide popularity of Hong Kong cinema through the 1980s and early 90s and Chow and Golden Harvest were there to feed the hunger. By financing films, but keeping a hands-off approach to the creative decisions involved, Chow helped a number of Hong Kong filmmakers to find their voice and their audiences including Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, Yuen Woo-ping and Donnie Yen.
Chow and Golden Harvest would occasionally join forces with Hollywood studios, co-producing such films as The Cannonball Run (1981), Megaforce (1982), High Road To China (1983), the sequels in the Charles Bronson Death Wish franchise and the 1990s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy.