The first thing I noticed about Scott Shaw when he arrived at our offices in Central is that he looks much younger than his years would suggest. He wore an oversized suit, a purple paisley shirt with jade Buddha cufflinks, white adidas tennis shoes, a fedora and round sunglasses. From the moment he entered the hectic mood of the office changed. He had a constant smile on his face, was quick witted and continually joking.
Shaw who has been coming to Hong Kong for over thirty years is known here for his photography, his work in the film industry, his Zen Filmmaking style of cinema, and for advancing the understanding of the Korean martial art of Hapkido through his writings.
Before we went into the conference room to do the interview I inquired if he had any prerequisites or requests about the interview. He looked at me, smiled and said, “Everybody always asks me the same questions, maybe you can ask me something different.” With that we began.
Where were you born?
What was your first memory?
Wow. Good Question. Don’t let this scare you but it was when I was maybe two years old. My mother and I were walking down the street and a guy came up to my mother, hit her, and took her purse.
That is scary!
I grew up in a scary place.
What did your father do for a living?
Initially he was a restaurateur. He opened a restaurant near the U.S.C. campus in the early 1950s called the Trojan Barrel. The restaurant was very successful so he sold it in the mid 1960s planning to retire at a young age. But, he didn’t like retirement so he became the general manager for the Los Angeles Forum.
What is the Los Angles Forum?
It was and I guess still is a sports arena, concert and event hall.
Did you ever go there?
Oh yeah, sure. When I was a kid it was great. It was the total place to be. The Lakers and the Kings played there. I got to see some great games and watch some great concert. I also met great sports personalities like Wilt Chamberlin, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gordy Howe, and even people like Bruce Lee and the Smothers Brothers.
The Bruce Lee?
I understand your father died when you were young?
Yes, I was ten. He actually died at the Forum from a massive heart attack.
Did your mother have a job?
Yes, she was a major player in the garment transportation industry.
Why did you live in such a scary area? Is all of Los Angeles like that?
(Laughing) Yes and no. Actually my father had grown up in that same area of Los Angeles now know as Southcentral. He just never realized that it had changed.
By the time I went to school I was the only white kid in the whole school.
Was that unusual?
You have to understand there was lot of racial tension in the U.S. in the 1960s. There were riots and all kinds of crazy stuff going on. Black people blamed white people for their condition and as I was the only white kid around, it would get interesting.
What do you mean?
I was never called Scott. I would be called whitey, white paddy and honkey everyday. I was always challenged to fights, usually by more than one person. Probably the most interesting moment came when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and as the only white kid in the area it was decided that I must be the one to blame, so the gangs were coming to kill me. It was pretty intense.
The police came and took me home.
What occurred when you went back to school?
My parents took the hint and we moved to Inglewood.
Was that the first time your family moved?
No actually my parents and I moved a lot over the years. I lived in several different places throughout L.A. and Orange County.
Did you have a favorite?
I guess Hollywood.
Why, because of the stars?
(Laughing) No. It was actually because I had grown up in some petty rough areas up until the point when I went to high school. There was always a lot of gang activity around me. I would see people getting jumped and stabbed all the time. When I started going to Hollywood High School I realized I wasn’t going to have to fight all the time. It was a very strange realization.
Did your martial arts training help you when you were growing up?
I’m still alive.
What got you involved in the martial arts?
You know it’s really hard to pinpoint. My father earned his black belt during military service in World War II. My uncle was a professional boxer prior to World War II. So the fighting arts were always around me.
Why did you start learning Hapkido?
That’s kind of interesting. There weren’t many schools of martial arts around L.A. at the time. My father knew this man who was teaching a group of students in his backyard. So I just started.
Did you like Hapkido?
You have to understand, I was six years old. I thought I was just learning karate. I had no idea about the various styles of the martial arts or anything like that. But sure it was great.
Was that man your only teacher?
Oh no. I earned my first black belt from him but I had several teachers.
How was it going to different martial art schools? Here in Hong Kong they are very competitive.
I never felt the competition between the schools but back then martial art training was very different. School owners didn’t care who you earned your black belt from. When you went into their school you were going to start as a white belt.
So you had to be a white belt again?
Yes more than once. But it was actually a good thing. It taught me a lot about humility and made me realize that the belt a person wears does not necessarily describe their martial art ability.
When did you start teaching the martial arts?
That was a natural progression. I was very young maybe eight or nine. In a style like Hapkido you are always working individually with other people. They are showing you and you are showing them what you understand. But I opened my first school when I was twenty-one.
That is fairly young for a school owner isn’t it?
I guess but you have to remember I was doing the martial arts since I was six so I had a lot of years of training under my belt. A funny thing is most people lie about their age to make themselves younger. Back then I used to lie and tell people I was actually twenty-seven not twenty-one.
(Smiling) I didn’t think any one would want to train with a twenty-one year old instructor.
When do you feel you mastered the art?
I don’t really like the term master because in modern English it has some overreaching connotations. But the point I felt I really understood Hapkido came when I was in high school. One day this guy kept coming at me but no matter what he did I could deflect his attack. I did this without ever punching or kicking him.
How old were you then?
Maybe fourteen or fifteen.
So to you is there such a thing as a martial art master?
My belief is that a master of the martial arts is not someone who can do everything great but someone who understands what they personally can do very well.
You have made a substantial contribution to the martial arts through your writing and teaching yet you always seem to downplay that fact. Why is that?
Ever since I have been involved in the martial arts there has always been this macho mindset, I can kick your ass or my style is better than yours. That is just foolishness. The ultimate goal of the martial arts is about personal development. Not who can beat up who. It’s like in the Old West of the U.S. there were all of these gunfighters trying to prove who was faster. But sooner or later they all got killed by someone who was better. The one thing to remember in the martial arts and in life is that no matter how good you are there will always be somebody faster and better than you. So better should never be the goal. Self-awareness and personal understanding should be. There’s no room for ego if you’re following that path.
You are also very involved in Zen and yoga. How did that come about?
I have no real answer for you. I was always just drawn to it. My parents worked, so on my time off from school I was a total latchkey kid. I would stay at home all day alone and watch T.V. I found there was this guy named Richard Hittleman who would teach hatha yoga poses and meditation on this one station. Every day I would sit down with him. The real push came when I was a young boy and I walked into a bookstore and discovered the Tao Te Ching. That book has been my mainstay ever since.
How did you get involved in the film business?
What do you mean?
Well, I saw a lot of the downside of it when I was in high school. I just never wanted to do that.
What did you want to do?
I wanted to grow up and be Neil Young (laughter). After that my plan was to be a yogi for the rest of my life.
Is that what brought you to Asia?
What made you change your mind?
I begin to realize that there was lot of hypocrisy in formalized spirituality; even eastern spirituality. I realized advancing human consciousness had to take place internally. You can’t wear a robe or get a title and be truly spiritual.
How did you finally get involved in the film industry?
I kept getting offers. Finally I said yes. But I think deep down everybody has the hidden desire to be a movie star; don’t they?
What made you start producing your own movies?
I didn’t want to be under the control of someone else. I’m a creative guy. I’m a spur of the moment sort of guy. If I have an idea and I want to make something, I want to get out there and do it. I don’t want to sit around and wait for someone to offer me an acting role or a directing job.
You are known for having unusual themes in your movies.
Yes. Offbeat titles and story ideas. Why is that?
(Laughing) Well, I’m an abstract artist. The truth is, to a degree what you say is true. A number of my films present abstract characters, obscure story development and some crazy editing techniques. I guess those are my most popular films. But a lot of people overlook my other films that follow very traditional characters who have simply been placed in unique circumstances.
You have made a lot of films. Do you have a favorite film you have created?
Most of them I like to varying degrees. They are each unique onto them self. And each of them offers unique elements in terms of character development, editing and story structure. Or lack thereof (laughing). My favorites tend to be The Rock n’ Roll Cops, Undercover X, Hitman City, Killer: Dead or Alive, Super Hero Central, Vampire Noir and The Hard Edge of Hollywood.
Why do you choose those films?
It’s hard to explain but those films just seem to emulate what I hoped they would become.
Not Roller Blade Seven?
(Laughing). No. Though that may be one of my most well known films, that was made a long time ago. Though it definitely holds a place in my heart, my filmmaking has come a long way since then.
How has your filmmaking evolved?
It’s constantly changing, constantly evolving. With new technologies there are so many possibilities that did not exist when I first started making movies over twenty years ago. I am forever inspired and coming up with new ideas. The problem is, I don’t just make movies. As you know I do photographs, I paint, I make music, I write books. My worst enemy is time. I just do not have enough of it to do everything that I am inspired to do.
What kind of films have you been making recently?
Recently I’ve moved away from the narrative film. I’ve gotten more into taking an abstract idea and making an entire film around that concept.
How does that work for you?
The inspiration comes from all kinds of sources. Maybe I will see a scene or something taking place and I will film it. From that I get an idea for a whole feature. Many times, I will just start filming various subjects and then the element that ties it all together will come later. I’ll have this epiphany and then I will put the movie together around that inspiration.
Is that Zen Filmmaking?
I see on the internet that a lot of people discuss Zen Filmmaking. What do you think about that?
That’s great. I really never search myself or Zen Filmmaking on the internet. I know me and I created Zen Filmmaking. But from some of the things I have read I understand that some people really don’t get it. They think Zen Filmmaking is some sort of an excuse to not follow the traditional filmmaking process or to make excuses for filmmaking mistakes. That’s totally wrong. Zen Filmmaking comes from a completely different mindset than that. It is about the freedom of Zen. It is about leaving all structure and judgment behind. It is about existing in a space of satori by simply accepting the perfection of the moment and embracing what you have captured on film. From this cinematic enlightenment is obtained. (A big smile comes across Scott’s face). Pretty weird, huh?
I have to ask one more question. It is almost required. As you have been coming to Hong Kong for so many years, what is your favorite element?
(Laughing) I love Hong Kong. I guess most people would say the food or the shopping. But I really dig the cloudy rainy days when everybody’s running around with their umbrellas bumping into one another. Also there is this bar in Central that I’m really found of. I’ve staggered out of there many a time in the very late night.
With that we leave Scott Shaw. He is currently here in Hong Kong to attend the opening of a gallery that will be featuring his photographs.