A Chinese movie mogul and the transformation of his movie empire—the Loke Wan Tho family and the Cathay Organisation in Southern China and Southeast Asia (1915–2000)*

The Cathay Organisation was a household name in the Chinese film industry. At its peak, it operated 75 cinemas and two movie studios, with a film distribution network spanning Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as Europe and Latin America. In the public’s mind, Cathay was synonymous with its charismatic founder, Loke Wan Tho (1915–1964). Well versed in literature and ornithology, Loke appeared as a British gentleman, always meticulously dressed and elegantly mannered in his dealings with political leaders and movie celebrities. But underneath its gracious surface, Cathay was constantly struggling to sustain itself against problems that arose due to its rapid expansion. Although Cathay often produced impressive movies with graceful stars, high production costs could not be supported by the box-office revenues. By tracing the transformation of Cathay, this article will examine the dynamics of a Chinese family business in its attempt to survive amidst political chaos in Southeast Asia. Surviving generational succession, corporate consolidation and waves of political crises, Cathay’s story not only mirrors the transformation of an overseas Chinese family business over the past 100 years but also reflects a larger historical picture.