Suzie Wong – a Documentary on Nancy Kwan

If movies can change lives, mine was probably changed by a film I saw in 1960.

I remember piling into our 1956 Chevrolet station wagon with my parents and brother and heading first to Oakland’s Chinatown, where we picked up Chinese takeaway.

Then we drove to a drive-in movie theatre in the suburbs to watch the just-released Hollywood blockbuster, The World of Suzie Wong.

At the age of 12, I was captivated by what I saw on the massive outdoor silver screen. There were images of a crowded harbour teeming with ferries, sampans, and junks.

There were scenes of narrow streets lined with shop houses that had balconies on the second and third floors . . . neon signs stretching more than halfway across the thoroughfares . . . shanty towns marching up and down steep hillsides . . . double decker trams . . .

There were also policemen in short pants directing traffic from octagonal kiosks in the intersections and beautiful young Chinese women dressed in cheongsams.

I was as fascinated by the people as by the landscape.

“I’m going to live in Hong Kong when I grow up,” I announced the next day. My parents thought it was a stage I was going through and expected it to quickly pass.

But I continued to dream of living in a room with ceiling fans and a balcony in a district called Wanchai. I never thought about how I would support myself. If the movie’s leading man could be an aspiring artist, perhaps I could be an aspiring writer.

By the time I visited Hong Kong for the first time, 12 years had passed. Halfway through university, I was majoring in Chinese studies. Spending the summer in Taiwan to bump up my Mandarin skills, I flew to Hong Kong for one week. The arriival at now defunct Kai Tak Airport did not disappoint. To put it mildly . . .

While Hong Kong has since changed beyond recognition, in 1972 there were still vestiges of the Hong Kong I saw in the movie. I was overwhelmed.

Plot Synopsis

Based on a novel by Richard Mason published in 1957, The World of Suzie Wong is about Robert Lomax, an English painter, and Suzie Wong, a bar girl with whom he has an affair.

Lomax visits Hong Kong in search artistic inspiration. He finds a room in a hotel on the waterfront, not knowing that it functions as a brothel catering to visiting sailors.

When he discovers this, it only adds to the hotel’s charm. Lomax is quickly adopted by the bar girls that hang out in the cocktail lounge off the lobby.

One of them is Suzie, and the two of them fall in love. Lomax was played by William Holden, Suzie Wong by Nancy Kwan.

I was taken to another movie set in Hong Kong five years earlier. While my recollections of that film were not as pronounced because I was rather young at the time, I could never get that haunting melody, Love Is a Many Spendored, out of my head.

And another movie, which my favourite aunt took me to see in 1962, The Road to Hong Kong, starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, made another deep impression.

But it was The World of Suzie Wong that always stood out in my memory as one of my favourite childhood films. If I hadn’t seen it, would I be living here now? Perhaps . . . Perhaps not . . .

A Tribute to Nancy Kwan

In association with the United States Consulate General, Salon Films presented the Asian Premier of To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey in Hong Kong Monday. A documentary, it explores Nancy Kwan’s career path and personal journey over the last half a century.

Ms Kwan, who now lives in the United States, was in attendance. I had the pleasure of meeting her and chatting with her briefly. The screening was part of the 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival, which opened Sunday and runs through 6 April 2010.

Copyright: Michael Taylor Pictured: the movie’s poster (above); Nancy Kwan playing Suzie Wong in the movie (below)


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