Promote Suzie Wong to the world as a symbol of independent, hard-working Hongkongers

N. Balakrishnan says the popularity of kimono rental shops with tourists in Japan suggests that Hong Kong could make more of its classic cheongsam, and of a woman who famously wore one

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 10:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 10:34am

On a recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, during the cherry blossom season, I was surprised at the hundreds of “geishas” wandering around town, though I had seen only one or two during our last trip there a couple of decades ago. A closer look revealed that most were speaking Putonghua.

The ever-innovative Japanese, obsessed with costumes, seem to have found a new way to make money from Chinese tourists – every other shop in Kyoto seemed to be advertising kimono rental to help tourists explore the “maiko world”. There were also many men dressed as samurais wandering around, again all from China. Completing the picture, many rickshaws pulled by young Japanese men were showing Chinese couples the sights.

People like me who read too many history books must be struck by the ironies of rich Chinese girls travelling to Japan to buy rice cookers and getting dressed up as geishas, who were, after all, no matter how sophisticated, just courtesans.

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Looking past the history, what struck me was that the boom in Chinese tourists was also helping the small stallholders of Kyoto, the little old ladies who run the numerous kimono rental shops – unlike in Hong Kong where it is only the chain stores that seem to be benefiting, and the little guys and women who used to run the local shops are getting increasingly squeezed out.

Looking at the recently converted geishas of Kyoto, I thought about how Hong Kong has made so little use of the woman who used to symbolise the city for foreigners – Suzie Wong. The amnesia is understandable given that she was a Wan Chai bar girl. But let us not forget that the difference between Suzie Wong and a geisha is one of degree, not substance. One could even say Suzie Wong was a more honest version of the profession.

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But the real story of Suzie Wong is more fascinating than that imagined by those who have not read the book. Until I did so, I had imagined, like my many “anti-colonial” friends, that it was just an ego-boosting tale of a lecherous and crude old white man chasing after a bar girl. But it always helps to read the original source, and anyone who does so will quickly realise that it is a deeply felt love story, albeit an unconventional one.

The hero of the tale, Robert Lomax, arrives in Hong Kong from Malaya having failed as a manager of a rubber plantation, heartbroken and wanting to start a new life.

Suzie Wong is a spunky and independent Hong Kong girl, forced to make her living in the way she does by force of circumstances. At first, in fact, she declines the advances of Lomax; she is certainly not portrayed as a submissive Asian gold digger.

Suzie Wong is, to me, a symbol of the many independent and hard-working people of Hong Kong who toil to make a living

The book talks about issues such as corruption in Hong Kong’s police force, awful living conditions in the shanty towns dotting the hills and the ingrained and cruel racism of the resident white expat community. It certainly was not the norm in books of that era. Considering that it was written in 1957, the book was far ahead of its time in its treatment of Asians and racism.

Naturally, all this comes through more in the book than the film, The World of Suzie Wong, but there is enough even there for some people.

For me, the final proof that it was a romantic tale is that the author, Richard Mason, did not visit Hong Kong again after watching the movie being shot. He died in Rome in 1997 – a significant year for this city, with the return to China taking place.

It was reported that Mason wanted to preserve “that moment” when he felt the painful love in Wan Chai and not have it destroyed by prosaic reality. Suzie Wong is, to me, a symbol of the many independent and hard-working people of Hong Kong who toil to make a living with little help from any institution, public or private. Anyone who thinks Suzie Wong is a Hollywood stereotype of a submissive woman has not seen more recent US offerings such as Fifty Shades of Grey!

The cheongsam, from swinging Shanghai to Suzie Wong to slit thigh-high

With this bit of revisionist history in mind, Hong Kong could quite confidently float Suzie Wong as its symbol. Only those ignorant of the book’s content, or who would prefer to deny the realities of the past, could object. Then, perhaps, Hong Kong could appeal to mainland tourists from, say, Shanghai who would come to dress up in cheongsams, just as they now go to Kyoto.

National costumes are designed to hide the flaws of the national anatomy and accentuate the positive

In some ways, wearing a cheongsam is more “authentic” than a kimono, in so far as any such tourist ventures could be considered authentic at all. As a well-travelled friend once pointed out, national costumes are designed to hide the flaws of the national anatomy and accentuate the positive. Thus the kimono hides short, squat legs and draws attention to the nape. Ditto the sari. A cheongsam, on the other hand, draws attention to the legs rather than hiding them.

In this way, Hong Kong could mobilise young and old to make the dresses. What’s more, there is room for innovation and differentiation.

It is time Hong Kong looked creatively to its past for local heroes, while also looking to the present to see how it can add value with new tourist services rather than relying on tired old formulas.

Suzie Wong has the potential to appeal to the Western world too. After all, it was movies such as The World of Suzie Wong that started the modern tourism industry in Hong Kong. Perhaps it is time to go back to the “classics” for inspiration instead of just relying on high-volume, low-margin tourism.

N. Balakrishnan is a Hong Kong-based businessman