The World of Suzie Wong, 55 years on: archives opened to revisit 1960s Hong Kong’s main event

This pretty woman turned heads in Hong Kong before Julia Roberts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 3:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 4:20pm

Many have told the story of the hooker with a golden heart, but this one was Hong Kong’s special girl.

The film of hit 50s novel The World of Suzie Wong turned 55 this week and in a new series we give readers a privileged view of our archives to reveal the buzz surrounding these events.

REVIEW: The World of Suzie Wong (1960) 

The film is a tale of a young British man, Robert Lomax who comes to Hong Kong to become an artist for a year. He checks in to the Nam Kok Hotel, based on the Luk Kwok Hotel, though the book turns it into a brothel stocked with “bar-girls” or prostitutes.

Few would recognize the 1930s waterfront Luk Kwok Hotel where Suzie writer Richard Mason stayed for four months in 1957 to write the hit novel.

Land reclamation has pushed the water back and redevelopments to the building in 1989 and 2007 mean the building blends in on busy Gloucester Road.

While once the Luk Kwok was the tallest building in Wan Chai at seven storeys, as Peggy Sito wrote in the South China Morning Post, now it's much larger, but not the largest.

But many would recall the famous names associated with this story’s three forms as a novel, a play and film.

William Shatner played artist Robert Lomax on Broadway, and France Nuyen played Suzie Wong.

Nuyen was then cast as Suzie in the film, which began shooting in locations around Hong Kong with William Holden as the lead man on January 5, 1960, as the SCMP reported.

Sampans and junks bobbed in the cool January breeze as Holden is pictured “in a playful mood” -- but wearing an overcoat -- with Nuyen at the Kowloon Star Ferry pier.

Was it too cold in Hong Kong?

On January 16, news splashed on the front of the newspaper that the Soviet parliaments unanimously approved an armed forces cut of 1.2 million troops as Khrushchiev urged the West to follow suit.

Nestled just under that globally significant story was the similarly earth-shattering news that France Nuyen had collapsed on set; she was hospitalized with a throat virus and “nervous exhaustion”.

Her illness takes Nuyen out of the picture, and having lost an estimated US$800,000 the $3 million production sought a new Suzie.

In 1959 Mel Tucker and George Englund arrived in Hong Kong with a shopping list: an “innocent but vivacious” girl aged 18-22 “who must have an interesting and magnetic attraction”. This time, on February 5, 1960 they looked in London.

Kwan, 20, and another actress, Grace Chang are the Hong Kong linked women on a seven name shortlist including a Korean beauty queen publicized in the SCMP.

The front page splash is all for Nancy Kwan when she wins the role of Suzie, and Khrushchev is relegated to the nook Kwan occupied beneath the lead.

A ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet, Kwan put fears of her abilities aside when she accepted the role.

“Daintily lovely in the oriental manner, Miss Kwan got her limited stage experience from the Royal Ballet in London for whom she danced occasionally as a student,” carped the UPI and AP copy, clearly doubting the daughter of Hong Kong architect W H Kwan and English model Marquita Scott. 

Anxiously the SCMP awaited its home-grown star as a page 3 splash queried her arrival date under the headline “Troubled world of Suzie Wong”, detailing frustrating miscommunications between film writer Ian Box and a publicity man on May 1, 1960.

Kwan is left in London with an ear infection at the request of Producer Ray Stark, as Director Richard Quine arrives on May 5 to “VIP treatment” at Kai Tak Airport.

Mr Kwan is at the airport, stoking expectation among the gathered crowd that Miss Kwan will disembark with the crew.

“There was a general murmer of disappointment (when Kwan didn’t appear). Many left, and those who chose to remain to see actor William Holden were treated to a double-dose of disappointment when he was driven away from the tarmac,” the SCMP reported.

READ MORE: For Goodness Sake: The Afterlife of Suzie Wong

But finally, Kwan appeared on May 6 and Box wrote: “The freckled-face, gum chomping Eurasian beauty stayed as cool as the summer weight cheongsam she wore as the army of eager news photographers nearly jostled her into the sea.”

For her part, after holding court among “vernacular” media with a press conference in Cantonese, she says there’s two things at the top of her list: eating chow fan and mangoes. “Nothing in the world can beat the food in Hongkong,” she said, flanked by her parents.

A curious request from the crew asked the good burghers of Wan Chai to turn their lights on early – 5.30pm -- to aid the filming. “The time may be a little early, but … they [the lights] will show up in the picture and will help to make it look good.”

And while shooting a cross-harbour scene at the Hong Kong Star Ferry pier, Kwan turned 21 which the production honoured with a huge cake shaped like a Chinese palace “set on top of a cage holding 21 homing pigeons.” The pigeons were released once Kwan blew out the candles, the SCMP reported.

Back in Wan Chai, filming wraps up on May 21 in a bar stocked with real bar girls and US Navy sailors “for added authenticity”.

On this day the stars were mobbed by “giggling girls” trying to get autographs from Holden, and bar girls seeking out Nancy Kwan from the sidelines as the cameras rolled.

It was too much for Holden, who raised his fist to “persuade” them to move on “good naturedly”. “The next one who sticks her nose into the camera … Pow”, he reportedly said.

The reviews are in

Reviews from New York on November 11, and published on the 12th credit the city’s beauty: “praise for the film’s background shots … was unanimous,” wrote the AP,

But the New York Mirror says it’s “a poignant photoplay with a plot as thin as a rice cake”. The film doesn’t arrive in Hong Kong until the next year so reviews are second hand. A resourceful Elizabeth Fox seeks out a review from Jean Gordon, a former SCMP colleague who had gone to London, around Christmas 1960.

Gordon was kinder: “Richard Quine has made a fascinating film of Mason’s best-seller,” she reported from a trade screening in London. “He has avoided sentimentality and stressed the humour and pathos of the author’s unique love story of a visiting western artist and a Wanchai prostitute.”

Gordon is back in the colony and writing for the SCMP by the time the film arrives August 11, 1961.

A charity screening is organized at Queens Theatre – which offers its space for free -- and the Sandy Bay home for Crippled Children gets the proceeds.

After wide release, reviews are glowing but some gripe that the waiting staff in some of the bar scenes could have shown more authenticity. They “too obviously bear the stamp of ‘made in England’”.

“Why could the producers not have imported some of the many Chinese restaurant boys in London to give these shots a proper authenticity?” reviewer Jean Gordon wrote on August 18.

Wrong image

The publicity is too much for some who think the story of a prostitute in Hong Kong is the wrong thing for the colony.

Lorenzo Lo of the Hong Kong Tourism Association voices fears the movie will encourage the wrong type of tourism, as it gave red-light Wan Chai and bars “overdone” publicity.

In the same meeting of the economics Society of the University of Hong Kong he praised tourism as Hong Kong’s third most important industry and said it was growing.

Could this have been some of the positive effects of a worldwide smash hit movie? If he said so it wasn’t reported.

He does however say Hong Kong’s “tourist dollar” bests Japan’s “though Japan has been in the business for 40 or 50 years” and he expected a 20 per cent yearly increase in the tourist industry.

Success in many forms

Nancy Kwan went on to amass 53 acting credits according to IMDb including Flower Drum Song. She won a Golden Globe for Suzie and was nominated for best motion picture actress in the drama category.

Richard Mason was described in the South China Morning Post as a luxuriating yachtsman fond of a curved pipe and skin diving. When not guiding his yacht he was relaxing in a rooftop swimming pool in Rome. “I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve published only three novels in 17 years but I’ve managed to travel the world and live just as I like,” he told Kenneth Alsop for a story published on August 6, 1961. Not bad for a writer whose earliest novel was labeled “no good” by his teacher, W. H. Auden.

While Mason had tried his best to present waterfront life accurately in his best-selling novel, “when I saw the play and the film I just felt sad at what they had done to the story,” he said.

That said, and despite the months Mason spent in the Luk Kwok Hotel studying his subject, on January 10, 1960 he dropped a bombshell. Suzie Wong was a fiction. This may seem easy to believe now but for a years Hong Kong girls thought the character was based on their lives.  

"Actually, I dreamed her up, using no particular girl as a basis, and merged her with my own personality and material I gleaned from girls at a Wanchai bar," he told Ian Box over curls of pipe smoke and a whisky.