Since I returned from Hong Kong six weeks ago, I’ve gone on a 12-book binge (and finished my memoir revisions). So last night I decided to take a break from the written word and indulge in one of my favorite movies.
The World of Suzie Wong.
It’s been a decade since I’ve watched Suzie Wong, and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to see it again. I own the DVD and was inspired to watch it last night because I’m going to lend it to a friend on Sunday.
I’ve also thought about Suzie this year because Penguin China recently came out with a reprint of the book. It’s interesting to hear from friends who have read the book but have never seen the film. So here’s a little review.
First, the Hong Kong footage from 1960 is priceless! The cinematographer captured most of the tourist spots in Hong Kong back then (which have remained popular to this day): the Star Ferry, Central, Aberdeen, and Tsim Sha Tsui. In 1960, police directed traffic from little pagodas in the middle of the street and refugees from the mainland lived in squatter huts along the mountainside. Both are prevalent in The World of Suzie Wong. If anything, this film gives the viewer an excellent feel for Hong Kong in the 1960s.
Back in 1997, around the Handover, it seemed like everyone in expat Hong Kong was reading the book. Some people criticized it for being sexist and racist, which I won’t argue, but like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I think Suzie Wong is a product of its time. (The book was written in 1958). Chinese male servants, no matter their age, were called boys; women were called girls. There was reference to hitting women as a sign of respect in Chinese culture, and how European employers wouldn’t hire an expat who was married to a Chinese man or woman.
The film had its moments of progressiveness, though. An English banker liked to boast about his fictitious sister who married a Chinese man to show that inter-cultural relationships do work out. Robert Lomax, the main character (besides, of course, Suzie herself) took Suzie out in public, to European-only restaurants. Still, he struggled with what he called “moral” issues, ie, settling down with a prostitute.
While the story of Suzie Wong is nothing new, the Hong Kong setting gives it character and is the reason it’s become a classic.
Finally, Nancy Kwan lights up the screen with her gorgeous wardrobe, her dancing (she trained in ballet), and her beauty. She was 21 when Suzie Wong was filmed and played an 18 or 19 year old. William Holden was 42 when the film was completed and played someone “pushing 40”. He seemed a lot older than that in the film, but I guess many people did back then.
Now that I’ve re-watched the film, I’m ready to re-read the book. As Suzie would say, “for goodness sake”, it’s about time.