I clearly remember what I was doing 15 years ago tonight. Hong Kong had never seemed so dark and deserted as it had that night–June 30, 1997. The streets of Tsim Sha Tsui were out of a 1950s noir film, misty and empty.
I also remember the book I was reading around that time.
So this week, in memory of the 15 anniversary of the handover, I re-read Richard Mason’s classic, The World of Suzie Wong (Penguin, reprint 2012). A couple weeks ago I blogged about re-watching the film. It had also been years since I’d seen that.
And now that my memory has been jump started, I can see why people prefer the novel (despite the film’s amazing 1960 Hong Kong footage). The novel is so much richer than the film.
For starters, the film doesn’t tell us much about Suzie’s or Robert’s background. As it turns out, Suzie was born in Shanghai, ‘seduced’ (I guess that’s what they called rape back in 1958) by an uncle, and tricked into going to Hong Kong to join her cousin in a reputable job. Once she lands in the British colony, she learns that her cousin is a bar girl. It doesn’t take Suzie long to realize she has little choice now that no self-respecting man would ever marry her.
She ends up working at the bar next to the now-fabled Nam Kwok Hotel. (As an aside, when I lived in Hong Kong, people said the Luk Kwok was the site of the hotel Mason based his on, but the Luk Kwok is named in the novel as a posh place to stay. The Nam Kwok was the dive hotel.)
And we learn in the novel that Robert Lomax arrives in Hong Kong via Malaya, where he worked on a rubber plantation. Deciding to try his luck as a painter in Hong Kong, Lomax rents a room with a view at the Nam Kwok for a month. He quickly befriends the ladies who work at the bar and in the rooms if they’re bought out.
Lomax meets Suzie on the Star Ferry, but unlike in the film, she’s already on the boat before it starts to leave the pier. The novel’s ferry is headed to Wanchai, but in the film it sails to Central. That’s not a huge discrepancy, but little differences like these stand out.
Suzie has a couple of nutty long-term boyfriends in the novel, but in the film one doesn’t appear and the other’s importance is minimized. There is a Caucasian woman in the novel, but she doesn’t play the role of the cold white bitch like she does in the film. Quite the contrary: in the book she saves Suzie’s life.
The most upsetting difference, to me, between the film and the book is that the former completely cuts out two crucial scenes at the end of the novel. In fact, the film ends when the novel is only 70% finished (Kindle can prove that).
Toward the end of the novel, Suzie and Robert sail to Macau for several weeks. What unfolds there is creepy and thrilling and would have made for some cool cinematography. (The Scavengers did it in 1959 just fine.) This Macau part was one of my favorite scenes in the novel, so it’s shameful that the film completely cut it out.
As a film, The World of Suzie Wong is entertaining, but to understand the complete story, you need to read the novel.