In keeping with the Hollywood-looks-at-China theme of my last blog entry, I went right into THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), a full-blown Hollywood romantic melodrama set and partly shot in Hong Kong and starring Nancy Kwan in her first film role, and then into two more Nancy Kwan movies, FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) and THE WRECKING CREW (1968), all in preparation for “An Evening with Nancy Kwan” at the New-York Historical Society on October 15, 2014 in conjunction with the society’s current exhibit, “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion.”
I also watched a documentary by Arthur Dong entitled, “Hollywood Chinese” and shown on PBS’ “American Masters,” in which Kwan is interviewed, and then re-watched FLOWER DRUM SONG with Kwan’s audio commentary (moderated by Nick Redman). So I’ve been on a real Kwan kick lately.
I had never seen THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG in their entirety before. In fact, the only Nancy Kwan films I’d seen in their entirety before this round of viewing were THE WRECKING CREW, the only film of hers I saw in a theater; HONEYMOON HOTEL (1964), a comedy which paired her romantically with Robert Goulet, which I saw on TV many years ago; and DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993), in which she played a restaurant owner who employs young Bruce, which I watched on video for the first time earlier this year. She acted from 1960 to 2006, the date of her last film role on IMDB. (She’s been working on a documentary about her life in recent years.)
I missed most of the films from her Hollywood heyday in the 1960s when they played on TV decades ago. Now I wish I’d taken the time to seek out such titles as LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N. (1966), ARRIVEDERCI, BABY! (1966), THE CORRUPT ONES (1967), NOBODY’S PERFECT (1968), THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1969) and THE MCMASTERS (1970), although, truth to tell, the only one with any kind of a reputation is the last one, a western with racial themes that starred Brock Peters, Burl Ives and David Carradine. Her films from even earlier in the ’60s, THE MAIN ATTRACTION (1962), with Pat Boone, and TAMAHINE (1963), an English film in which she plays a Polynesian girl, sound intriguing but I don’t recall them ever showing up on TV. I’ve seen parts of FATE IS THE HUNTER (1964), in which she has a good dramatic part, and I’d like to see the whole thing. However, aside from her occasional TV roles (the pilot for “Hawaii 5-0,” “Kung Fu,” “Fantasy Island,” “The A-Team,” “The Last Ninja,” etc.) much of her post-1970 filmography is a mystery to me, including many low-budget action films shot in the Philippines and other points east. She did work in Hong Kong and China occasionally in that period, but those films have never crossed my radar.
My fantasy career for her would include Hong Kong films during her heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, when Shaw Bros. was dominating Hong Kong cinema and could have easily recruited her to star in some of their musicals and swashbucklers. How great it would have been to see Kwan dressed up in full swordswoman regalia riding a horse and flashing a sword like Cheng Pei-Pei did in COME DRINK WITH ME, GOLDEN SWALLOW and THE LADY HERMIT. (Cheng Pei-Pei, like Kwan, had a background in ballet, not martial arts.) And the one thing Hong Kong musicals of the era, like HONG KONG NOCTURNE, HONG KONG RHAPSODY and THE LARK, truly needed was a star of Kwan’s caliber. That was the first question I wanted to ask Ms. Kwan if I got the opportunity at the New-York Historical Society event: Did the Hong Kong film industry contact you after your success in SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG?
THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG remain Kwan’s most prominent films and best-known roles. She’s a compelling performer and a delightful interview subject and one wishes she’d gotten better roles over the years.
THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG is a problematic film in the pantheon of Hollywood’s depiction of Chinese and a sore point among many Asian feminists and intellectuals. In the film, Kwan plays Suzie Wong, a Hong Kong prostitute who specializes in servicing westerners until she takes up with Robert Lomax (William Holden), an American architect who has taken time off to come to Hong Kong to paint. Suzie wants to be Robert’s exclusive girlfriend, but he can’t afford to pay the price, so he asks her to model for him. He soon falls in love with her and gets jealous when she’s with other men. Eventually he learns about the child she had from a previous relationship who is cared for by someone in a crowded neighborhood elsewhere in Hong Kong and is visited by Suzie as often as she can slip away. I composed some remarks on the film for the IMDB Message Board for this film in response to someone’s question about why the film has a “racist” reputation.
Here’s the initial comment from someone with the screen name, Pancakeshouse85, that provoked my response:
I’m sure this has been mentioned on here before but in The Joy Luck Club, the Rose character cites this movie specifically. It’s in the scene where Andrew McCarthy’s character’s mother confronts her about the reality of their relationship. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was like something out of that awful, racist movie, “The World of Suzie Wong.” I was just curious because I’ve never seen this movie. Is it really bad? Or do people overlook it because of the time it came out?
And here’s my response, which acknowledges the criticism but offers a defense of the film and Kwan’s performance:
If you do a Google search for this film title + critique or Asian feminists, you’ll find a number of scholarly papers that dissect the film. Peter Feng, author of “Screening Asian Americans” and the co-host of TCM’s series on Asians in Hollywood some years ago, which included this film, calls SUZIE WONG “the film Asians love to hate” and “the film Asians love to love,” suggesting Asians’ conflicted responses to the film. He wrote about the film in an essay called “Recuperating Suzie Wong: A Fan’s Nancy Kwan-dary.” Look it up. I watched the film last night for the first time and I found it a compelling but problematic film. Yes, Suzie Wong is a stereotype and I can see why Asian feminists are infuriated by her. She’s a white male fantasy of the submissive, compliant, sexually voracious “China Doll.” However, the stereotype is significantly humanized by Nancy Kwan’s performance. We really feel for her and she comes off as someone with conflicted goals. She wants a better lot in life for herself and her child, but she has a skewed sense of how to get there. William Holden’s character takes a lot for granted and only gradually comes to truly empathize with and love Suzie. The changes his character undergoes are quite significant for a white male character in a Hollywood interracial romance. The fact that the romance doesn’t end tragically was quite a bold step for Hollywood as well. I think the movie should be seen. But it also deserves criticism—and praise.
One can debate the merits and flaws of the film in terms of the character of Suzie Wong and its relation to the way Hollywood often depicts Asian women and I would argue that much of the criticism deserves to be taken seriously. But it’s hard not to fall in love with the character as played by Kwan, whose rapid-fire line delivery, in her very first movie, is near-perfect and just magical to listen to, with its frequent line-closing catch-phrase, “Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Also, it’s important to note that Holden’s character is the one that goes through the most changes in the film as he steps out of the “bubble” he’s created around himself as a struggling artist and learns to sacrifice for another. Suzie Wong has a strong sense of herself and her own needs right from the start and is in constant negotiations to enable her and her child to survive.
Kwan discusses the film during her audio commentary for FLOWER DRUM SONG and has nothing but high praise for co-star William Holden, who taught her a lot about film acting, and the director, Richard Quine, who gently nurtured her and guided her performance. The story of how she got the role is a wonderful Hollywood story and I’ll recount it when I talk about her live appearance.
FLOWER DRUM SONG is, of course, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical adapted for the screen. Interestingly, both “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song” were being performed on Broadway at the same time. (France Nuyen and William Shatner played the lead roles in “Suzie Wong” on Broadway.) Kwan got the part of Linda Low in the movie version of FLOWER DRUM SONG not long after SUZIE WONG was released to great success. At a Hollywood party, she met Ross Hunter, the producer of FLOWER DRUM SONG, who approached her and said, “You’re Linda Low.” And that’s it. FLOWER DRUM SONG has quite an ensemble cast of Asian performers. Linda Low is a nightclub singer and dancer having an affair with Wang Ta, a college student (played by James Shigeta), while also unofficially affianced with her boss, Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Into the mix comes a picture bride from China named Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki), who’s been promised to Fong who tries to pass her off to Wang Ta’s father (Benson Fong) who wants Wang Ta to marry her. After a steady stream of musical numbers in a variety of styles, it all leads up to a picturesque double wedding in traditional Chinese style with final pairings you might not have expected.
Kwan plays the most westernized woman in the film and the one most free in her actions and style, as manifested in her character’s signature tune, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” performed in front of a triptych of mirrors. She performs a scandalous “fan” dance in the nightclub which outrages Wang Ta and his family. Her other big numbers are “Fan Tan Fannie” and “Grant Avenue,” the latter of which is performed with a troupe of dancers on a set representing Grant Avenue in San Francisco during a Chinatown festival. (Her singing voice is dubbed by B.J. Baker, one of Mickey Rooney’s ex-wives.)
Kwan is quite wonderful to behold in this film. She’s a marvelous dancer and one can only lament the lack of musicals on her resume. “Flower Drum Song” was pretty much it. Why did she never do a musical with Elvis Presley? Did anyone even think of it? Oh, the possibilities… Oh, the lost opportunities… (Kwan’s friend, Irene Tsu, one of the dancers in FLOWER DRUM SONG, made a movie with Elvis, PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966), which also co-starred James Shigeta, but I don’t recall if she dances with him at all.)
[SIDE NOTE: Irene Tsu appeared in a Hong Kong film called COMRADES, ALMOST A LOVE STORY (1996), directed by Peter Chan and starring Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung, in which Tsu played Lai’s aunt, a Hong Kong resident who maintains a shrine in her apartment to William Holden, whom she’d gone on a dinner date with at the Peninsula Hotel 30 years earlier when he was in Hong Kong shooting LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. I had hoped to ask Ms. Kwan if Tsu had consulted with her before taking the part.]
FLOWER DRUM SONG got some flack over the years for casting Japanese and Japanese-American performers in several of the leading (Chinese) roles: In addition to James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki and Jack Soo (real name: Goro Suzuki), there was also Reiko Sato, who plays Helen, a dress designer who’s also in love with Wang Ta. Sato was a Japanese-American dancer who is given one of the film’s most impressive dance solos, the balletic “Love, Look Away.” Ironically, the only two performers in the film whose actual singing voices were used were Shigeta and Umeki. (Sato was dubbed by opera star Marilyn Horne!)
(Years later, in 2005, a similar controversy erupted over the casting of Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese geishas in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.)
On her audio commentary, Kwan dismisses the controversy, insisting that everyone was simply happy to be appearing in a film with an all-Asian cast, with Asians playing the romantic leads for once. Kwan has nothing but nice things to say about everyone involved, including the director and producer, Henry Koster and Ross Hunter. I have no reason to doubt her word and, yes, it was great to see all these Asian performers get to play characters who didn’t have to defer to (or menace) white people, for a change. (Of course, I get to see that all the time in Hong Kong movies; if only Nancy Kwan had starred in some of them.)
Some of the Asian actors discussed in last month’s blog entry on Hollywood Looks at China also appear in FLOWER DRUM SONG.
Victor Sen Yung, who was also in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE and BLOOD ALLEY, played Frankie Wing, the emcee at the nightclub:
Kam Tong, who was also in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, played Mei Li’s father:
Soo Yong, who was also in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, played Sammy Fong’s mother, seen on the left of this image:
James Hong, who was also in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, BLOOD ALLEY and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, plays the headwaiter at the nightclub in this film and is seen here on the left:
Also in the cast: Benson Fong and Juanita Hall as Wang Ta’s father and aunt:
THE WRECKING CREW was the fourth and last (and worst) film in the series of films starring Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm. In the film, Nancy Kwan plays a Dragon Lady-type villain named—I kid you not—Yu Rang, leading to this cringeworthy exchange, “Mr. Helm, Yu Rang.” “No I didn’t, but since you’re here why don’t you sit down?” In the course of the film she attempts to seduce Helm but more often tries to kill him. The climax of the film includes a laughable martial arts duel between Kwan and Helm’s bumbling sidekick, Freya Carlson, played by Sharon Tate. When I saw this film in a neighborhood theater 44 years ago, a Chinese-American female friend and classmate, Rose Chin, was disgusted at the way Tate beat Kwan so easily. This is particularly alarming because the fight choreographer was none other than Bruce Lee (!), billed as “Karate Advisor.” What was it like for Lee to work under these conditions with an actor like Martin who can’t possibly have done any training for his fight scenes? (Can you imagine Lee trying to get Martin to spend a second learning any strenuous moves?) And I’m doubting that Tate got any more than the most minimal instruction beforehand. What kind of conversations did Lee have with the director and producer about this? Kwan apparently trained with Lee, but it doesn’t quite show on screen. One question I wanted to ask Kwan was whether Lee was disaffected by this experience. She did talk about the filming, as we’ll get to soon.
Weaver Levy, who was also in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, plays Kwan’s chief henchman in THE WRECKING CREW:
He was also in FLOWER DRUM SONG as the policeman who takes Mei Li and her father to Sammy Fong early in the film:
At the event on October 15 at the New-York Historical Society, Kwan was interviewed by Susan Lacy, former executive producer of the “American Masters” series on PBS.
As you can imagine, Kwan looked and sounded great and was all smiles. She talked about her family background (her mother is Scots-British) and her father’s work for Military Intelligence during the war. One of his assignments was to rescue American pilots from the Flying Tigers after they’d been shot down in China. She told the story of how she got the part in SUZIE WONG, a story also told on the FLOWER DRUM SONG commentary. She was visiting her native Hong Kong from London (where she was performing with the Royal Ballet) and Ray Stark, the film’s producer, was conducting screen tests of Hong Kong film actresses for the part of Suzie Wong. Kwan attended to see her favorite local actresses test and was approached by Stark on the spot and asked if she wanted to test. (I would love to know which Hong Kong actresses Kwan liked.) Kwan was surprised but agreed to do it. She insists she giggled through the whole test. The reaction was positive and Kwan was signed to a contract and brought to Hollywood where she stayed at the all-female dorm, the Hollywood Studio Club, where she met other aspiring actresses and marveled at their dates, who included Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. The part in the movie initially went to France Nuyen, who’d played it on Broadway but as a consolation prize, Stark offered Kwan the same part, but in a road show of the play as it toured America and Canada. Kwan agreed and went on tour. In Canada, she got a call to report to London for another round of screen tests. Nuyen had been taken off the film and Kwan was to replace her. All of Nuyen’s footage filmed in Hong Kong was to be re-shot. Kwan’s test consisted of a scene from the film. When it was finished, she learned that it wasn’t a test at all, but a scene to be used in the actual film. She was on her way. Certainly, her experience with the role from the road tour helped make it easy to take over the part on such short notice. (In research on the Internet, I learned that most accounts of Nuyen’s departure from the film centered on her weight gain after an emotional breakup with Marlon Brando prior to the start of shooting.)
Kwan added to this anecdote an account of an interview she gave with an Asian female journalist in San Francisco on the occasion of the release of her Tai Chi tape, in which the journalist stopped the interview dead in its tracks to scold Kwan, “It’s all your fault. They think all Chinese women are prostitutes because of you.” Kwan tried to gently inform her that she was just playing a role, one of many different roles she’s played.
Lacy pointed out that up until SUZIE WONG, the Production Code forbade interracial romance and if it was to be depicted, the actor playing the person of color in the romance had to be a white performer. In LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING (1955), for instance, another romantic drama starring William Holden in a Hong Kong setting, the lead female role of Han Suyin, a Eurasian doctor, is played by white Hollywood star Jennifer Jones. (Kwan admitted she’s a fan of that film.) I’m not sure SUZIE WONG was the first, though. HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955) starred Robert Stack and Shirley Yamaguchi in an interracial romance and SAYONARA (1957), filmed on location in Japan, featured two interracial couples, Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka and Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki. (Both Buttons and Umeki won Supporting Oscars for their portrayals.) SAYONARA was raised in the course of the discussion, but only to point out that Umeki had been the first Asian performer to win an Oscar.
Lacy told Kwan that she’d been labeled “the Chinese Bardot” during her heyday on magazine covers after SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG. Kwan just laughed and shook her head, attributing any labels like that to Ray Stark’s publicity team.
They did discuss THE WRECKING CREW. Kwan says she’d already known Bruce Lee from her Hong Kong days when she did the film. I wish Lacy had explored that a little more. Lee had taught Kwan martial arts and later on she used to visit him on the sets of his Hong Kong films. She called the fight she did with Tate “fun.” She remarked on how much energy Lee had and how he would always proclaim to Kwan what a big star he was going to be, prompting her continued encouragement. She described how disappointed he was when he didn’t get the role of Caine in the TV series, “Kung Fu,” even though it had been planned with him in mind. I realized that if I’d asked her the question I wanted to about Lee’s work on THE WRECKING CREW, she would have had only positive things to say about everyone involved, so I would have to take what I got. Still, I would love to have heard her say something about co-star Dean Martin, on whose TV show she appeared in 1970.
She told of a visit to Mainland China on an artistic venture, sometime before President Nixon went there and “opened” up the country. She was to help out as a consultant on a TV production, with tips on techniques and makeup. In the course of it, she visited her ancestral village. When she returned to Hong Kong, she found that she was banned from working in Hong Kong for three years because of her trip to China.
When the Q&A session began, I got to ask her one question, whether or not she’d had any offers from the Hong Kong film industry after her success in 1960-61. She said she was supposed to do a film with Run Run Shaw but it was derailed after her trip to China, which would be much later than what I was asking about. So I asked if there had been anything before that and she said no, except that she was planning to do a film with Bruce Lee and even had lunch with him the day before he died (July 20, 1973). I was disappointed to hear this. I can’t imagine why Run Run Shaw hadn’t approached her sooner. But then, if you look at Kwan’s post-FLOWER DRUM SONG filmography, she was all over the map, making films in England and other European countries, as well as Hollywood, throughout the decade. She said at one point that she didn’t have a home until she returned to Hong Kong in the early 1970s. So she may simply have been hard to reach.
I found this tidbit on IMDB:
In a 1993 interview, she revealed she turned down a role in The Joy Luck Club (1993) due to a disagreement over the script.
…and I wish this had been covered in the discussion. I can only imagine that Kwan balked when she saw that line in the script about SUZIE WONG, quoted above. I’m guessing that the role they wanted Kwan for was the one that France Nuyen eventually played, in an interesting reversal of the SUZIE WONG casting change. A journalist friend of mine, Ed Rampell, once interviewed Nuyen after THE JOY LUCK CLUB and she was very critical of Amy Tan, the author of the book the film was based on, and said that Tan had treated her disrespectfully on the set. I wonder how Kwan would have reacted in that situation. Somehow, I doubt Kwan would have addressed this since she tended to avoid saying anything critical of any specific person in her brief talk and in the audio commentary I heard. In fact, the one time she refers to a notoriously contentious personality with whom she worked, Jack Lord, star of “Hawaii 5-0,” she says this: “Jack didn’t get on with everybody, but I got on with him.” My guess is that one way to reach the age of 75 and maintain your health and beauty is to keep a positive attitude and not dwell on the negatives of one’s career.
After the interview, the audience members were invited to visit the Historical Society’s current exhibit, “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” which chronicles the history of the Chinese experience in America from the late 18th century until today.
One part of the exhibit is a series of graphic novel illustrations, supplemented by family photos, showing the history of the Chin family in the Bronx, a family that’s only a bit younger than the Chin family I grew up with. Both families ran a Chinese hand laundry and raised children who entered professions and left the Bronx. It’s fascinating to see a parallel history laid out like this.
At the event, I ran into Corky Lee, a renowned photographer who has chronicled Chinatown and Asian-American activities in New York for the past 40 years.
Here’s a link to an article on Lee from Asian Avenue Magazine:
I also reunited with Marci Reaven, a friend from the independent film and arts community in New York who just happens to be the curator of the exhibit.
Here is a description of the exhibit from the New-York Historical Society website:
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion explores the centuries-long history of trade and immigration between China and the United States—a history that involved New York from its very beginnings—and will raise the question “What does it mean to be an American?” The exhibit narrative extends from the late eighteenth century to the present and includes all regions of the country, thus interpreting the Chinese American saga as a key part of American history.
Within the exhibition, rich in media and artifacts, will be little-known stories, such as the voyage of the Empress of China, which set sail from New York in the late eighteenth century; how young Chinese boys were sent by their government to study at elite New England schools during the nineteenth century; the unprecedented immigration legislation known as the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most Chinese from entering the United States; the nineteenth-century newspaper, called Chinese American, and its founder Wong Chin Foo; and the Chinese American activists who used the American justice system to try to overturn the Exclusion Act.
And here’s a link to the New-York Historical Society website: