he Old World Restaurant in Westwood would be a good place to talk, Nancy Kwan had suggested in her clipped Hong Kong British accent. Despite the humanizing effect of our brief phone conversation, as I wait there I am filled with suspense that owes more to the emotional charge associated with her most famous acting role than with the anticipation of meeting Nancy Kwan herself.
Suzie Wong. The name offends a generation of Asian Americans who grew up in its shadow. It doesn't matter that most have never actually seen The World of Suzie Wong, the 1960 Ray Stark production starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden, or the stage production on which the film is based. Or that almost no one alive seems to have read the original Richard Mason novel. What matters is that after the film's release the most superficial (and offensive) aspects of the Suzie Wong character single-handedly usurped the image of Asian womanhood in the western imagination. Its spectacular success may be Suzie Wong's greatest sin, the reason that the name still carries a strongly negative emotional charge. Without understanding that it would be difficult to understand the woman who, in Stark's words, "was Suzie Wong."
Editor's Note: Since this profile was published in 1990 Nancy Kwan has enjoyed sizeable roles in a comedy called Cold Dog Soup (1990), a movie based on a real-life air-near-miss called Miracle Landing (1990), Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) and a video produced by James Hong on various martial arts styles. Over the years Kwan has managed to average a substantial acting role every year or two, though many films have been forgettable B movies like Stickfighter and Fowl Play. Her great beauty has kept well over the years, making her look 10-15 years younger than her chronological age. As a result, Kwan has continued to be the TV spokesperson for a well-known line of wrinkle creams.
I hadn't seen the movie before starting this profile. About ten years ago I chanced to see some scenes from it on TV. As soon as the film was identified as Suzie Wong I changed channels. Silly perhaps, but it was a reflexive act of protest against the stereotype. In the Asian consciousness the two most offensive images are Suzie Wong and Madame Butterfly because they degrade Asian women as prostitutes and insult Asian men by implying that only Caucasian men are worthy objects of love. I recognize the apparent irrationality of these feelings since most Asians have nothing against relationships between Asian women and non-Asian men, nor is there anything inherently evil about portraying prostitutes who happen to be Asian, nor even in portraying romances between Asian women who have been forced to prostitute themselves and Caucasian men who find it possible to love them and offer salvation (or not, as the case may be). No one would deny that the aftermath of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars have produced some such situations.
By the time Nancy Kwan shows up in the flesh fifteen minutes late, I have had ample time to conjure up what I might expect. Having seen recent photos, I neither expect a crone nor the fresh young beauty who portrayed Suzie Wong (as of that day I still haven't brought myself to watch the movie and have only a vague image of her from Flower Drum Song. But that leaves a wide range of possibilities -- experience has taught me to distrust photos. My eyes chance on an overweight, long-haired Asian woman with bad skin and am startled out of my reverie. False alarm.
The real Nancy Kwan turns out to be much easier on the eyes. At about 5-3, she is a couple of inches shorter than expected. Alas, the three decades since her Flower Drum Song has left their mark, but kindly. Even to a critical Asian eye Kwan can be taken for a woman in her late-30s, maybe 40. And that is with almost no visible makeup. She is a credible spokesperson for Oriental Pearl Cream, a product she can be seen touting regularly on TV as an alternative to a facelift. $650 million worth of the stuff has been sold in the last year, according to Frank Robinson of the Kingsbridge Group of Van Nuys which markets it. If so, Kwan should be well off from her reportedly hefty commission. There are plans for her to pitch the cream in Canada and Europe starting next year and to expand her 30-second spots into 30-minute info-mercials -- signs of success, if they come to pass.
Kwan confesses to being hungry, having skipped lunch. After some soul-searching she orders an apple pie with her coffee on the condition I share it. There is an appealing street-urchin scrappiness in her eyes and in the calories-be-damned set of her mouth as she orders the pie, qualities usually seen in younger women. Seeing Kwan in person makes me aware of the Eurasian delicacy of her features which, on camera, translate into Asian beauty.