1960: As 'Suzie Wong,' Asian Actress Nancy Kwan Broke Barriers
Screen images are important in world culture -- and the image of Nancy Kwan as Suzie Wong was a groundbreaking one in 1960. Kwan, of Chinese and British heritage, was 20 years old when she starred opposite William Holden in The World Of Suzie Wong, and in doing so became the first Asian actress to play a lead role in a Western film since Anna May Wong, from the silent-film and early talkie era. Nancy Kwan became a sensation not only as an actress, but as a fashion icon, with her hairdo and traditional Chinese dress featured in American fashion magazines.
Kwan's career after The World Of Suzie Wong was uneven, largely due to the limited roles offered to her.
Eurasian Genes, With A Model For A Mother
Her parents named her Ka Shen. She was called the “Chinese Bardot.” But she is best known by her stage name, Nancy Kwan.
Nancy Kwan was born in Hong Kong on May 19, 1939. Her father, Kwan Wing Hong, a successful Cambridge-educated architect and her English/Scottish mother Marquita Scott, a Conover fashion model met in England and moved to Hong Kong. They divorced when Nancy was two.
Before Her Discovery
At 12, Nancy went to England to study at the Kingsmoor School. Because of its location, she was able to take dance classes at a nearby ballet school. After she graduated, she studied and performed with the Royal Ballet in London for four years.
A Starring Role for Her First Role
Ray Stark was in Hong Kong, holding auditions for a play, The World Of Suzie Wong, adapted from the 1957 novel of the same name by Richard Mason. Kwan, who had no acting experience, tested in the studio that had actually been built by her father. She was invited to go to the United States, where she took acting lessons, then joined the touring production of Suzie Wong -- but not in the title role. Kwan played a minor role, and served as the understudy to the lead actress, France Nuyen. When it came time to make the film, Paramount wanted Nuyen to play Suzie Wong, a prostitute with a heart of gold, on screen, but ended up dropping her because of her weight gain. Kwan, whom Stark and lead actor William Holden had preferred anyway, got the role. Ironically, because of Kwan's Eurasian heritage, the filmmakers were concerned that she did not look Asian enough, and had her wear makeup so she'd look more Asian in the film.
Throughout the film, she wore a cheongsam, a form-fitting dress. This helped to popularize the style, and it was nicknamed the “Suzie Wong dress.”
Kwan's Second Film Broke Even More Ground
The World Of Suzie Wong was a commercial success and won recognition for Kwan in the form of the Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer" of 1960.
Kwan was then cast in the leading role in Flower Drum Song. The film, the first major Western film with an all-Asian cast, was nominated for five Academy Awards. In this film, she was able to use her dance training as she twirled in front of a mirror, singing “I Enjoy Being A Girl.”
Kwan's future looked bright -- as long as Hollywood continued to deem relatively-progressive films like Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song worthy of producing. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case.
More Westernized, With A New Haircut
In 1963, she was cast in A Wild Affair. For this role, Vidal Sassoon cut her long hair into a bob. Her role in the film was not based on race; she is portrayed as a British girl engaged to a British boy. The film focuses on the British middle class and offers a glimpse into London life.
Make No Mistake, Kwan Was A Star In The '60s
While accounts of Kwan's career often paint it as one of unrealized potential, that's only one way of looking at it. Kwan was inevitably dependent upon studios' choice of films and the roles offered. But at the same time, Kwan was acting in major pictures opposite big stars. The roles might have veered into more stereotypical territory, and the films might have been less-than-successful, but Kwan was herself a successful working actress, which is no small feat.
In 1962, Kwan co-starred with Pat Boone in The Main Attraction. In 1964's Honeymoon Hotel, she shared top billing with Robert Goulet, and in Fate Is The Hunter she played opposite Glenn Ford. In the 1966 Walt Disney movie Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N., starring Dick Van Dyke, she played Wednesday (a spoof of Friday from Daniel Defoe's novel), his romantic counterpart. Kwan was also in the 1969 Matt Helm film The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin. The Matt Helm franchise was a quasi-parody of James Bond, and in Bond-esque tradition it assembled a lineup of stunning actresses your uncle would call "not chopped liver" -- Kwan, Sharon Tate, Elke Sommer and Tina Louise. (Of course, Kwan had to play a character with the silly name "Yu-Rang" -- but she did get to do a fight scene with Sharon Tate choreographed by Bruce Lee.) These were not Best Picture candidates, but Kwan had a filmography that many frustrated Hollywood actresses would have envied.
Kwan Leaves Hollywood
In 1970, she returned to Hong Kong to be with her father, who was ill. While there, she produced and directed commercials and acted in a few films, all aimed at the Southeast Asia market. She stayed for a decade before returning to Los Angeles in 1979, so her son could finish his schooling. After returning to Los Angeles, she starred in several independent films, including Night Children with David Carradine and Keys to Freedom with Omar Sharif.
After Her Return To Los Angeles
While she did not match her early success, she has remained active, recording several audiobooks, working on screenplays, and working to aid Asian actors. She has been in over 50 films and television shows throughout the course of her career but never matched the success of her first two films. In the 1980s, she was a television spokesperson for a product called Oriental Pearl Cream.
At 33, her son Bernie Pock died of AIDS which he contracted from his girlfriend.
In 2012, Brian Jamieson directed a documentary of her life, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey.
Nancy Kwan Today
Nancy Kwan's career might not have been the sustained success she hoped for, but that's a risk for someone who breaks barriers -- the world might not be ready for such changes full-time. The World Of Suzie Wong, though groundbreaking, acquired a reputation as a racially-problematic film, as later generations have accused it of promoting the Asian prostitute stereotype. But the fact remains that Kwan went into uncharted territory, and innovated within the constraints of the day. The relatively recent surge of Asian actors and filmmakers, including Sandra Oh and the hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018), is a success story in which Kwan played an early and important part.