Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1960)

Yellow Fever and Yum-Yum Girls

Multiple versions of the classic story The World of Suzie Wong offer different takes on a social phenomenon, but can any of them escape the biases of their authors?

The online Urban Dictionary defines “yellow fever” as “A term usually applied to white males who have a clear sexual preference for women of Asian descent, although it can also be used in reference to white females who prefer Asian men.” The phrase calls up images of overweight, middle-aged white men with greasy hair spending hours in darkened rooms surfing Japanese porn sites; or of websites that specialize in bringing together willing developing world women and the advanced economy men who lust for them.

In Asia itself, it’s hardly uncommon to see a white man well past middle age with a much younger, frequently very beautiful, local woman on his arm. Often,these women are also of a lower social status than the men and other ex-pats tend to snigger and whisper as such couples pass by: the assumption is simply that the woman must have been, at best, in some sort of service in order to have met the man, who is obviously besotted not with the woman but with his power over her. She is coyly stoking his ravenous sexual appetite while quietly filling a bank account, merely waiting for his soon-to-come demise: another victim of yellow fever.

This sort of East-West, May-December relationship is nothing new and has been charted in many books and films, though never perhaps as finely as it is in Richard Mason’s 1957 novel, The World of Suzie Wong. The book was a hit and both stage and film adaptions soon followed. The story and characters live on, including recent “non-authorized” sequel novels and a 2006 ballet adaptation.

The name “Suzie Wong” has currency beyond the story, too, usually as a description of an interior decoration style that can be described as mid-century Hong Kong bohemian chic. Think rickshaws and opium lanterns and girls in cheongsams and cocktails with names like Singapore Sling. Google the phrase “Suzie Wong bar” and you’ll find dozens of places all over the world with exactly that décor, plus a strip club in Thailand.

The source novel also travels widely, though it’s centered on a waterfront hotel in Hong Kong’s notorious Wan Chai district. It’s called the Nam Kok, and it’s not a brothel, since that’s illegal. Rather, women who work the bar are allowed to take men upstairs for “short-time” tumbles. They are, in other words, neither streetwalkers nor high-priced escorts but—in a phenomenon repeated all over Asia to this day—they are “bar girls”.

Mason spent five months in Hong Kong “researching” his subject at the Luk Kwok Hotel in Wan Chai, and while that hotel has now gone upscale, his description of the bar girl economy holds true today, not only in Hong Kong, but with minor variations, in Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore, Taipei, and beyond:

The girls […] made their own prices with the sailors, and kept what they earned. There was a code of honor among them according to which, once a sailor had committed himself by taking a girl upstairs, he thereafter became her property, to be reclaimed by her on his subsequent visits to the bar, and eschewed by the rest. […] And their greatest pride was a ‘regular’ boyfriend, which meant the same boyfriend for three or four days […]; and a girl thus engaged would usually go far beyond her commercial obligations, providing not only sex but something like affection […]. And she would boast of him to her girl friends, become jealous of rivals, and bestow presents on him—if not actually shed tears—when he left.

Such a life is not easy on a woman—Suzie often refers to herself as little more than a “dirty yum-yum girl”—nor is it easy on the men who fall in love with them. How real love can blossom in such fetid ground is the main examination of Mason’s nuanced novel.

2,000 Men

The narrator of the book is a British painter named Robert Lomax who first gets bitten by yellow fever in Malaya, where he works on a plantation and begins painting the local lovelies in his spare time. After a failed engagement to a white woman, who tired of his obsession with Malay girls, he soon makes his way to the Nam Kok Hotel, where he installs himself as a resident.

Mason handles the differing views of a bar girls very well. His narrator starts off with a romantic notion that eventually turns cynical:

I had felt real affection for […] the girls; for though it was true that their occupation, the repeated and meaningless offering of their bodies for sexual intercourse with strangers, was essentially degrading, I had never ceased to marvel at how they resisted that degradation; at how they had retained their good manners, their sensitivity, their pride; at how from the supposedly barren soil of commercial sex here could spring such flowers of kindness, tenderness, generosity, love.

Then, through more bitter eyes,

…even the girls had turned sour on me: I saw the qualities that I had admired in them as being only skin-deep, or else mere pretenses cynically adopted as useful tools for their trade. The good manners were only a deceptive oriental façade; the kindness, the tenderness, the generosity, were but a veneer that thinly covered insensitivity and greed. […] I had made my most elementary mistake of all, confusing innocence with ignorance.

His own attraction and love for Suzie is called into question by a nagging self-doubt. He notes, “One might live with waterfront girls, but one didn’t marry them.” What would people think when they saw them on the street?

His inner voices shouts, “‘Don’t be a fool! You only want to marry her because her ignorance inflates your ego—because she makes you feel like a god.'” But he concludes that there’s nothing wrong with a woman making a man feel like a god.

There’s a another appeal to a girl like Suzie, in that she offers an escape from middle-class Western culture, captured here in a “beautifully hygienic modern flat, among high-fidelity loud-speakers and the martinis and the hygienic theories of art.” Lomax realizes, that if he married one of the pretty British ex-pat girls in the flat, “I would have been shutting myself in this room and bolting the windows and doors. But marrying Suzie would be like taking a flying leap (suicidal, [some] would say) from the sill.”

The myth that Western men desire Asian women because they believe they are somehow more submissive than Western women is here exploded when Suzie, in a fit of rage, stabs a rival with a pair of scissors. Lomax the bohemian painter is not looking for a submissive woman but someone that fulfills the object of his artistic obsession while offering a means of escape from the West.

Indeed, Mason does not portray her as submissive, but instead as a woman damaged by her profession who nonetheless falls in love with Lomax. That she is petite and beautiful and sexually desirable are a given: she earns her living on her body and looks. She claims to have slept with 2,000 men, but he loves her all the same. Their difficulties lay elsewhere: in the psychological damage her career causes; the cultural snobbery he faces and; in the social stigmas that they both must overcome. These conflicts are what make up Mason’s examination of yellow fever and bar girl culture.

The Popular Novel

Beyond the social explorations of the story, Mason’s writing is superb. He’s able to capture entire ambiences in simple descriptions, as here, in this two sentence paragraph: “I turned off the switch over the bed. I could see Suzie’s silhouette against the sky in the open balcony door—the sky over the mainland, the sky of China.” They are just about to make love for the first time and Suzie is shy of her nudity: with the light out, Lomax sees not only her silhouette, but an inner landscape as well: all of China stretching not only to the sky, but into the girl whom he is about to enter.

It’s a superlative moment and is reminiscent of the narrative shorthand great painters use to visually express psychic conditions in only two dimensions. In this one instant, Mason vividly explicates the art-mind of Lomax the painter/narrator in an moment that immerses the reader in the erotic exoticness of the action in a simple to visualize scene.

The novel certainly deserves its acclaim, though there are moments when the bottom falls out for the modern reader. It’s 1957, and in one throwaway line, a black singer is referred to as “colored crooner”. These lines stopped me cold: “‘She’s so overmothered her son that he’s turned out a queer. […] The other daughter’s run off with a Jew, so she won’t speak to her or have her back in the house.” You won’t find the protagonist of a novel talking like that anymore.

Yet, it could also be a more polite age. In a novel about whores and sailors, there are no swear words. “Fuck” is rendered as “muck”, as in “‘Muck ’em—they won’t get a mucking penny out of me.'” Elsewhere, a swearing sailor is described “trying to shout her down with a methodical repetition of that single four-letter word which means simply love-making, and yet which for some reason is commonly used for the most violent expression of insult or contempt.”

There are also some surprises. I had always assumed that young people back-packing across far-flung lands had started in the late ’60s with the hippies, but in the book, Mason describes a night spent at a monastery retreat with a group of “walkers” as being “very jolly together in the best youth-hostel way.”

And the essence of other things hasn’t changed in nearly six decades. This description needs very little updating: “Macao had flourished for centuries as the gateway to China, but now the gateway was closed and there was no trade any longer, no industry, no business—nothing to keep the town alive except opium and gambling and girls. And at the hotel where we were staying you could get all three […].”

The Popular Film

Macau is not featured in the movie version. The film is based not on the novel but on the 1958 Broadway stage adaptation written by Paul Osborn, which keeps the action limited to a small space, mostly the Nam Kok Hotel and environs.

The play stared actress France Nuyen as Suzie Wong and, as improbable as it sounds now, a pre-Captain Kirk William Shatner as Robert Lomax. Nuyen was cast as Wong for the 1960 film, opposite William Holden, but was replaced after several weeks by the actress who would become most closely associated with the character, a Hong Kong-born Eurasian woman named Nancy “Ka Shen” Kwan.

She was only 20 years old and this was her first major film role after playing one of the bar girls in the stage adaptation. It was a breakout success for her, which still inspires audiences today, as can be seen in To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey, the 2009 documentary about her life.

Because she is half-Asian, Kwan’s role was considered groundbreaking at a time when Asian actors were not cast in leading roles in Hollywood films—a whitewashing which continues to this day, as the controversy over blonde-haired, green-eyed actress Emma Stone’s role as a Eurasian in a recent film makes clear.

A major studio product (produced at MGM’s studio in England and owned and distributed by Paramount), the film’s director, Richard Quine, was limited by a script that ruthlessly stuck to convention. What we are given is a romance that sheds most of Mason’s soul searching to slavishly plod up the ascending line of the romance film Freytag triangle. Hollywood is inherently conservative—big budgets understandably make producers risk averse— which means sticking to tried-and-tested formulas, stories, and actors.

At the time, the filmmakers also had to submit their work to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval prior to public release, and given it’s subject matter, the film faced some difficulty with the censors, though Paramount eventually used its clout to push it through. Suffice to say the book is far more frank in its depictions of sex than the film, although neither stoops to titillating the audience.

In the film, the main character is now an American architect turned painter. In the book, the only major American character is a pompous, two-faced, juvenile rich boy named Rodney who remains thoroughly dislikable. But translating him to Broadway—then to screen—would alienate the all-important American audience, so the character is ejected from the adaptations completely.

The film also simplifies Suzie’s backstory in way that turns her hard-knock life into elements of comedy. In a scene that does not occur in the book, Lomax takes Suzie to a fancy restaurant. After studying the menu, she blithely orders vinaigrette for dinner (the scene plays for the funny at this moment). We, and Lomax, realize that she is illiterate.

Moments later, Suzie relates how she came into her line of work:

What else I do? Hong Kong full of hungry people. No one hire me. Never learn to read or write, even in Chinese. […] No one ever teach me. When I was ten years old, old aunt take me to old uncle to live. He say, “You do everything I ask.” I very scared. I cry, but he not care. And he throw me out. Not good for Chinese wife anymore. Not good for anything. What you think ignorant ten-year-old Chinese girl going to do?

While this backstory is horrifying, and certainly is not far from the truth for many sex workers in modern Asia, it doesn’t fit the clean beauty, porcelain skin, and white teeth of Nancy Kwan. These few lines are the only backstory the film offers for Suzie, and the mismatch between the actress’s beauty and the story rob it of believability. We already know that Suzie is playfully prone to making up fantasies about her life—why is this story anymore believable than her first story, that she’s the daughter of a rich man? The film leaves such tensions unresolved because unremarked upon.

In the book, Suzie is adopted at age five into the house of her uncle who seduces her when she is 16: “‘I do not feel grown-up yet,’ Suzie said. ‘Then I will make it clear to you,’ her uncle said. ‘Follow me.'”

This forced deflowering leads to a slow descent into a life of prostitution that Mason carefully details: from a taxi-dancer who eventually falls for a British man who fathers her Eurasian baby (the baby in the film is pure blood), to the suffocating cost of raising a child that pushes her to work in the bar at the Nam Kok, Suzie’s backstory is not only meant to show sympathy for the plight of bar girls, but to add depth to the romance she will have with Lomax.

It’s in the simplification of Suzie’s backstory that the film betrays the source material most egregiously. It’s not merely that they remove the mixed-race baby, it’s that the romance between Suzie and Lomax is flattened: in the film, she comes very close to the archetype of the “hooker with the heart of gold”—so it’s no surprise that Lomax would fall in love, then abandon his own culture for her. Motes of gold dust in the film replace the difficulties of yellow fever in the book, a point modern audiences are perhaps more attuned to than their predecessors.

Picture vs. Page

Where the film does follow the book closely is in set pieces and descriptions that are lifted directly from page to screen. This image, for example, appears translated in the film almost perfectly: “She was standing out on the pavement, as if she did not notice the steady pelting rain, and her hair was plastered flat on her head and the down the sides of her face, and hung on her shoulder in lank dripping rat’s tails.”

Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times (11 November 1960) drew attention to the film’s cinematography and acute visual detail:

“For one thing, the image of Hong Kong is brilliantly and sensuously conveyed, all crowds and colors and noises and even allusive smells. Mr. Stark [the producer] and his company went out there to shoot a good part of their film, and they got it—at least, enough of it to give you the illusion of being there.”

And oh what an illusion it is! Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who went on to lens 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Cabaret (1972) creates an otherworldly atmosphere whose exterior location shots inject some much-needed grit into the fabric of the Hollywood fantasy.

The soundstage scenes, however, are sheer chinoiserie and lack any dirt or sordidness: colorful and detailed, they nonetheless look like stage sets for a mid-budget Chinese drama. Unfortunately, it’s this element of the film, more so than the story or the character or locations, that had such a large impact on interior design, even if patrons of “Suzie Wong bars” the world over aren’t aware of it.

Contrariwise, Unsworth’s location shots offer a remarkable record of what the city looked like at the beginning of the ’60s. As is the way of the Internet, folks have posted lists and links and screenshots so that you can see for yourself how the city has changed. And if you happen to find yourself in Hong Kong, there’s even a guided “Celluloid Tour of Wanchai” available.

The fact that a big part of the delight of the film for modern audiences is the location shots speaks volumes about how dated this version of the narrative is. A brief TV guide style listing pretty much says it all: a late ’50s Hollywood romance set in the Far East.

Nonetheless, the film is well made and worth watching, but don’t expect much examination of yellow fever. In the end, the film’s strongest aspects, Kwan’s spritely performance and the splendid Technicolor views of Hong Kong, only encourage the stereotype.

Mason’s novel, on the other hand, offers a finely wrought examination of the “world” that produces Asian bar girl culture and the possibilities of two people—worker and customer—finding real love in such a place. The novel explicates a phenomenon that, while the book is more than a half-century old, still occurs daily in the Eastern hemisphere.

The problem with these narratives is that each of these views of Suzie is created by a white man. The character, and the world that she represents, is served up on a candy dish for our delectation in the film, or for our polite deliberation in the book.

What would Suzie—and the real world bar girls she represents—have to say about the fever she induces in white men?

We’re still waiting for that novel to be written.