Originally released in 1960, The World of Suzie Wong still elicits both fond remembrance and complete revulsion. Many viewers are touched by its “love conquers all” theme and impressed by its gorgeous scenery. Some Asian American viewers remember it with pride as the first time they saw an Asian actor (Nancy Kwan) in a leading role on the big screen. But for others, it’s a notorious example of the stereotypical and demeaning ways in which Asian women have been portrayed in Hollywood films. Suzie Wong helped set the standard for a whole genre of representation: the duplicitous, hypersexual, yet childlike Asian woman in need of rescue from the vicissitudes of circumstance (typically: poverty, depravity, war).
Now available on Paramount’s feature-less DVD, the film is no less problematic. While racism and sexism in older films are usually rationalized (if not excused) by historical context, most viewers today will balk at scenes in Suzie Wong where Suzie is beaten up, blames it on the wrong man, and then brags about it to her girlfriends. And Asian Americans will cringe at her broken English and lack of conscience. But the film celebrates “American” equality even as its relationships undermine it. The World of Suzie Wong is so neat and complete, it almost justifies imperialism in the name of love.
The film begins as Robert Lomax (William Holden), an American architect-turned-painter, arrives in Hong Kong. On the ferry, he meets a saucy young Chinese woman, Mei-ling (Nancy Kwan), who disappears mysteriously into the crowd. When they meet again, he learns she is actually a prostitute named Suzie Wong. She wants him to make her his “permanent girlfriend,” but his intentions are purely artistic: he wants her to be his model. As Suzie insinuates herself into his life, he’s busy trying to impress Kay O’Neill (Sylvia Sims), the daughter of a wealthy British banker who has promised to help him sell his work.
Suzie takes up with an affluent Brit (Michael Wilding) instead, only to be unceremoniously dumped, arousing Robert’s jealousy and pity to the point that he confesses his love. A short-lived happiness ensues: Robert accepts Suzie’s secret child by a previous lover, but won’t allow her to support him (by hooking) when he runs short on cash. Separated by pride, it is only through a final, inescapable tragedy that the lovers are reunited.
The story line is stock Hollywood: boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-through-tragic-twist-of-fate. But, set in the “exotic Orient,” it becomes an imperialist trope. Suzie is the native waif in need of rescue (if only from herself), and while Kwan’s considerable screen presence manifests as both fiery defiance and knowing guile, Suzie never completely rises above an annoying petulance. Brusque, headstrong Robert represents upstanding morality. Unlike his British counterparts in colonial Hong Kong, he sees and treats the Chinese as “real people.”
Shortly after Suzie begins posing for him, he takes her out to dinner at a posh club for expats. Unable to read the menu, Suzie points to an item that turns out to be salad dressing. When the snooty waiter questions her choice, Robert saves her from embarrassment by saying, “Make that two.” Ignoring his Anglo peers’ castigating glances and snide comments, he continues to barrel his way through awkward situations with “American” moxie and disregard for convention. Comparing his values with the supercilious, old-World racism of the British, the film posits Yankee imperialism as the “good” kind.
But, in one infamous scene, this idealism reveals the brutal hypocrisy at its core. When her British sugar daddy buys her some expensive Western-style clothes, Suzie visits Robert to show off her new finery. Looking her up and down, he calls her a “cheap European streetwalker” and flies into a righteous rage. In a symbolic rape, he forcibly strips her down to bra and slip, throws her new clothes out the window, and leaves her sobbing on the bed. By way of explanation, he asserts that she doesn’t need “all that tinsel.” What he really means is that her appearance should adhere to his image of the authentic Chinese woman.
His violence gives the lie to Robert’s noble intentions. In Hollywood’s romantic logic, this scene can be explained away as an expression of his love for Suzie as she “really is.” The problem is, he only sees her as a representative of a fascinating native culture, his own projection. This sentiment is borne out in a subsequent scene, when he presents Suzie with a traditional Chinese costume that he swears was once worn by an “empress.” Exhorting her to try it on, he boasts that she’s “going to make him famous,” since paintings depicting “traditional” Chinese are much more saleable. But this canny marketing strategy belies a deeper fancy: if she were to dress and act like a Western lady, how could he presume to rescue her? His self-image as the conquering savior must be preserved at all costs.
Even when defending Suzie and her friends, Robert remains grumpy, distant, and condescending towards them, and almost equally gruff with the group of British expats he’s purportedly trying to impress. He’s the quintessential American maverick — rugged, independent and bull-headed, the only “real man” among the effete Brits and childlike Chinese. When he finally confesses his love, the film relies more on lighting and music than “chemistry” to produce romance. Wanting to act the proper lady, Suzie leaves Robert’s room, coyly saying she can’t sleep with him the first time he asks. A few minutes later, she’s back, saying, “You my first man. You believe?” In those few moments, the sun miraculously goes down and the room is bathed in a misty, soft-focus gloom; an orchestra swells with the film’s plaintive, vaguely Chinese-y theme. Twilit, Robert utters the most preposterous line of the film: “I believe.” But we can’t.
The appeal of the stoic American rescuer of helpless Asian women is still powerful (see more recent incarnations, such as Rambo, or the Broadway hit, Miss Saigon). The World of Suzie Wong is even cited as a reference for those “new to intercultural relationships” on a website that tells men how to secure a Filipina bride
The film’s stagy settings also contribute to its appeal. Each picture-perfect interior is carefully detailed: even the well-worn brothel furniture looks like something from an Oriental division of Shabby Chic. The exterior shots — lush, panoramic vistas, and close-up “color” shots taken on location in Hong Kong — may be the movie’s only redeeming feature. Shots of Hong Kong’s harbor and mountains are expansive and lovely, and the local inhabitants — happily, silently, and colorfully eking out a meager existence — look straight out of National Geographic.
The film offers uncritical viewers both an escape from everyday reality and a sense of moral superiority. Encouraged to identify with Robert, they are at once immersed in, but not a part of, the exotic surroundings. From this privileged distance, it’s easy to see American imperialism as a love story. All kinds of abuses are perpetrated and glossed over in the name of love. But The World of Suzie Wong, despite its familiar story and seductive packaging, never quite escapes the glaring contradiction between its professed egalitarianism and the obvious inequalities it so blithely reproduces.