The Other World Of Suzie Wong—Nancy Kwan
Nancy Kwan from Hong Kong, Nancy Kwan from Hong Kong—the words ran together, over and over in a singsong fashion in her head. “You forget that,” the slim, dark-haired girl warned herself. “Now you’re Suzie Wong.” She straightened her shoulders and with a toss of her head started to walk across the studio soundstage—a slow slinking walk, the kind of walk she knew Suzie would have. Someone whistled. From that moment, Nancy Kwan was Suzie Wong. Was she scared? Why, for goodness’ sake, should she? It was what the fortune teller had told her, wasn’t it?
She had always believed in fortune tellers. As far back as she could remember. She had heard from the amah about the wise old men who just from looking at your palm could predict your future.
The first time she saw one was when they were living in China.
Her parents had been divorced and she had a new mother, Nan. Sometimes, after school. Nan would take her and her stepsister, Betty, shopping. She loved the shops with their counters piled high with bolts of brilliantly colored silks and long rows of shiny straw sandals. Afterwards, Nan would take them to one of the foodstalls and let them choose whatever they wanted.
One warm day in 1947, soon after her eighth birthday, she was standing at one of the stalls, eating sesame seeds and waiting for Nan to finish her shopping, when suddenly her amah whispered.
“Look,” she said. “Over there. That’s the fortune teller. He’s the one who told my sister about her new baby.”
She hadn’t expected him to look like that, so old and wrinkled and with a long white beard. Half-hidden behind the stall, she stared for a long time, then turned and tugged at her amah’s skirt.
“I want to see him,” she said. But then, when she was standing before him, she became so shy that all she could do was look down at her bright-blue quilted trousers.
Impatiently, her amah gave her a little push and she looked up. Timidly she put out her hand.
He turned up the palm and held it close to his eyes. He didn’t talk for a long time, then began in a voice so quavery that she had to bend her head very low in order to hear him.
He told her all sorts of things about herself, things that only her family could know. And then he told her the most wonderful thing of all.
“When you are older, you will appear on a big stage,” he said, his long, thin finger tracing a line on her palm. “You will dance and people will applaud. You will be rich and famous. And,” he added, “you will travel, far away, over the water, to America.”
When he finished, she asked was he sure and when he nodded she dug her hand deep into the pocket of her quilted jacket for she knew that in it was a magic.
She was so excited she ran all the way home, hopping impatiently on one foot whenever Nan called to her and told her to wait for them.
Within two days, all the girls at Maryknoll Convent where she went to school knew that Nancy Ka Shen Kwan was going to be a dancer. At home, she talked about it constantly and when her great-uncle came to visit, she hurried to tell him.
He smiled and said: “So you are telling me some day you will be on the big screen in one of my theaters.”
Her uncle owned most of the movie houses in Hong Kong, and after that he often took her and her cousins to see a film. As a special treat, they went to one of the studios where a movie was being made. As she watched, she vowed to become an actress and that night, when she finally fell asleep, she dreamed she was dancing on the screen and all her cousins were in the audience applauding her.
Early the next morning while everyone else was still sleeping she was up practicing her ballet steps, and long before it was time to leave with Betty for her dancing class, she was ready, her slippers clutched in her hands.
Her teachers said she was a good dancer and when she was thirteen and it was time to go to boarding school in England, her father selected Kingsmoor. a school in Gloucester that offered excellent ballet instruction. After graduation, she went on to the Royal Ballet School in London.
She loved her work with the Royal Ballet but after four years she grew homesick for Hong Kong and went home, forever, she thought. She had just about decided to open a ballet school there when she read in the newspaper that Ray Stark was in Hong Kong looking for a Chinese girl to play in the movie, “The World of Suzie Wong.”
Quickly, without giving herself time to change her mind, she mailed him a photograph of herself. She couldn’t explain why she did because she had never done any acting in her whole life. But somehow, ever since that visit to the fortune teller twelve years before, she had known that someday this would happen to her.
She didn’t tell that to anyone, though. She remembered how her English friends had teased her when she said : “I won’t walk under ladders, hate to spill salt and just dread the arrival of Friday the thirteenth. I’m very superstitious,” she admitted, and on the afternoon before she had an appointment with Mr. Stark, she took the ferry across the bay to Kowloon to visit a well-known fortune teller.
“The part is yours”
She told him about the movie and he answered simply: “The part is yours. You will leave for America in less than one month.”
The next day she took her test. It was bad. Even she knew it. But, when Mr. Stark said they needed someone with more acting experience, she almost cried. “The fortune teller was so sure,” she kept repeating to herself during the rest of the interview. Then, at the end, just as she was about to leave, Mr. Stark stopped her and said he thought she had talent and if she were willing to leave immediately for Hollywood and take acting lessons there, he would give her another chance.
In a few days she was on her way to America, just as the fortune teller had predicted. “Everything else will turn out exactly as he had said, too.” she thought. “So stop worrying, for goodness’ sake,” and she moved restlessly in her seat, anxious for the plane to land, impatient to see Hollywood at last.
She had read so much about it, about all the stars, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor, especially. They were her favorites and now, finally, she was really going to see them. It would be so glamorous living in Hollywood, she thought, as the car drove her to the Studio Club, a residence for young actresses.
Instead, she found that every day except Sunday, all day long, she spent taking diction and acting lessons with Salka Viertel and Jeff Corey and, at night, alone in her room, she would study until she fell asleep. She didn’t mind, though. All she wanted was to go back to Hong Kong as Suzie Wong.
When she was finally ready, she flew to New York for her test. “It is good,” Mr. Stark said. “In these few short months you have become an actress.” Can you imagine her disappointment when, a few days later, she found she wasn’t good enough?
Mr. Stark invited her to lunch and afterwards he explained, as kindly as he could, that they had decided to give the role to France Nuyen. She had played Suzie on Broadway and had much more experience, he told her. Nancy was offered the job of understudy.
A few months later, France Nuyen was in Hong Kong making the film and Nancy was in Toronto, about to appear on the stage for the first time as Suzie Wong.
She arrived at the theater early, before anyone else, and smiled nervously when the stage doorman called “Good luck.”
She sat in her dressing room, reading her lines over and over, lines she had memorized months before, until she heard the other actors arriving. She had just begun to put on her makeup when she heard someone shouting from down the hall.
“Phone call for Nancy Kwan,” and then there was a knock on her door. “From London,” the voice said.
Her big chance
Frightened, she tied her robe and hurried to the phone. The backstage noises were so loud that at first she couldn’t hear and then, very faintly, she heard a voice. It was Ray Stark. France Nuyen was no longer in the movie, he said, she was ill and had gained too much weight. They were looking for a new Suzie Wong.
“Come immediately,” Ray said. “Tonight!”
“I’d love to,” Nancy answered, “but I can’t. I go on in half an hour.” Even as she said it, she wondered if maybe she wasn’t afraid to try, afraid that she wouldn’t get the role this time either.
“You must,” Stark was insisting. “This is your chance.” He kept talking, encouraging her. “I’m sure you can do the test now, Nancy. You must come.”
The next thing she knew, she was in London.
For the rest of the week she took screen tests, along with a dozen other girls from Hollywood, France, Japan, Korea and the Philippines.
One night she told a friend: “First thing they pluck my eyebrows. Look,” she said, leaning into a mirror. “I had nice thick ones before. I make tests. Other girls make tests. They say I look very Chinese. Why should I look Chinese, for goodness’ sake? Everybody knows I am one-half English.”
Two days later, she was signed to the role. The prophecy had come true.
For the first few days of filming, the set was closed to all visitors, but Ray Stark happily told everyone: “She is Suzie. Having seen her first rushes, it would be impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Nancy wasn’t so sure. After seeing the first scenes, she became so self-conscious about her acting that Director Quine wouldn’t let her attend any more screenings.
Things went smoothly, except for an occasional outburst of temperament, like the day Nancy refused to wear one of the costumes designed for her. “This cheongsam is too old-fashioned,” she said. “They’d all laugh at me in Hong Kong if I wore this. No one wears cheongsams like that any more!” and she walked out of the dressing room.
She found, though, that she enjoyed being an actress. In between her scenes, she would wander around the set eating peanuts and melon seeds, or sun-bathing on nicer days. And in the evening, she and Jacqui Chan, who played Gwenny Lee in the film, would double-date, going mostly to clubs that played jazz.
In May, two months after filming began, the cast left London for Hong Kong to re-shoot scenes done earlier with France. Nancy was looking forward to going home, not knowing that now, at twenty-one, she was Hong Kong’s biggest celebrity. Wherever she went, she was mobbed. “Why do they want my autograph, for goodness’ sake?” she asked William Holden. “They haven’t even seen me in the picture yet.” She had to give up swimming and the long walks she so enjoyed. “Is there no privacy left here?” she whispered to her family. Even her friends were curious and wanted to know all about Hollywood, always ending with the same question. “What’s he like, you know, William Holden?” they would ask shyly. Nancy would look very serious, then with a solemn nod of her head, she’d say: “He is good, that William Holden. I think he will go far,” and they would all giggle together.
And when William Holden was asked about her, he just shook his head and said: “What a bug. She’s a real screwball.”
One thing that did worry Nancy was how her father would react to her role. “He’s a bit old-fashioned and thinks Suzie is not a very nice girl.” she said.
She didn’t have to worry. Her father was so proud of her that he came to watch the shooting almost every day, and on her birthday he gave a surprise party on the set with champagne and a gigantic birthday cake. When Nancy cut into the cake, twenty-one pigeons, one for each year, flew out.
He was more enthusiastic about her performance than Nancy was. “It’s a small picture,” she said after it was completed, “very important, but not too bad in general. But I’m lousy in it,” she said, watching out of the corner of her eye for a reaction. “Of course, I’ve only seen it twice and I think I get better each time.”
And that’s all she would say about herself as Suzie Wong. When questions get too personal, she answers with one of the many Chinese proverbs she knows. Her favorites are: “Beauty does not ensnare men, they ensnare themselves” and “A good drum does not require a hard beating.”
She refuses to beat her own drum, but she’s outspoken about other people, particularly Marlon Brando who had been one of her movie heroes.
“I have no desire to meet him,” she said. “I’ve heard he goes for Oriental girls but it doesn’t seem to me he’d be anyone I’d care to know. He’s a very good actor, though,” she added.
Soon after, Brando was asked to escort her to the movie’s premiere at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Theater and refused. It might have been out of loyalty to France Nuyen who supposedly had overeaten after an argument with him and lost the role of Suzie Wong, giving Nancy her big break.
He also refused to escort Nancy to the big party Ray Stark gave to introduce her to Hollywood. The biggest stars were invited and it should have seemed like a dream-come-true for Nancy. But she didn’t appear the least impressed.
Tom Tryon, the young actor who took her to the party, left early, alone and angry. Hollywood, it seemed, felt Nancy was playing her success just a little too cool and sophisticated. But when she heard this, Nancy looked surprised. “I love this place,” she said. “It’s been so warm and welcoming and wonderful. I’m planning to live here.”
She has taken an apartment in Beverly Hills, even though she’ll be travelling back to the Orient if she makes “Kowloon” and “Flower Drum Song,” and is furnishing it herself—modern without the slightest oriental influence. She’s fallen in love with American clothes, American cars and American men. “They’re so sexy,” she says, “Chinese men are more subtle,” but refuses to discuss her dates with Hugh O’Brian and Jack Ryland, a young actor who was also in the “Suzie Wong” show.
One day at luncheon, she was asked if she planned to marry either of them and answered firmly, “I am not in love with anyone and have no plans to marry.” She paused a minute. “Besides, I’m not going to fall in love for another year. You see,” she explained, “that’s what the fortune teller told me.”
Suddenly, she leaned forward and asked in a low voice, “Do you know a good fortune teller in Hollywood? I want to know what’s going to happen next, for goodness’ sake.”
—BY G. DIVAS
Be sure to see Nancy as Suzie in “The World of Suzie Wong” for Paramount.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE APRIL 1961