Her story is more dream than nightmare, but that's why it's fiction.
The World of Suzie Wong was the definition of a polarizing film, generally liked by audiences, but often reviled by social observers. For the former group it was just entertainment, a risqué Cinderella fantasy. For the latter group, it was an exercise in cinematic irresponsibility. Few filmmakers have been interested in exploring the human trafficking, physical and psychological abuse, drugs, and destroyed futures that predominate prostitution, but that's no surprise—filmmaking is about moneymaking, and who'd normally go see a movie that was such a downer? While it's true that 2015's Tangerine was acclaimed, it was also shot on three iPhones. Its director has moved on to bigger budgets because he wants to make money too. So let's first of all accept Suzie Wong for what it is: a mainstream film exploring the idea of a rare type of prostitute—the one clearly destined for a better life.
The idea isn't actually so outlandish. Our personal experience has taught us that there are all kinds of hookers. In Brazil, some do it for two weeks bracketing Carnival and make more money than they do working their regular jobs the rest of the year. They don't consider themselves to be prostitutes. They consider themselves to be modern-minded and smart. When PSGP worked at Playboy he was aware of models (anecdotally) and porn actresses (definitely) who did it when they had money troubles. There are plenty of men who'll pay to sleep with his favorite centerfold or porn star, and the money she earns is all hers—none goes to an agent or grifter boyfriend. Models were occasionally invited to certain Middle Eastern oil states and were paid many thousands of dollars per week just to attend swank social occasions and be friendly. The friendliest—interpret that how you wish—would be welcome to stay for months and earn gifts, while the less friendly ones quickly would be shipped out. The point is there are all types.
So while people who hate Suzie Wong are correct that a depiction of prostitution that doesn't explore the typical reality reinforces a false narrative about what is a dirty and dangerous job, the movie is simply a piece of entertainment—and has the right to be. It's no more about real prostitution than Raiders of the Lost Ark is about real archaeology. You'll have to gloss over its imperialist ethnic snobbery too. But if you choose to cross the disbelief suspension bridge, it's a pretty entertaining flick, a drama about an American artist in Hong Kong played by William Holden who meets a local prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, asks her to model for him, and over the course of their increasingly fruitful artistic collaboration finds himself drawn to her. Kwan makes no secret of the fact that she immediately has feelings for Holden, but he resists—not forever, obviously. At that point the difficult question of whether they can actually make a life together—or should even try—is what the plot explores.
Suzie Wong's gimmick of a hooker's love completing a man who's lonely or adrift has been used in films such as Irma la Douce, Night Shift, and Pretty Woman, and audiences responded favorably because, at their core, all those films are romances. But there's more to Suzie Wong than just its sooty Cinderella aspects. At a time of still-rigid ideas about female purity, it asked male viewers to consider the possibility that the number of men a woman sleeps with is immaterial. So in that sense it's a forward thinking film—something usually forgotten by its critics. The source novel by Richard Mason is probably more nuanced, but we haven't read it. We do know, however, that he wrote it after staying at the Luk Kwok Hotel in Hong Kong, which was a brothel. So maybe he learned a little something that gave his book—and the film—a bit more verité than people generally suspect. When you include its great exteriors and sets, and Kwan herself in a starmaking role, the result is exotic, emotional, and at times uplifting. The World of Suzie Wong premiered in the U.S. today in 1960. See more promo images here and here.
From Hong Kong with love (at a price).
Nancy Kwan poses in costume as the title character of her hit 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, which is about a romance between an American painter in Hong Kong and a local “yum yum girl”—i.e. a prostitute. This shot is excellent, we think. Kwan made numerous movies in Hollywood, including 1961's Flower Drum Song and 1968's The Wrecking Crew, but Suzie Wong remains her legacy, a subject of much debate due to its sex trade subject matter, and a source of interesting memomorabilia, such as here and here. Maybe we'll talk about the movie later.
Suzie Wong gets with the program.
When we watched The World of Suzie Wong several years ago we were aware that it had been a pretty big hit. It's no surprise, then, that we keep running across memorabilia from the film. Here we have a promotional pamphlet from Hong Kong, with a very cool cover of the prostitute title character, who was played by Nancy Kwan. Yes, it's faded as hell, but we kind of like that. These Hong Kong items are often in terrible shape, but there's such a thing as beautiful squalor. Is it the humidity that did this? Check out this other Suzie Wong item we shared way back, made with better paper, and seemingly stored with better care. We have scans of a few deteriorated but still interesting interior pages below, and if you read Chinese, all the better.
We may talk about The World of Suzie Wong a bit later. We watched it without the Pulp Intl. girlfriends, and we imagine they would have hated it—as any contemporary woman would, when it comes to romanticizing prostitution. Additionally, since PI-2 is Filipina, we suspect she'd have a particularly incisive perspective. Yes, the Philippines are a long way from Hong Kong, but considering how encompassing attitudes were in mid-century Hollywood toward Asian women, we think she's well qualified to comment on a set-in-Hong Kong movie. In any case, it's a discussion for another day, perhaps. Scans below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1941—NBC Airs First Official TV Commercial
NBC broadcasts the first TV commercial to be sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC began licensing commercial television stations in May 1941, granting the first license to NBC. During a Dodgers-Phillies game broadcast July 1, NBC ran its first commercial, from Bulova, who paid $9 to advertise its watches.
1963—Kim Philby Named as Spy
The British Government admits that former high-ranking intelligence diplomat Kim Philby had worked as a Soviet agent. Philby was a member of the spy ring now known as the Cambridge Five, along with Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Of the five, Philby is believed to have been most successful in providing classified information to the Soviet Union. He defected to Russia, was feted as a hero and even given his commemorative stamp, before dying in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
1997—Robert Mitchum Dies
American actor Robert Mitchum dies in his home in Santa Barbara, California. He had starred in films such as Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon
, and Night of the Hunter
, was called "the soul of film noir," and had a reputation for coolness
that would go unmatched until Frank Sinatra arrived on the scene.
1908—Tunguska Explosion Occurs
Near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia, a large meteoroid or comet explodes at five to ten kilometers above the Earth's surface with a force of about twenty megatons of TNT. The explosion is a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic blast, knocks over an estimated 80 million trees and generates a shock wave estimated to have been 5.0 on the Richter scale.
1971—Soviet Cosmonauts Perish
Soviet cosmonauts Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev, who served as the first crew of the world's first space station Salyut 1, die when their spacecraft Soyuz 11 depressurizes during preparations for re-entry. They are the only humans to die in space (as opposed to the upper atmosphere).
1914—Rasputin Survives Assassination Attempt
Former prostitute Jina Guseva attempts to assassinate Grigori Rasputin in his home town of Pokrovskoye, Siberia by stabbing him in the abdomen. According to reports, Guseva screamed "I have killed the Antichrist!" But Rasputin survived until being famously poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, and drowned in an icy river two years later.
1967—Jayne Mansfield Dies in Car Accident
American actress and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield dies in an automobile accident in Biloxi, Mississippi, when the car in which she is riding slams underneath the rear of a semi. Rumors that Mansfield were decapitated are technically untrue. In reality, her death certificate states that she suffered an avulsion of the cranium and brain, meaning she lost
only the top of her head.
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