Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The World of Suzie Wong

Freakishly enough, there's a reggae song by Jacob Miller references Suzie Wong... And I thought this whole thing was painful enough already...

You can watch the movie online too

Robert Lomax (William Holden) is going to Hong Kong to start a career as a painter after dropping his architecture job for reasons unknown. He hops on the ferry boat taking him to Hong Kong and he meets a girl who calls herself Mee-Ling (that's how it was spelled in the subtitles!) who accuses him of trying to steal her purse and doesn't want to talk to him. He proves her wrong and they begin to talk. Mee-Ling tells Robert that her father is very rich and that she is very proper and a virgin to boot. That's why she she didn't want to talk to him. Robert is obviously very taken with the girl but the boat hits shore and everyone departs. Robert heads off to a cheap hotel where he decides to rent a room for a whole month. Then he goes on down to the hotel bar where he sees... gasp... bar girls in qipaos cha-cha-ing it up with sailor boys. And the real nature of the hotel is exposed. Robert sits at the bar and sees Mee-Ling across the way with a sailor boy! He approaches her, calls her by her name, and she doesn't recognize him! She tells him that her name is Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan) and she admits to being a prostitute. The next day, Robert goes to the bank and sets up an account there. He makes friends with the banker and the banker's daughter falls in love with Robert. That night he asks Suzie to come to his room - but not for screwing! Robert wants Suzie to pose for him! They eventually becomes friends and Robert learns that Suzie was forced into being a prostitute after her evil uncle threw her out of his house when she was 8. She never even learned to read or write! Suzie begins to fall in love with Robert and so does he, but he can't get past the fact that she's a prostitute. She keeps on seeing other clients and he keeps on painting her. One night, Robert goes to a dinner party with the banker and the banker's daughter. However, one of Suzie's clients, Ben, is at the party too with his wife. The two men immediately recognize her and the banker's daughter keeps on hitting on Robert. A few days later, Ben comes to Robert and tells him that he's leaving his wife for Suzie, which Suzie accepts to make Robert jealous. A few more days later, Ben tells Robert that he actually wants to break off his relationship with Suzie, but he doesn't want to tell her himself, so he makes Robert do it. Robert tells Suzie and she is so hurt that he confesses his love to her, and they begin a happy relationship. However, Suzie disappears for several hours every day, and Robert, becoming suspicious, decides to follow her. He finds her in a small shack outside of the city with a baby boy and a nurse. Suzie tells him that this is her son and this is where she has been going every day. She asks him whether or not he will love the child, and Robert promises to. This makes them even more happy. Unfortunately, Robert's paintings of Suzie haven't been selling very well, and this inspires the banker's daughter to try to help out Robert financially. Suzie offers to go back to prostitution so that she can make money and Robert can keep painting; however, Robert's pride prevents him from accepting either offer. When he finds out Suzie paid his rent for him using her own money, he throws a fit and tells her to go away. He realizes his mistake when Suzie doesn't come back and it begins to rain, so he asks his banker and the banker's daughter to help. Unfortunately, the jealous banker's daughter refuses to help, thinking that if Suzie cannot be found, Robert will fall in love with the banker's daughter. Robert has a big uh-oh moment and runs away to find Suzie. But alas! There's a giant rainstorm and the city might flood, so nobody is allowed to go to the outskirts of the town. Robert runs around until he finds Suzie, who is worried about her son. They run to Suzie's old house, where they find that the baby died in the flood. The last scene is a small funeral for the baby boy with Robert, Suzie, and Suzie's prostitute friends. At the end of the scene, Robert and Suzie decide to live the rest of their days together forever and ever. 
Dear Suzie. Dear Suzie Wong. She's so complicated, for goodness' sake! Suzie Wong is not a dragon lady. She does not desire to kill anybody or poison them or seduce them so they will give her information about stuff. Suzie Wong is (kindof) a butterfly. She is demure, sweet, and swears her subservience to her dear "Lobert Romax." Good grief make it stop. But at the same time, she is outspoken and brave, able to take care of herself and her baby boy - not really a butterfly characteristic. Sure, she's dependent on her man and she loves him unconditionally and promises to do whatever he tells her, but... Does this mean that Suzie is the "happy medium" between the two stereotypes? No. Suzie Wong is a Suzie Wong. She is the whore, the Asian "hooker with a heart of gold." But does this make Suzie Wong merely an extension of a non-race-specific stereotype? And while this stereotype of an Asian whore falling in love with a white guy does not appear in the media as often as Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan did, the connotations continue to exist today. Her image (in addition to the stereotypes the 1957 film Sayonara put out) set up the ideas that  "Oriental" women are better at sex, that they are subservient and adoring of their white men... all that jazz. But do we ever see her again? No, we merely see Suzie's legacy and the stereotype she enhanced now. Does this mean that Suzie Wong is dead? The next semi-close-to Suzie Wong character (yes, we'll exclude Linda Low from Flower Drum Song for now) that we see is the Vietnamese prostitute at the end of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. And that is not the same portrayal as Suzie Wong. That is sick desperation - a representation of the cynicism that begins to pop up in American cinema a few years earlier. Is the reason we don't see another Suzie Wong stereotype because there wasn't time for her to be reproduced? Did a change in what audiences wanted to see affect the longevity of a character like this? Granted, mentioning Suzie Wong to almost anyone who is Asian-American will result in any combination of the following: cringing, rolling of the eyes, a blog-worthy verbal rant, or an upwelling of emotion. But I digress. Is it because of the end of the Hollywood musical that we see no more Suzie Wongs?

Suzie does the cha-cha. How alluring. (That's really not helping my case...) Watch carefully and you'll see the other bar girls demonstrating their proficiency in the cha-cha as well.

This was not the first movie to feature a white guy + Asian girl couple. I won't even go into the widespreadness of that trend. It's responsible for me and lots of other kiddos. See how this leaves out Asian men + white women, let alone Asian men + Asian women? You won't see that as often as you will a white male and an Asian female. The white men want a pretty, demure, exotic Asian woman to take care of him forever and ever. The Asian women want a good-looking manly man, and historically, Asian men have not been portrayed as manly men (Yes, yes, Bitter Tea of General Yen). However, why do you suppose "Lobert Romax" and Suzie are together? Well, duh, it's for love. But to what extent? Why was Robert initially attracted to Suzie? Homeboy's got some yellow fever, huh? What was Robert attracted to? Was he attracted to the notion of having a sweet "Oriental" girl (read: whore) as his "permanent girlfriend?" Or was he genuinely attracted to Suzie's face? And here's the catch! Robert did not come to Hong Kong looking for a hooker. At first, he did not want to sleep with her - just paint her and her "Oriental" face (Oriental my foot. Nancy Kwan is hapa!). And this could be his "redeeming" quality, if you will. He doesn't just want the Oriental girl for sex! He really loves her! He abstains from sex out of love, while she's gallivanting around with sailor boys even though she really does love him too... And this is what makes the relationship between a white male and the Asian hooker. The purity of it all. (Oh irony.) 
I have a feeling that while there may not be a lot for me to expound upon here in this post, remnants of this performance and the connotations that the character of Suzie Wong has will continue to pop up here and there in future posts. The stereotype may not have persisted, but aspects of it sure have...

Alas! There was no yellowface in this film! It was replaced with the forbidden love between a "Wan Chai streetgirl" and the white artist dude. Forbidden love! But they are so in love! She promises to love him until he says to her, "Suzie, go away!" (Real line from the film...) So no yellowface... have we moved beyond it? Oh no. But this is a step in the right direction. A step towards letting Asian people play Asian people. But at what price? Sadly, the step in the right direction is canceled out by the lasting impression Suzie made on America. And here is where I do a shameless plug and tell you to stay tuned for next time, where I'll rant about Flower Drum Song!


  1. What historical forces "made" the stereotype of he subservient Asian women? What social forces shaped the lingering Suzie Wong stereotype? Why did Nancy Kwan take this role in the first place?

  2. I have just found out the basis of the Jacob Miller classic - Thanks.

  3. I love this movie. I love Suzie's character. I saw this movie as a 12-year-old, my mother warning me that since I was a devout China-lover she'd permit me to see it, but that it was considered racy. I have been obsessed with China, it's culture, history, literature, language and people for nearly my whole life. As a girl, I admired Suzie's gutsiness, her strength, her devotion to her baby, her ability to create another reality for herself outside her "dirty job". As an adult, I have much on prostitution and the subjugation of women in other countries, about the child sex trade, and lived in Beijing for 3 years--I SAW a lot. As an adult, I also came to realize: in setting up this inner world for herself, Suzie created a powerful totem, a spiritual energy that pulled to her that which she really wanted. Not all children who are poor and abused and end up in the sex trade are pathetic, spiritless, crude or without intelligence--Suzie showed she had something MORE, something that drew to her the fate she deeply felt she deserved: to be loved and cherished by a rich man (be that man be a 'daddy' or a husband). I know Westerners and many Chinese see this movie as horribly racist bullshit, but I cannot class it so simply. Suzie is charming, sure, she is the sexiest girl in the bar, she KNOWS how to work men, but I believe, because she retains this inner image of herself, she is different, special; because she has found this secret, maybe even some of her original innocence comes through--THAT is what Robert sees, not just her beauty. Yes, he has a lot to overcome in order to love and accept her--but Suzie has a lot of adjustments to make too! As a woman in a long-term, loving marriage, I still see my husband’s faults and Suzie can see Robert's as well. She is hurt by him, numerous times, and yet, she can also see he is struggling. That makes a difference! If he was just a rich American pig of a guy who just wanted sex, well, she's had enough of that--the romance in the movie comes from two VERY different people from different cultures trying to find a common ground for Love and Marriage. She's STRONG, damnit! she's feisty, she's as good a mother as a struggling prostitute can be, and she's loyal to her man. All through the story you see how the British view the Chinese--I find their behavior and attitudes FAR worse than Robert's. Issues ARE brought up in the movie that were unique for the time period, and that's what people forget in their urge to peg this as racist crap. It's not the best venue or interpretation for starting a conversation, but it made me THINK and CONSIDER, as a child, the kind of life that Suzie had, it made me want to know more about China, about the problems of women there....and ultimately led me to live and teach there for 3 years, and plan my retirement there. My first real steps toward all this was Pearl S. Buck's 'The Good Earth' which was like a lightning bolt in my life at age 9, and Suzie Wong pulled me right along. I love her character, her strength, her imagination, and always will...

    1. Thank you. That's how most people see this film and love it. I feel the same way. I think young people now just think it's just all "the rage" to put this movie down and they jump on the bandwagon. You see that a lot nowadays. Instead of trying to see where the author of the story was really going with it.

  4. Also Nancy is Eurasian born in Hong Kong. Not Hawaii.. so no, not your hapa slang.