I watched The World of Suzie Wong when I was 12, and it left a profound impression on me. Although just a child, I already felt the pathos of Suzie as a prostitute, selling her body to strangers and losing her baby in the mud slide in Hong Kong. It was a romantic drama released in 1960, and a film seen from a male and western perspective.
Many years later, returning to Hong Kong from America, I decided to tell the story from a female and a HongKonger’s angle, to try to delve deeper into the psyche of a prostitute working the sailors in the 1950s and 1960s. You can say it was my reaction to The World of Suzie Wong, hence the title My Name Ain’t Suzie. The film crystallised through research and imagination in 1984. The screenwriter Chan Koon-Chung and I spent time with the real Wan Chai bargirls who eventually were cast as bit players, and we incorporated the historical facts into the film. There really was a kooky woman dressed in yellow wandering the streets of Wan Chai. And indeed many bargirls were recruited from the small rural villages in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Many of the bars at the time were run and staffed by Chinese immigrants from Shantung, a northern province in China. Coincidentally they also constituted a significant part of the police force, presumably due to their tall physique. The film subsequently portrayed the life of a prostitute from the 1950s to the 1980s, and offered a less rosy picture than the Hollywood version. It was about struggle, hardship, love and abandonment. It was a story about women.
To try to stay true to authenticity and character, I went through numerous auditions to cast the male and female lead. Anthony Wong (Anthony Perry) was cast because he was Eurasian, and he was fatherless and desperately searching for his father. The male character Jimmy was also Eurasian, an angry young man, abandoned by his Caucasian father. That was a phenomenon at the time, many Eurasian children fathered by western sailors or civil servants were abandoned. It was Wong’s first film, later he attained popularity and recognition as a serious actor. Patricia Ha was cast because of her free, open and tenacious spirit that befitted the character Shui Mei Lai.
Mona Fong, the head of Shaw Brothers Picture, was behind the film. It was no easy task as the project seemed enormous and costly in sets and costumes spanning three decades. I was a young director with only one film to my credit, so it meant a big risk to the studio. The making of the film demanded ingenuity and resourcefulness. With Fong’s blessing, we managed to rent an abandoned building in Wan Chai, built the main bar’s facade, recreated Wan Chai in the 50s, and shot on actual street locations.
The main portion of the film however, was filmed on sets in the studio, some of the vintage costumes were acquired in secondhand shops in London which was actually cheaper than making them in Hong Kong. We searched diligently for vintage props including rickshaws which were an icon of the time and are now extinct in Hong Kong. We were very lucky.
It was in the post-production stage that differences between Mona Fong and I emerged. As a result, the film was basically canned and received very little support for its premiere and release. It was invited to foreign film festivals but the word back from the studio was: “We cannot afford to send it anywhere. No go.”
That was a disappointing stage for the film and myself, and I left feature filmmaking to venture into making commercials. It was not until 2008 that I returned to making independent feature documentary films.
Looking back, I was pleased with the collaboration with my producer, my actors, the screenwriter, the set designer, costume designer, the very dedicated crew, and the authentic bargirls and bit players. It was a joyful, colourful and bold endeavour. After a recent retrospective screening of My Name Ain’t Suzie in Hong Kong, Anthony Wong told me of his first impression of working on it 35 years ago:
“The shoot was frantic and buzzing with energy. There were a lot of English speakers on the set, the cinematographer Bob Huke, the costume designer Colette Koo, the director, and I was overwhelmed with wonderment. I was a novice really. And I didn’t realise I was quite handsome then!”
35 years later, I am so pleased that it is venturing out of Hong Kong to Udine Far East Film Festival. Thank you to all the people, Roger Garcia, Sabrina Baracetti, Kiki Fung who made this happen!