The Hollywood production The World of Suzie Wong (1960) brought Hong Kong to international attention. It also made Nancy Kwan (in her screen debut) the first Hong Kong star to gain international recognition (she later starred in another milestone film Flower Drum Song in 1961). The exotic romanticism and Western male gaze that infuses The World of Suzie Wong is partly rebuked in Hong Kong filmmaker Angie Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985), which also brought a number of new stars to the screen – notably the debut of Antony Perry (later known as Anthony Wong Chau-sang), and featured the incomparable Pat Ha whose rediscovery is long overdue.
With glamourous technicolour and lyrical camera movement, The World of Suzie Wong opens on Hong Kong’s cross-harbour ferry. Robert Lomax (William Holden) begins drawing a portrait of an old man in traditional outfit but his attention soon shifts to the also exotic, but beautiful Suzie (Nancy Kwan). The act of drawing is not dissimilar to the act of filming in this context, thus establishing the film’s perspective: an American looking through his eyes at the Oriental. This small detail is indicative of how the outsider (both the director and his character) is by nature drawn to, if not limited to, what fits into his expectation or imagination of the East.
Unsurprisingly, Robert is portrayed as superior. A policeman warns Robert that Wan Chai (at the time, a working class district on Hong Kong island known also for its bar and red-light area) is not the place for him. Local Hong Kong life is depicted realistically, but only partially: through Robert’s perplexed eyes we see people carrying food and goods on shoulder poles, rickshaws, markets populated with street food, cured salted fish, roast goose and all sorts of eye-opening delights. The living space for local people is one of poverty, backwardness and chaos. On the other hand, life for the British banker and his daughter Kay (Suzie’s romantic rival) is comfortable, modern, and structured.
This is not to say that The World of Suzie Wong is not a pleasant film, quite the contrary. In all fairness, such an assorted orientalist view of Hong Kong is orchestrated in a way that fits naturally within the logic of the story. Conforming to the expectation of a consummate Hollywood romance, it is also an exceptional display of the visual fluidity and structured storytelling of classical Hollywood cinema.
My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985) begins at night, with the reflection of neon-lit Wan Chai on a car window, intoxicatingly reversed. A local café owner offers an account of how in the 1950s, a mixed groups of bar girls, beggars and delinquents benefitted from the foreign sailors who frequented the area. The contrast is immediate. Chen’s film offers an authentic local perspective of the lives in the red-light district. Instead of a romance to delight, its primary concern is the hard reality of a bar girl in a male-dominated society.
The ordeal of the protagonist, Shui-mei (Pat Ha), a sampan girl-turned-sex worker, starts with an implied gang rape on the boat. After being “selected” as the “lucky one” to work in a brothel, she and her peers have to navigate a web of macho and at times unreasonable clients, then fight their battles against the gangsters even after she has established herself as a leading figure in the industry. The struggle is furthered by the politics in the female world: competition, jealousy, aging.
An interesting and also important subplot of Chen’s film is the melancholic nostalgia over lost roots, embodied by Anthony Wong’s character Jimmy, a mixed-race young man who is compulsively looking for his estranged Caucasian father. This underlines the result of many short-lived Suzie-Robert romances under those circumstances. The inspiration for Jimmy’s character would have been two Hollywood films in 1955: Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden – a head shot of James Dean is even used as a photo of Wong’s father!
The Gender Perspective
It is hard not to notice the objectification of women in The World of Suzie Wong. Almost all of the Chinese women are sexualised, and are concerned with their relationships with men, their curved figures highlighted by their cheongsams. On the other hand, Kay, the Caucasian woman, always appears as proper and well-mannered.
When Suzie barges in wearing a tight new dress while Kay is leaving after posing for Robert, the camera zooms in to Suzie’s body and then pans vertically in one shot: from her high heels all the way up to her face, relishing her voluptuous body.
The shot is immediately countered by Robert’s judgemental response, asking her to take the “terrible” dress off. Is this to be taken at face value? As it happens, Robert violently takes off her dress. The audience is made to believe that Robert is executing his moral position (because the dress makes her look “cheap”), but the film’s mise-en-scene, the camera’s eagerness to show Suzie’s body and the stripping, reveals a coded expression of Robert’s desire for her, and ultimately, the male gaze.
By contrast, My Name Ain’t Suzie attempts to establish a woman’s subjectivity even though her profession is often regarded as inferior. For Shui-mei and her peers, there is nothing shameful in what they do, and instead of looking at it as a position that invites exploitation, they look at it as a way to turn “profit” out of it. In one scene when the girls gossip about their clients, the men’s genitals are referred to, metaphorically, as different types of shrimps and crabs. Earlier, they refer to the white men as “blonde and green eyes” (more literally translated as “red-haired gwai” – as in “gwai-lo”). Such verbal accounts, beyond their comic effect, empower these ladies to conquer their passive positions and take control over their circumstances.
The characterisation of Suzie well fits into the patriarchal perception of woman. Suzie’s beauty and sex appeal conceal a vulnerability. Her disadvantaged position as a poor woman and a single mother abandoned by a privileged government official enables Robert to reinforce himself as her strong male rescuer.
Though actively exercising her attractiveness and pursuing her love for Robert, Suzie is little more than a passive character unconcerned with questions of identity. But Shui-mei is very different: a comic sequence of successive arrests (for prostitution) shows how Shui-mei and her fellow sex workers mock the police with their frivolous attitude. Once again, it is an act of conquest and subversion.
Subjectivity: Shattering VS Consolidation
Towards the end of The World of Suzie Wong, the collapse of Suzie’s house symbolises the collapse of the final and the biggest barrier between her and Robert: the baby.
The death of Suzie’s baby is not a coincidence, nor is it only a dramatic device. Robert is only able to properly propose to Suzie after the baby has died. The deeply ingrained patriarchal values and racial prejudice are at work: first Suzie has to give up being a prostitute, then she has to be vulnerable, and finally her yellow child has to be removed from the equation. Robert’s choice of an illiterate Oriental girl of dubious background over a well-educated upper-class British lady is not to be undermined, but this liberal act is ultimately conservative. It is as much a romance as it is a process of “restoring” Suzie to a woman who is acceptable within social norms.
Suzie has to change for a man, whilst Shui-mei changes for herself. If The World of Suzie Wong shows a process of conquest and restoration, My Name Ain’t Suzie shows that of transformation. For Shui-mei, the baby also has to die, but for very different reasons. She has to make that choice to survive in the place where she is just working her way up. The horror of the abortion reflects the pain of her exploitation. Yet, she manages to negotiate those feelings, overcome them, and finally use them to establish herself as a woman capable of managing a business in a web of men and power. The latter film is about the consolidation, rather than shattering, of a woman’s subjectivity.
In Chen’s film, the young sex workers’ regard of the West is particularly important: 22-years after Hong Kong’s Handover, most HongKongers still prefer to live in a dream of post-colonial sentiment, preferring Caucasian culture on many levels whilst resisting an embrace and understanding of their own cultural identity. Chen’s film was ahead of its time in the 1980s, and still ahead of its time now.