Nancy Kwan - Biography - Stardom


The World of Suzie Wong was a "box-office sensation". Critics lavished praise on Kwan for her performance. She was given the nickname "Chinese Bardot" for her unforgettable dance performance. Kwan and two other actresses, Ina Balin and Hayley Mills, were awarded the Golden Globe for the "Most Promising Newcomer–Female" in 1960. The following year, she was voted a "Star of Tomorrow". Scholar Jennifer Leah Chan of New York University wrote that Suzie provided an Asian actress—Kwan—with the most significant Hollywood role since actress Anna May Wong's success in the 1920s. Designed by London hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, Kwan's bob cut in the film drew widespread media attention for the "severe geometry of her new hairstyle". Sassoon's signature cut of Kwan's hair was nicknamed "the Kwan cut", "the Kwan bob", or was plainly known as "the Kwan"; photographs of Kwan's new hairstyle appeared in both the American and British editions of Vogue.

Kwan was unprepared for fame as an 18 year old. While she was purchasing fabric in a store on Nathan Road, Kwan found people staring at her from the window. Wondering what they were staring at, it suddenly struck her that she was the point of attraction. Kwan remarked that in Beverley Hills, she can walk without attracting notice. She rationalized, " is better in America because America is much bigger, I guess". When people addressed her father after watching the film, they frequently called him "Mr Wong", a name that severely displeased him. Kwan said in a 1994 interview with the South China Morning Post that even decades after her film debut and despite her having done over 50 films thence, viewers continued to send numerous letters to her about the film.

The scene of Kwan, reposed on a davenport and adorned in a dazzling cheongsam, while showing a "deliciously decadent flash of thigh", became an iconic image. Clad in a cheongsam—"a Chinese dress with a high collar and slits, one on each side of the skirt"—Kwan was on the October 1960 cover of Life, cementing her status as an eminent sex symbol in the 1960s. Nicknamed the "Suzie Wong dress", the cheongsam in the portrait spawned thousands of copycat promotional projects. In a 1962 interview, Kwan said she "loved" the cheongsam, calling it a "national costume". She explained that the cheongsam "has slits because Chinese girls have pretty legs" and "the slits show their legs".

Chinese and Chinese-Americans became aggrieved after seeing how Chinese women were depicted as promiscuous. Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul speculated that the wave of unfavorable media attention drove filmmakers to escalate the production of Kwan's next film. In 1961, she starred in Flower Drum Song in a related role. The film was distinguished for being the "first big-budget American film" with an all–Asian cast. Kwan did not sing the songs in the musical film; the vocals for Linda Low were performed by B. J. Baker. Comparing Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song, she found the latter much harder because the girl she played was "more go-getter". Her prior ballet education provided a strong foundation for her role in Flower Drum Song, where she had much space to dance.

After starring in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song, Kwan experienced a meteoric rise to celebrity. Scholar Jennifer Leah Chan of New York University chronicled the media attention Kwan received after starring in two Hollywood films, writing that Kwan's fame peaked in 1962. In addition to being featured on the cover of Life magazine, Kwan was discussed in 1962 in popular women's magazine McCall's, which titled "The China Doll that Men Like".

As a Hollywood icon, Kwan lived in a house situated atop Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. She commuted in a white British sports car and danced to Latin verses. She enjoyed listening to Johnny Mathis records and reading Chinese history texts. In 1962, when she was 22, Kwan was dating Swiss actor Maximilian Schell. In an interview that year, she said she did not intend to get married until she was older, perhaps 24 or 25. She said a number of Americans married just to leave home or to "make love". Kwan said this was problematic because she found dialogue and an ability to appreciate and express humor important in a marriage: "You can't just sit around and stare at walls between love-making."

In 1961, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry declined to employ Kwan as a teacher for the soldiers. The infantry was training for military involvement in Malay (now part of Malaysia), and the regiment's commanders believed that the infantrymen should be taught the Chinese language and how to handle chopsticks. Captain Anthony Hare announced to the public that the infantry needed a teacher—an attractive one. He later acknowledged that he appended the rider that the instructor must be attractive so that more soldiers would attend the sessions. Kwan, in Hollywood at the time, replied via cable: "Please consider me a candidate as Chinese teacher for Yorkshire Light Infantry. I am fluent in Chinese, fabulous with chopsticks, and fond of uniforms." Captain Hare commented, "Miss Kwan is too beautiful. I think she would be too much of a distraction." Her tardy request was not evaluated; it was denied by the infantry, who had just accepted the application of another Chinese woman.

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