The World of Suzie Wong is a famous, but exceptionally melodramatic, novel based in late 1950s Hong Kong. Think Moulin Rouge! set in Wan Chai with a happier ending pinned on.
It’s an easy read, not a great read. The most enjoyable parts of the book are the main protagonist’s occasional thoughts on expat living and the characters of expat life (reproduced below as my gift to you). Since the author, Richard Mason, was an almost life-long expat (and not, rather, a Hong Kong hooker with a heart of gold) it makes sense that his keenest observations are on the life he understands.
The story itself is told through the eyes of Robert Lomax, an aspiring British painter, who’s modest artist’s garret is in a Wan Chai hotel whose main business is renting rooms to Chinese prostitutes and their foreign sailor clientele. Suzie Wong is a prostitute from Shanghai who works to support her young child. Their friendship begins platonically, but eventually, and predictably, they become lovers. From this point the story become increasingly melodramatic: Suzie’s baby dies, she develops a severe case of tuberculosis, and she is imprisoned for stabbing another prostitute. Yet Suzie recovers physically and mentally (she seems to forget about her baby after three pages) and she and Robert marry in Macau and go on to live happily ever after.
The setting — Hong Kong — is the real star, and the reason I picked up the book. Reading about the Star Ferry, Nathan Road, the double-decker trams, seedy Wan Chai, and the ease of driving and parking in mid-century Hong Kong, is a joy. The setting by itself, however, is not enough to save the book. (Tip: A more interesting and detailed view of 1950s Hong Kong can be enjoyed in Martin Booth’s 2006 memoir Golden Boy, also known as Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Boyhood.)
So what about the book’s compelling quotes on expat living and the characters of expat life? It is my Halloween pleasure to treat you to these gems.
Near the beginning of the story Robert briefly returns to London from Asia. Here is his thought on the melancholy of repatriation:
[W]andering round London again, chilly in my new suit, I felt miserable and lost.
Robert takes a similarly dark view of British expat wives:
…the sad wistful wives who said, “Of course we’re spoiled out here,” but really wished themselves back in Sutton…
His most cynical observation may be on expat cocktail parties:
And then there began to unfold all those threadbare little patterns of colonial cocktail-party conversation that I knew so well; that I had known first in Malaya, then during my first weeks in Hong Kong. I had the sensation of stepping back into a room where a gramophone had been endlessly playing. The grooves were perhaps a little more worn, the needle a little more blunted–but it was the same old record, and I knew every topic, every phrase. I knew with deadly certainty that no unexpected word would be uttered, no fresh viewpoint expressed.
His wry passage on racism in old-fashioned expat circles is an especially fun moment. A fellow dinner guest drops a conversational bomb by saying:
“Well, now that I’m leaving China for good I suppose I can come out with it. My grandmother was Chinese.”
There was a shocked silence…
“I’m rather pleased with myself for getting away with it for thirty years,” …
Another fellow dinner guest tries to smooth over the discomfort in the room by saying:
“Anyhow, Mr. O’Neill, I’m sure your grandmother came from a good-class family. That does make a difference.”
“No, as a matter of fact she was my grandfather’s amah.”
Later that guest reveals the truth to Robert as they walk down from the Midlevel-based dinner party:
He chuckled. “One of my grandmothers came from Richmond, and the other was from Bury St. Edmunds. No, I’m afraid I was just having a lark. I’ve rather a schoolboy sense of humor, and I couldn’t resist it.”
And last, but not least, I give you Robert’s observation on Americans:
I think that without either the accent or the crew cut I would have guessed his nationality. It was in the readiness of his handshake, the blandness of the smile, that seemed jointly to declare, “I’m an American, and proud of it, and when you shake hands with me you are not just shaking hands with an individual, but with America itself–with the Empire State, and nation-wide television, and General Motors, and the American democratic constitution.
Sixty years later, we Americans still often come across this way, although the smug glimmer in our eyes may have faded just slightly.
If you like reading quotes about expat life, you might also enjoy these posts:
Note: This post refers solely to the book, The World of Suzie Wong. I have not watched the movie by the same name starring Nancy Kwan and, the seemingly too-ancient-for-the-role, William Holden. Have you seen it? Worth watching for the Hong Kong backdrop?