I read “The World of Suzie Wong” so you don’t have to (warning: rife with spoilers)

The World of Suzie Wong _ Expat Lingo

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:

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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?

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13 responses to “I read “The World of Suzie Wong” so you don’t have to (warning: rife with spoilers)

  1. I have seen the movie and read the book too. I think the movie is worth watching for the visual of old Hong Kong. Also for the fashion on Nancy Kwan.

    • Ok, I’ll watch it, but it’ll take strong will power to ignore that William Holden is too old for the role. Would love to see the old street scenes of Hong Kong!

    • Speaking of William Holden… he also filmed Love is a Many Splendored Thing in Hong Kong. My mother was staying at the Penninsula Hotel at the time and bumped right into him.

      • Oh, I didn’t know that he was the star of that movie as well. What a funny coincidence with your mother!

        Sounds like one dark winter night, I should probably watch both movies. The scenes of old HK are very tempting!

  2. You know, one of my nicknames was Suzie Wong, and I never really knew the full extent of what it meant…till now. And I’ve seen snippets of the movie. Maybe it’s good for a rainy day, or for when you have a running fever – amusing, but not terribly enlightening.

    • Now you know your nick-name, name-sake was a HK prostitute who ‘lost everything’ but gained love, true love!

      I’m sure LKF will be full of ‘Suzie Wongs’ of all nationalities for Halloween tonight. That and ‘sexy cats’ and ‘sexy witches.’ I’ll be trick it treating with my kids around Tai Po; wish me luck!

    • Ha! We used to live down the road in Cambridge.

      Maybe you should take up NaNiWriMo after all. Seems like the world needs more good storytelling set in interesting places.

  3. Thanks for the informative post. I’ve avoided reading The World of Suzy Wong after learning about the typical stereotypes imbedded in the book, so thanks for capturing the book and sparing me! If you haven’t already read them, you might also enjoy the James Clavell books: Noble House and Tai-Pan, although some scenes and character depictions of Chinese are equally offensive. But many of the scenes and descriptions are terrific, and also capture the spirit of historic HK quite nicely. Apparently a few of the historical events in the stories (esp in Noble House) were based on actual events, which was also very interesting to me, especially if you simply insert Jardines and Swire into the rivalry of the two houses. Anyhow, both were long reads, but entertaining enough just in case you need more of a historic HK fix!

    • You’ve been smart to avoid Suzie Wong. I read Tai-Pan a long time ago and really enjoyed it. Can’t think of why I haven’t picked up Noble House. I probably should. Thanks very much for reminding me about it! Frankly, I’m always surprised that there aren’t more great books based in Hong Kong.

      • Oh for sure, I think you’ll enjoy Noble House!! I found it more entertaining than Tai Pan, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the buildings and other sites mentioned in the book! Me too, I’m surprised more novels don’t take place in HK either. Another very good book that comes to mind is Old Filth (Failed in London, try Hong Kong) by Jane Gardam, and the companion book Man in the Wooden Hat. Happy reading!!! I’m currently just starting Crazy Rich Asians, myself!

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