The Steamy East (5)

Suez to Suzie Wong

By Mark Schreiber

Mainichi Daily News
29 September 1986, page 9

The cover of Signet's 1958 first-edition paperback of Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong. It may seem hard to believe, but at the time of its release interracial love was still considered highly controversial.

Essential factors in Hong Kong's development were the trading houses, banks and other institutions which have survived to this day. The establishment of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in 1864 proved a boon to traders, who, lacking a source of credit, bad previously had to tie up their money and goods for a year or longer while the ships made the round trip between London and the Far East.

As George Woodcock related in his 1969 history, The British in the Far East, a major factor in Hong Kong's growth was the opening in 1869 of the Suez Canal to steamships, which reduced the journey of a sea passage from London to Singapore from an uncomfortable six months to just 42 days. Telegraph service to London was begun in 1870, further shortening the lines of communication with the mother country.

While the few tens of dozens of Europeans and Americans began their long journeys to the East, Hong Kong meanwhile was also the point of emigration for hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants. These emigrants, mostly Hakkas (a hill tribe) and Cantonese, left their impoverished homes to seek work in the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia, the wharves of London and at railroads and mine fields in the American West. Before the end of this series, I hope to describe what life was like in these overseas "Chinatowns."

By the turn of the century, Hong Kong had become an established stopover for tourists. An early guidebook described the colony around 1920, by which time its population had grown to nearly half a million.

There are grander sights to be seen in the world, but few more picturesque and graceful than that of Hong Kong...suddenly your vessel makes a curve and the narrow channel discloses a fleet of ships, junks and sampans; the extended curve of quays; the regular line of buildings, and above them, rising on a succession of hill slopes, the villas in tiers along the zigzags of the mountain roads . . . .

It is hard to put any specific date on when Hong Kong became the setting of adventure novels, but there are at least a few which predate World War II. One of these is The Hongkong Airbase Murders by F. van Wyck Mason, who penned a popular series of Far Eastern thrillers in the 1930s. There are also a number of more recent thrillers about the war years in Hong Kong, such as Bastion (1980), Anthony Esler's saga of the months just before and after the outbreak of hostilities in 1941. China Gold (1982), by John Tarrant, sees an American crook plan to heist the colony's gold reserves under the noses of the advancing Japanese army.

Before Hong Kong became the concrete jungle that it is today, for years it was, beyond the border of the New Territories, quite pastoral. Certainly, one of the most charming biographies that I have encountered is Myself a Mandarin (1968) by Austin Coates, which gives a highly humorous account of a colonial magistrate assigned to preside over claims and disputes in a rural court in the New Territories. It was later made into a film.

By the 1950s, if books and films are any indication, the images presented by Hong Kong had become rather sentimental. Stories get in the colony inspired at least two famous film romances. A Many-Splendored Thing is Belgian-Chinese author Han Suyin's semi-autobiographical story about the love of a beautiful Chinese doctor for a war correspondent. The 1955 film starred Jennifer Jones -- made up to appear Eurasian -- and William Holden.

In 1957, the appearance of Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong created something of a stir. The Shanghainese bar girl with a heart of gold (or any other negotiable currency), Suzie makes the acquaintance of an aspiring British artist Robert Lomax (played respectively by Nancy Kwan and William Holden in the 1960 film), who has transformed a cheap Waichai hotel room into his art studio. After years of entertaining sailors on the waterfront, Suzie is fascinated to meet a Westerner with any sense of culture or refinement. Lomax's problem is that he likes Suzie too, but can barely make ends meet as it is. An excerpt:

"I'd work for you very cheap. One month -- six hundred dollars. Never go with other boyfriends."

"Suzie, I'll tell you the truth. I'm not really a big man at all. I'm terribly poor -- I've only got six hundred dollars a month to live on altogether."

"That's all? For room? Chow? Everything?"


"Then no good."