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Code breaker

Nancy Kwan helped Asian actors break through casting restrictions with her role in 'The World of Suzie Wong.'

May 16, 2011|Susan King

If the 1960 drama "The World of Suzie Wong" -- about the relationship between an American painter and a Hong Kong prostitute -- had been made five years earlier, Hong Kong native Nancy Kwan would never have been cast in the lead role. Hollywood's Motion Picture Production Code didn't allow portrayals of interracial romance, stating that "miscegenation is forbidden." Miscegenation laws were on the books in some states until the late 1960s.

That hadn't been the case before the code was written in 1930. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who earned an Oscar nomination as the POW commander in 1957's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," had been a romantic leading man in Hollywood films and a producer during the silent era. Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, had strong roles in the silent era in 1924's "The Thief of Bagdad" and "Peter Pan." By the end of the decade, she had been relegated to supporting and stereotypical roles in films, like every Asian actor in Hollywood.

With the code in place, Hollywood cast Caucasian actors such as Luise Rainer in 1937's "The Good Earth" and Jennifer Jones in 1955's "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," in Asian or Eurasian roles. But by 1956 the code had loosened and Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian actor to win an Oscar, for 1957's "Sayonara," as the Japanese wife of a U.S. serviceman. Then came Kwan, whose father was Chinese and mother was Scottish, in "Suzie Wong" and in the 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."

"I believe she opened doors," said Arthur Dong, a documentarian who explores Asian American identity and gay issues. "I was born and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown. There were, like, five Chinese movie theaters playing Chinese-language films, and very rarely did an English-language film play in one of these theaters, because most of the people who lived in Chinatown only spoke Chinese. When they played 'Suzie Wong' and 'Flower Drum Song,' it was a revelation."

On Sunday, Kwan will be honored by the Chinese American Museum at the AMC Monterey Park. "The World of Suzie Wong," which also stars William Holden, will screen, as well as the documentary on her life and career, "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey."

Ironically, Kwan, who currently is teaching acting for film for graduate students at Cal State Los Angeles, never aspired to have a career in acting. She was a dance student at the Royal Ballet in London who had just come home for vacation when she met "Suzie Wong" producer Ray Stark. "He did a whole around-the-world trip to drum up publicity to look for an actress," said Kwan, who turns 72 on Thursday.

"They were testing all of my favorite Chinese actresses at the time in Hong Kong, so I went to the studio to admire [them]," she said. Kwan caught Stark's attention. "He said, 'Would you like to do a screen test? We will put you on camera and ask you a few questions.' I giggled all the way through."

Just before she was due to return to London, her father got a letter from Stark's company asking if she would come to Hollywood under a six-month contract to study acting and do another screen test.

At first, Kwan didn't get the role in the movie -- it went to France Nuyen, who had done the theatrical version on Broadway -- but Kwan was hired to do the touring company of the play. While the film was in production, Nuyen left the film and Stark called Kwan to test again. "The test was my first day of work. If Bill Holden did not approve of me, I wouldn't have been in the film. He was one of the biggest stars in the world and very generous with his work. I was so naive.... You learn so much from somebody like that."

She followed it up with "Flower Drum Song," in which she played the performer Linda Low, who stole the film with her "I Enjoy Being a Girl" number. "It was about time to cast Asians in Asian roles," she said. "It gave work to a lot of Asians, and it felt so good being in a film like that."

Kwan has continued to work in films and TV. But she complains that roles for Asians remain few and far between. "They write for Asian actors in Hong Kong and China, but you don't get the roles here. There are so many young, talented Asian actors out there, but they need a role."

susan.king@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nancy Kwan's

50th Anniversary

in Show Business

What: "The World of Suzie Wong" at 2 p.m. Sunday, followed by "To Whom It May Concern" at 4:30 p.m. and a Chinese banquet at 7 p.m.

Where: AMC Theatre 14 in Monterey Park, 450 N. Atlantic Blvd.; Harbor Seafood Restaurant, 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park

Price: $100 for all the events

Information: (626) 300-0828

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A trio of groundbreaking Asian actors

Sessue Hayakawa, Miyoshi Umeki and Anna May Wong helped pave the way in the industry by landing key roles in some classic Hollywood films, earning attention from critics and the motion picture academy along the way.

Sessue Hayakawa

The Japanese star earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for David Lean's classic 1957 "The Bridge on the River Kwai" as rigid POW camp commander Col. Saito.

Miyoshi Umeki

The first Asian to win an acting Oscar. Umeki won the supporting actress award for 1957's "Sayonara" as the ill-fated Japanese bride of an American serviceman.

Anna May Wong

The Chinese American actress received a lot of attention from critics and audiences as the Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 swashbuckler "The Thief of Bagdad."

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