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Half a century on, 'Suzie Wong' still a star in Hong Kong
Mon, Mar 22, 2010
AFP

By Peter Brieger

HONG KONG: Actress Nancy Kwan walks into Hong Kong's Luk Kwok Hotel, the first time she has ever visited the backdrop to her classic 1960 film "The World of Suzie Wong".

Few people take notice as Kwan, now 70, admires the hotel's movie memorabilia in a since-rebuilt lobby, its colonial charm replaced by a modern skyscraper like so many that dot Hong Kong's skyline.

Gone too are the legions of fans who once followed Kwan around the former British colony where she grew up.

"In the old days people would follow me around " it was quite scary actually," she said. "It was very difficult to get used to.

"But that was a long time ago," Kwan added, joking earlier that "people must think I'm an old bag now".

Her anonymity disappears however when staff learn she is the actress who played the charming prostitute Suzie Wong, a role that catapulted Kwan into film history as the first Asian woman to star in a Hollywood movie.

Hotel employees appear incredulous at Kwan's unexpected appearance as an AFP photographer snaps pictures of the former screen siren, born to a Chinese father and Scottish mother.

Shortly after Kwan leaves, the hotel's general manager James Li scurries up a highway overpass to catch the group.

"The staff just told me that Suzie Wong was in the hotel and they were taking pictures - I was in a meeting," a shocked Li tells Kwan. "I've seen your movies."

After a photo with the screen legend, Li extends an invitation for tea and Kwan invites him to come see a documentary about her life being screened at a Hong Kong film forum on Monday.

Shot on location in several countries, "To Whom it May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey", a reference to Kwan's Chinese name, traces the ups and downs of her career and life.

Coping with the tragic death of her only son Bernhard is among the subjects in the documentary, parts of which are filmed against the dramatic backdrop of Cambodia's 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat.

Kwan, who lives in the United States but has relatives in Hong Kong, lost her son in 1996 at the age of 33 after he contracted HIV from his now-deceased girlfriend, a subject she was not sure she could discuss on screen.

"I just couldn't talk about it and it's still a very sensitive issue," she said. "But I got through it... You carry this in your heart forever."

Kwan - who has long pushed for Asians to earn better roles in Hollywood - also lives in the shadow of the character that made her famous.

She has appeared in dozens of films and television shows, but none matched the blockbuster success she enjoyed as the love interest of late actor William Holden, whose character comes to Hong Kong in search of artistic inspiration.

Kwan, who dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer before she was discovered by a Hollywood producer, describes the film as -a fantasy film, a love story".

But the actress rejects any suggestion she has lived the sort of fantasy life some movie fans would imagine for a glamorous beauty who once graced the cover of Life magazine.

"There's no such thing as a perfect life, there are always ups and downs," she said.

"Maybe that's our journey - everybody has their peaks and valleys."

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