COURTESY SUNSHINE PRODUCTIONS
Nancy Kwan will appear in two benefit events in Honolulu this week.
The new world of Nancy Kwan
It's been 47 years since she found fame as 'Suzie Wong'
Actress Nancy Kwan has a special affinity for Hawaii because of the exotic cultural blend that defines daily existence in the islands. "I love Hawaii," she said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "I see all these mixtures there. Being Eurasian, I use my two cultures (English and Chinese); I speak two languages, and I think it's an advantage over other people. But careerwise, I think we still have a long way to go. (Asians) need better roles. It's the role that makes your career."
Meet the actress
Nancy Kwan will appear at these benefit events:
» Saturday: Chinese Women's Club of Honolulu fashion show, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monarch Room, Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Cost: $55. Call 536-6772.
» Sunday: Premiere of "Ray of Sunshine," 6 p.m., Hawaii Theatre. Cost: $28. Call 528-0506.
She should know. Her turn as a lovable prostitute in 1960's "The World of Suzie Wong" made her famous. And 47 years later, many still consider her a major movie star. This week, she's coming to Honolulu to promote a new independent film and help local charities.
It started when Dr. Lawrence Tseu offered to sponsor Kwan's trip to participate in the Chinese Women's Club of Honolulu fashion show and luncheon, a benefit for the club's scholarship fund. This led to a private VIP affair -- which quickly sold out -- and a public screening of her newest film, "Ray of Sunshine," at the Hawaii Theatre on Sunday. Proceeds from those ticket sales will go to the Hawaii Rotary Youth Foundation scholarship fund.
Internet sources indicate that makeup artists for "The World of Suzie Wong" were instructed to make the hapa-looking Kwan appear more Chinese. Even so, Kwan almost always played Asian characters. Interestingly, she had never planned to be an actress.
Born in Hong Kong and educated in England, Kwan studied with the Royal Ballet School. While she was on vacation in Hong Kong, American producer Ray Stark, scouting in Hong Kong, offered her several screen tests for the role of Suzie Wong.
"Actually, I wanted to be a ballet dancer," said Kwan. "'Suzie Wong' was being in the right place at the right time. That's what happens in life. But I really enjoy acting. That's why after all these years I'm still doing it."
COURTESY UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
In 1961, Nancy Kwan built on her stardom with "The Flower Drum Song."
COURTESY UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
With James Shigeta in "The Flower Drum Song" in 1961, the year after "Suzie Wong."
Of celebrity, she seemed unimpressed. "You just go along with it," she said. "People recognize you on the street, and you have to deal with all that so-called fame. But that's part of life as an actor."
That's why she and her husband appreciate small films that ignite their creative passions. "Ray of Sunshine" director and producer Norbert Meisel, Kwan's husband, said he shared his idea for the movie, which involves a girl who witnesses the death of her mother, goes out in search of her long-departed father -- and finds herself. Meisel asked Kwan if she might want to act in it.
"But of course she wasn't interested," said Meisel, who hails from Vienna, Austria, and has directed and produced several theater productions. But then again, Meisel said, "She's very stubborn; it took eight trips to Hong Kong to convince her to spend time with me!"
Meisel listened to Kwan's ideas about the character. They added a fantasy dance routine. Jazz became part of the score. Eventually, she agreed. "We have a good time working together, but she won't do anything unless she really likes it," he said.
"There's no action or sex in it; it's just about people. So we're very happy with this film." And pleased to avoid the politics and compromises associated with big studio movies.
"Nancy tells me to do what my heart tells me," he said. "She says, 'Don't do anything you don't like; you're better off not doing it. Don't sell out.'"
Their marriage works because "she tells me when I'm a fool," Meisel said. "She takes care of me and I take care of her."
COURTESY LIFE MAGAZINE
Life magazine, 1960.
COURTESY COLUMBIA PICTURES
With Dean Martin (as super-spy Matt Helm) in "The Wrecking Crew," 1969.
Kwan speaks English and Cantonese fluently and Mandarin fairly well. Meisel can communicate in any number of European languages with ease. But when asked if he knew Chinese, he chuckled. "I learn the dirty words when she gets mad at me! So I know a few. But I cannot carry a decent conversation. I don't even order food after all these years."
As Kwan's laughter rose in the background, he continued: "You know at night when her eyes are closed, she looks like an angel. But when she opens up her eyes, she takes over. That's about it."
The topic of Kwan's age arose, and Meisel said even he did not know when his wife was born. When told he should check the Internet, he retorted, "Don't believe what the Internet says! She's 39, like Jack Benny!"
Kwan stays fit and youthful-looking with daily workouts that include tai chi, qigong, jazz and tap.
Her latest project with Meisel is a documentary about her life. In it she talks about her son, a filmmaker and martial artist who died of AIDS at 33 after his fiance accidentally infected him.
"To lose a child is the most painful thing, and I don't think one ever really recovers from it," she said quietly. Proceeds from a book she wrote about him go toward AIDS research, and she plans to do more charity work for AIDS awareness when the documentary is completed next year.
Of Hawaii, she said, "You can blindfold me, and I can go by the smell. There's this scent in the air." It was the first place in the United States she landed after she was offered a Hollywood contract. "I thought, 'Whoa! This is America? This is great!' Then I found out you have to go another few hours to get to Los Angeles. And I said, 'Well, I want to come back here!' "
COURTESY SUNSHINE PRODUCTIONS
Nancy Kwan stars with Curt Lowens in a new independent film, "Ray of Sunshine."