Old Hollywood Spotlight: Nancy Kwan

Image credit: IMDb

Chinese actors were not common in Hollywood like other nationalities, but slowly they were welcomed after Anna May Wong created a path for fellow Asians. Western cinema began embracing Asian actors because of their almond-shaped eyes, black hair, and porcelain skin as well as for their abilities to do martial arts and look authentic while wearing their cultural silks and robes.

Nancy Kwan was one of the few Asian actors who was welcomed in Hollywood during the 20th century. I have written about Anna May Wong in a previous Old Hollywood Spotlight (read it here), and both she and Kwan have many similarities in terms of their acting career in an industry dominated by whites.

Nancy “Ka Shen” Kwan was born on May 19, 1939, in Hong Kong, and she is of mixed heritage. Her father was Chinese, and her mother was British and Scottish. They met in England, got married, and moved to Hong Kong, but their marriage did not last. Her parents divorced when Kwan was only two years old.

Then war broke out in the Pacific, and Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. Kwan escaped with her brother and father, and they lived in Western China until the war was over. When they moved back to Hong Kong, they were living in a house on a hill designed by her architect father. She was enrolled in a Catholic school, and she had a nontraditional childhood; she was a tomboy who enjoyed sports, and she protested against a British Club that did not accept Chinese members. Kwan learned horseback riding and Tai Chi (a calm form of martial arts). Her father remarried, and she soon had five new siblings.

Although she is recognized for her acting credits, Nancy Kwan was not interested in the profession. Instead she wanted to be a ballerina, attending a ballet school in Manchester, England. She studied and performed in London’s Royal Ballet for four years, and she received her teaching certificate. 

When she was only 18, she was spotted by Hollywood producer Ray Stark, who was looking for a Chinese actress to play the role of Suzie Wong in The Life of Suzie Wong. Kwan had no acting experience, but that didn’t stop Stark from giving her a screen test. She was nervous and thought she’d failed, but Stark was fond of her Eurasian beauty, and he saw potential in her. After getting permission from her father, Kwan got a contract and went to Hollywood to receive acting lessons and complete further screen tests.

Stark had already signed William Holden as the leading male for the film, and the debate for the female protagonist was between Kwan and France Nuyen — a Vietnamese-French actress who had played Suzie Wong in the theater production of the story. Although Holden preferred Kwan for the leading part in the film, Nuyen was chosen.

Nancy Kwan and William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong (1960).

In a 1960 TV episode of What’s My Line?, Kwan said she was an understudy in Toronto to play the character on stage until she got a call from producer Stark. He told her she had to go to England immediately because Nuyen was very ill. Kwan did more screen tests for the movie until she got the part to play Suzie Wong — the prostitute who meets a white man and becomes a model for his art, and the two fall in love. The story of interracial romance was taken to the Hollywood screen, and the film premiered at the Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving weekend in 1960. It was a huge success, and critics praised Kwan’s acting performance as Suzie Wong; even her traditional father approved. The film was distributed to Europe, South America, and Asia, making Kwan an international star. That same year she received a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year as an actress for her work in The World of Suzie Wong (1960).

The star’s second film was Flower Drum Song (1961), an adaptation from the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical. Her advantage to getting the role was her appeal and dance experience fit for the romance and culture-clashing story set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Kwan’s success in Hollywood opened the doors for other Asians who wanted to enter the movie industry. “It was the first time that the studio had a mainstream film and an all-Asian cast, which never happened before. I think that really opened the doors for a lot of Asian actors,” Kwan told WeTalk in a recent interview. Since then, Hollywood has slowly — not completely — continued to hire more Asian actors to appear in films and TV shows. “For us Asians it is very difficult because first you don’t get that many roles written for us because this business is still predominately white.”  

Throughout the 1960s, Kwan appeared in many more films and shared the screen with Pat Boone, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Curtin, Sharon Tate, and Dean Martin among others. These scenes were from the films The Main Attraction (1962), Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966), and The Wrecking Crew (1968). She also appeared in American and international magazine covers, among them LIFE, Today, Star Weekly, EPOCA, Cinelândia, and Cinéma 61.

Kwan also did TV appearances for much of the late ’60s and into the 1970s, such as Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu, and Fantasy Island. Besides working for other directors, Kwan created her own production company titled Nancy Kwan Films in the ’70s, and she produced and directed several commercials for the Asian market. In addition, Kwan acted in Southeast Asian films like Fear (1977), which introduced her to filmmaker Norbert Meisel, who became her husband in 1976.

In Nancy Kwan’s personal life, she had been married two times prior to her marriage to Meisel. Her first marriage was in 1962 to Peter Pock, and they had son Bernhard Pock. Unfortunately, they divorced in 1968, and in 1970 she married writer and producer David Giler.

To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey

Besides being an acclaimed actress, producer, and mother, Nancy Kwan has been involved with charity, and she became a spokesperson for the Asian American Voters Coalition. “I try to encourage Asian Americans to go into mainstream politics, because they can make a difference and they should,” Kwan told WeTalk. “It’s very important that they get a voice and get heard.”

A few years ago she did a documentary about her life titled To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey (2010).  Nancy Kwan continues to act in TV shows and movies and has even provided her voice for several audio books. Her work as an actress, producer, and philanthropist has become recognized over the past few years, and she continues to serve as a role model for others. She doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

“Whatever you want to do, do it now.
There is no such thing as retiring.” –Nancy Kwan

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