Despite the difference in story outlines and backgrounds of the characters, The World of Suzie Wong and A Many-Splendored Thing have a lot in common. Both novels are set in Hong Kong during an era before I was born. Born heroines are somewhat social outcasts. Suzie Wong is a prostitute who longs for a husband and family. Dr. Han Suyin (the author herself) is an Eurasian doctor who encounters prejudice from her family and from Hong Kong society. Most important of all and what fascinates me the most is the period details the books paint.
Both novels, and their movie adaptations (both starring William Holden), show me the Hong Kong that no longer exists. A Many-Splendored Thing predated The World of Suzie Wong by about half a decade. As the opening credits roll, Love is A Many-Splendored Thing delivers an aerial view of Hong Kong Harbor. The camera starts above Green Island, then flies east along the harbor-front towards Central. The hospital scene was filmed at the Fairview which was situated at 41 Conduit Road. The Fairview was built by the wealthy Mok family in 1911. It was a grand palatial mansion built with Italian marble which overlooked the harbor and was the site of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club after WWII.
The east of the island was the first to take up the population pressures of the nascent colonial capital of Victoria, and until the late 1970s had a low rent reputation. Some of that survives in the haggard pole-dancing clubs and tattoo parlors of Wan Chai, the quarter where Richard Mason wrote The World Of Suzie Wong, and where generations of sailors have nursed hangovers. But today, you’re far more likely to run into Starbucks, serviced apartments and highly expensive office space. The night races at Happy Valley are where you’ll see Hong Kongers at their most fevered, while in Causeway Bay is the neon of restaurants and boutiques. Further out, there are worthy surprises among the unlovely warehouses and office blocks of Quarry Bay and Chai Wan–live jazz, microbreweries and dance clubs.
Many first-time visitors to Hong Kong have one image of Wan Chai fixed firmly in their heads—that of the Luk Kwok Hotel with its tarts-with-hearts and rickshaw-cluttered surrounds from the film of Richard Mason’s novel. It’s an image that’s at least 40 years out of date. The original hotel was knocked down in 1988, and the soaring glass and steel tower that replaced it, bearing the same name, is full of offices and restaurants. Suzie might still survive, but if she does, she has gimlet eyes and a harridan’s scowl.