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Nostalgic Hong Kong

asuyin1

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.

asuzie1

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.

asuzie4

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 It’s an image that’s at least 40 years out of date.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.

7 Responses

  1. While the The World of Suzie Wong film is set in Wanchai, the actually filming of the scenes outside of the “Nam Kok’ hotel was done at the corner of Hollywood Road, Ladder Street, and Square Street in Sheung Wan. The gwulo.com “Old Hong Kong” website has good before/after comparison shots from the movie and from today. Watch for the scene where Lomax drops a coin from his balcony to a young child below playing music (he is waiting for Suzie to change into her “empress” costume) — you can see the corner of the Man Mo Temple ! Yue Po Chai Antique store now sits where the fictional “Nam Kok” was located. You also get a good view of this corner when Kay drives Lomax back to his hotel room, including a glimpse of the street sign at the corner.

    As I wrote here several years ago, the pavilion from Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing can still be peeked at through the trees at 41 Conduit Road, but alas this is now ‘Reality Gardens’ residential estate, so you will need to know someone there to get closer !

    Hong Kong – – always wonderful, both then and now.

    • No wonder I noticed in the movie stills that William Holden and Nancy Kwan were having a conversation on one of the cobble-stone streets near Sheung Wan. But that world of Suzie Wong no longer exists. Little cafes, galleries and boutiques pop up on Ladder street, Tai Ping Shan Street, and Gough Street—which I frequent when I’m in town. Man Mo Temple is probably one of the few remaining sights.

      Next time I’ll look for Yue Po Chai Antique store and 41 Conduit Road.

      Eric, do you live in Hong Kong?

      • No, I live in SF, but I visit frequently — and once spent 3 months there walking and exploring all of HK, KLN, and NT, including searching out the locations of all of my favorite movies and books !

        And I do agree that much of old HK in my favorite neighborhoods — Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun, Shek Tong Tsui, etc, has changed beyond recognition. I love to go out very late at night and walk the streets, narrow lanes, and staircases in those areas and try to imagine it as it was back then. It is a bit like being the Anita Mui character Fleur from ‘Rouge’ — coming back as a ghost to a current day HK, searching, wandering, and wondering about all that once was, now changed, and forever lost.

    • My family lives on the Kowloon side, but I spend a lot of time in Central and Sheung Wan, where I can still find little coffee shops, read a book over coffee. Sai Ying Poon has changed so much and the subway will be open next year. My grandparents used to have a tea shop on Queen’s Road West. I can only search memory as to where exactly it was. I’m sure the building it was in had long been torn down and re-developed. On my last trip I visited Wing Lee Street just above Hollywood Road—where the preservation of a row of pre-WW buildings triggered controversy. I’ll be going again this coming January and I plan to take long walks starting at Po Hing Fong.

      • Be sure to watch (in case you haven’t) “Echoes of the Rainbow”, Alex Law and Mabel Cheung’s movie with Simon Yam and Sandra Ng. It had much to do with raising HKers feelings about “collective memory” and the preservation of Wing Lee Street.

        When I spent 3 months doing a lot of exploring in these old neighborhoods awhile back, I was fortunate enough to ‘discover’ the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Center, which is located in the old colonial barracks buildings in Kowloon Park. They write this about their mission: “We strive to protect and hand on to our future generations the cultural heritage which is spanerse, sustainable, accessible and makes a direct contribution to our quality of life”. During my visit in 2011, like magic their presentation on view was one detailing memorable HK film locations. So wonderful ! And Matthew, the other thing you should know — they have their own small reference library there as well !

  2. […] Matthew of A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook writes: 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. […]

  3. Hi Matthew, I came across your post when searching for images of old HK. I am rebinding a tatty first of “World of Suzie Wong” and need some end papers in keeping. The picture you showed of the street scene outside the Nam Kok would be perfect if it could be in higher resolution.
    I visited Hong Kong as a child on a family trip from Singapore in about 1961. We kids were hungry so parents took us into a ‘café’ – bit dimly lit and plenty of sailors dancing with Chinese girls gave the game away but the omelette was fine. I read the book in about ’62 and recently bought the film – storyline not so good but the fascination is the background shots of old Hong Kong even if the credits say made in Boreham Wood, England.
    Both Singapore and Hong Kong were dirty, noisy and smelly with endless new sights for a 60’s schoolboy – wonderful -. I have been back to Singapore a few times since but it’s totally changed and for me has lost all its magic.
    So do you have a high resolution pic please or was this a still taken from the film? Thanks, David

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