” And she went on to celebrate this explanation with a lucidity that took my breath away. She had known exactly what she was doing. What was she in reality? A social outcast engaged in a dirty job; a bad girl who could never get married . . . And playing the fantasy role with a stranger, and making him believe in it, she could believe in it herself— ” (Book I, 4.2.53)
The world of Suzie Wong is one of the past—colonial Kong Kong in 1950s, just after World War Two and Mao’s Liberation, when millions of mainland refugees flood into the city looking for opportunities. Suzie Wong is an orphan originally from Shanghai, cheated into being a bar girl by her cousin in Hong Kong. Like many of the girls at the bar, she does not consider herself a prostitute, but a bar mate, a dance partner, who is prepared to extend her favor to bed with a gift of money. But secretly Suzie is ashamed of herself, being conscious of people’s contempt. For a stable, permanent arrangement is only an ideal girls like her can dream.
And even the girls had turned sour on me: I saw the qualities that I had admired in them as being only skin deep, or else mere pretences cynically adopted as usual tools for their trade. The good manners were only a deceptive oriental façade; the kindness, the tenderness, the generosity, were but a veneer that thinly covered insentivity and greed. (Book II, 7.184)
Arriving in Hong Kong from Malaya, Robert Lomax becomes frustrated with an expatriate community that constantly alienates itself from the locals. Deeming conducive to his arts, which expresses ‘local interests and psyche, he moves into Nam Kok, a hotel in Wanchai where the colony’s poor jostles with the prostitutes plying their trade in the bars. There he meets and falls in love with Suzie, a bar-girl who can neither read nor write. But Suzie’s innocent mentality and matter-of-fact attitude charm Lomax all the more. He is as mesmerized by her beauty as intrigued by her checked fate. Seen through Lomax’s eyes, Suzie is much more than just a cipher of his fantasy. Lomax’s perspectives are those of a Caucasian male fascinated by the female embodiment of his desires. But in their interactions, Suzie wants to be an ordinary woman who has a family.
We had created a unity that answered the yearning of loneliness. We had been two imperfect halves that had come together and made a perfect whole; and this merging of selves had no parallel except in the act of making love. (Book II, 5.3.155)
Typical of romance, the two survives various misunderstandings(some of which are not without a touch of humor, thanks to Suzie’s unique blunt, brusque manner) and problems in their relationship, and end up getting married. But the highlight of The World of Suzie Wong is Suzie herself—how she confronts the racist prejudice of Lomax’s male compatriots, some of whom are her former clients and exploiters, including the father of her baby. Pit against the vignettes of poverty and destitution is the story of a woman who wants to make life better for her baby. The book evokes period details of Hong Kong at that period in all senses, and reveals the sexual underground and colonialism’s insidious, exploitative effects under the civilized Western veneer.
318 pp. Pegasus Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]