Nancy Kwan and the importance of ‘representation matters’

nancykwan_suziewong.jpgThe new film, Crazy Rich Asians, will open this Wednesday in theaters. This isn’t just another summer romantic comedy. This will be the first film in 25 years to center on an Asian-American story featuring an all Asian-American cast. Insert the shock face emoji because this is a rather sad statistic. The film is based on the best selling book written by Kevin Kwan. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear from his distant cousin at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the iconic actress Nancy Kwan.

Nancy Kwan is the first Chinese actress to achieve mainstream Hollywood stardom. Her success happened by a happy accident when she landed the role of Suzie Wong in the film, The World of Suzie Wong in 1960. (more on the crazy turn of events later). I was so excited to hear that she was attending the festival that I knew I just had to go. Kwan has an unmistakable presence onscreen. She is strikingly beautiful but also playful and tender. Her characters always exuded confidence and charisma.

When I was waiting for her discussion to begin, an Asian woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation. She was with her daughter and told me how she traveled from Pittsburgh just to see Nancy Kwan after hearing she’d be in Hollywood. She told me she was an extra in a film of Kwan’s many years ago and how excited all of the other extras were to see her during its production. She described Nancy Kwan as “her Elvis,” and elaborated by saying how Nancy Kwan represented women like her and it was important for her to see herself onscreen. It’s here that I must stress that representation onscreen isn’t just a catchphrase or a hashtag on social media. It opens our eyes to all that the world around us has to offer and it helps us connect with our own selves in the process. When Kwan walked onto the stage, I’ll never forget glancing over to the woman who had tears in her eyes and a smile beaming from ear to ear. That’s the power of representation.

The World of Suzie Wong was Kwan’s big break. She was just 20-years-old when she was discovered by producer Ray Stark. The  film was already in pre-production with French-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen in the title role, a role she originated in the Broadway production. She and director Jean Negulesco were fired from the film and after Kwan and Richard Quine were hired to replace the two, the entire crew had to go back to Hong Kong to re-film scenes.

In conversation with historian Donald Bogle at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Kwan was a delight. She shared stories about her career, the people she worked with and gratitude for her opportunities yet it was also a bit poignant because Hollywood only let her go so far. Something William Holden told her during the making of The World of Suzie Wong stuck with her all these years, “You can do a big film and be very successful but in order to sustain a career, you have to have roles written for you.” Unfortunately, Nancy Kwan didn’t have as many as she had hoped but that doesn’t stop her from cementing her status as a glass ceiling breaker among Asians in Hollywood.

Despite that, she remains optimistic for the future of Asian representation in film and also stated that she was excited for the release of Crazy Rich Asians in an interview with NBC. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for a cameo, she is not a part of the film.

To hear the entire conversation from the festival, you can listen here thanks to Julia over at Cinema Crossroads.

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