Nancy Kwan, one of the first Asian actresses to star in Hollywood films, accomplished enough to make most rife with arrogance. Best known for “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960) and “Flower Drum Song” (1961), the Hong Kong-born movie star broke ground taking on leading roles that had not previously gone to a minority. Since then she’s acted in more than 50 films with costars like William Holden, Dick Van Dyke, Adam West, and Dean Martin. Her achievements include a Golden Globe Award and a Chinatown Lifetime Achievement Award. On Sunday she will be honored for 50 years of making movies with a benefit and screening of two films at the AMC Monterey Park.
So when I learned I would be interviewing Kwan, I prepared myself for a diva. But Kwan is nothing of the sort. Pleasant and humble, the 72-year-old spoke with the Alhambra Source about what brought her back to Hong Kong as an adult, her connection to Alhambra and Monterey Park, and being a movie star of color.
Congratulations on being honored by the Chinese American Museum on Sunday. How does it feel?
I feel honored to be honored by them. I think it’s a wonderful place to go to; I love that museum. I love the location. You can spend a whole day down there.
The screening is taking place in Monterey Park. Do you live in Monterey Park?
No, I live in the San Fernando Valley.
Do you have any special ties to the San Gabriel Valley?
Well, besides many Asians living there? [Laughs.] Actually, many years ago, we had a fundraiser for the first library that went up in Monterey Park. I’ve been going down there for years. That’s one of my good memories, being able to do something for Monterey Park and for the Asian community down there.
We have a very big Asian community in Alhambra, too.
Great restaurants, also.
You were born in Hong Kong, but then went to school in England. Then you returned to Hong Kong in 1970 and lived there for nearly 10 years. Why did you decide to move back?
My father was ill in the early 70s – at the time I was commuting between Hong Kong, England, and Los Angeles – and I went back to Hong Kong. I took my son with me because of school. So then I stayed in Hong Kong. I think I was there 7 or 8 years. That’s where I started my own film company.
What made you decide to stay that long and start a film company in Hong Kong, rather than here in Hollywood?
At that time my father was sick, so I went back and I was going to stay a while and see what happened. But then he passed away within a year, and someone approached me and said, “Would you like to form a company with me?” I thought it was a good opportunity to learn something about the other side of the camera. All my life I’d never really spent time in South East Asia, even though I’d visited – I used to visit my parents all the time. But it’s not like spending time. So I thought, “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”
You’ve broken a lot of barriers for Asian actors in the West. What were some of the stereotypes you confronted in your career and how did you deal with them?
Well, I just had to be there in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, the Asian actors working before me didn’t get the opportunity. Today they are still lacking in substantial roles for Asians, I think. These roles have not been written yet, and hopefully that will happen as the awareness grows and more Asians settle in this country. I’m just glad I can hopefully inspire young actors. It is a very tough profession, but if this is what you want to do and you have a passion, especially minorities, not only Asians but all minorities, you should at least give it a chance.
Nancy Kwan will be honored this Sunday, May 22, at the AMC Monterey Park, with a screening of her first film, “The World of Suzie Wong," as well as a documentary based on her life, "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey.” A banquet will be held after the screenings at Harbor Seafood Restaurant.
Tickets are $100 and available by calling (626) 300-0828.
Interview was edited and condensed.