For this painting I looked at reference photos from Wanchai’s brothel district in the early 20th century. Women worked behind traditional wooden doors like this one. Each door had a big number on it, so they were called “Big Number Brothels”. Symbols painted on the lanterns were for good luck; you can see what looks like the number “8” on two of them.
Ten years before I moved to Hong Kong I dreamt I lived there. I was standing on a promenade facing a smoggy maritime landscape of rolling islands and slapping sea. It was the ferry pier to my island home. I’d never particularly thought about Hong Kong before. But I had heard about Suzie Wong: the bad girl with a golden heart who’d seduced a lonely artist in a seedy Hong Kong hotel. I’d fondled polyester imitations of the Suzie Wong dress in NYC’s Canal Street. It’s a western fantasy ripe for ridicule by the likes of Margaret Cho and the ladies over at Disgrasian.com.
The story was so popular that it was turned into a film, and the transformations began: an artist changed from British to American for an American audience. The plot simplified. Suzie was played by Nancy Kwan – not a local girl, but a London ballet dancer with an English mother and Chinese father. Today the fantasy lives on, reincarnated worldwide: there’s a Suzie Wong girlie bar in Singapore with pole-dancers from the Philippines, others in Phuket and Beijing and Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy, an events service and bar in New York, even a restaurant in London called Suzie Wong’s.
Plenty of sailors and tourists still come to Hong Kong today and visit girlie bars in Wanchai, the notorious setting for the film. But you won’t find women from Hong Kong working there anymore. You’re more likely to hear accents from Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Hong Kong women have higher levels of education and live longer than American women these days. The most formidable businesswomen I’ve ever met have Hong Kong roots. They’ve moved on up from the Suzie Wong days. Eventually, maybe our western attitudes will too.