Interview with Actress & Philanthropist Nancy Kwan

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Nancy Kwan is an acclaimed actress, producer, and philanthropist.

Over the years, she was recognized as a role model to encourage Asian Americans.

Born in Hong Kong and growing up in Kowloon Tong, Nancy Kwan Ka-shen is a Chinese-American actress, philanthropist, and former dancer who played a pivotal role in the acceptance of actors of Asian ancestry in major Hollywood film roles. She pursued her dream of becoming a ballet dancer by attending the Royal Ballet School in London where she studied and performed for four years. Upon graduating from high school, she sojourned in France, Italy, and Switzerland on a luxury trip. Afterward, she traveled back to Hong Kong, where she started a ballet school. It was on a summer holiday in Hong Kong that a chance event changed her life. Ray Stark, a Hollywood producer, was in town to do the location scouting for the film adaption of The World of Suzie Wong, set in Hong Kong, which was based on a bestselling novel by Richard Mason and was made into a popular Broadway play. Mr. Stark spotted Nancy among over 500 applicants, and despite the fact that she had no acting experience, summoned her for a screen test. After getting her father’s permission, she signed a contract and moved to Hollywood for extensive coaching and more screen tests. Ray Stark gave her a big publicity push. Glamorous photos of Nancy Kwan appeared in major magazines of the day such as Time, Look, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Modern Screen, and the cover of Life. He threw a big party for her attended by many Hollywood stars. He even arranged for her to meet the Queen of England. The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving weekend in 1960 and was a huge commercial success. In 1961, she starred in Flower Drum Song, a story of romance and clashing cultures set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in a role where she had much space to dance. The film was distinguished for being the “first big-budget American film” with an all-Asian cast. The film became another big box office hit and garnered five Academy Award nominations. After starring in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song, Kwan experienced a rapid rise to celebrity, following these big hits, and she was always in a starring role in a whirlwind of films made in Hollywood, Europe, and the Far East. She also worked in television, starring in popular television series such as Kung Fu and Fantasy Island. Nancy starred opposite William Holden, Dick Van Dyke, Dean Martin, Robert Stack, Jack Lord, Donald Pleasence, Leslie Neilson, Omar Sharif,  David Carridine, Pierce Brosnan, etc. When not busy acting she did volunteer work for homeless children and became a spokesperson for the Asian-American Voters Coalition. Her work with the Coalition earned her a meeting with the President at the White House.

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From a Hong Kong dancer, you ended up in an acting career in Hollywood. How did you first get into acting? What motivated you to try this path? Did your dance knowledge help you to be more self-confident as an actress?

I was home in Hong Kong for the summer holidays, while studying ballet at The Royal Ballet in England. This was in 1959. I decided to attend an audition to watch my favorite Chinese Actresses audition for the role of Suzie Wong in the film The World of Suzie Wong. Producer Ray Stark approached me and asked if I wanted to do a screen test. I told him I was a ballet dancer, not an actress. He asked me to do a screen test anyway.  To my surprise, I was offered a seven years contract with Ray Stark / Seven Arts. My dance knowledge not only gave me more self-confidence, and discipline for life.

“Whatever you want to do, do it now. There is no such thing as retiring.” – Nancy Kwan

She had known personally Bruce Lee,  “Karate advisor” (action choreographer) for the fight scenes, which has given her stunt fight training on the film The Wrecking Crew. In this movie, she fought the character played by Sharon Tate by throwing a flying kick. Her martial arts move was based on her dance foundation

Who influenced you as a person and as an actress? What do you enjoy the most about acting?

I have been in the Entertainment Industry for many years. After all these years I am still learning from my fellow actors. 

“The World of Suzie Wong” was your first film, and also blazed the trail for Asians to the business. Can you tell us more about this period? What did it mean for you?

The World of Suzie Wong was my first film, and because the film was a box office success, I was offered my second film, Flower Drum Song, giving me the opportunity to use my dancing skills. Flower Drum Song was the first film produced by a major studio, with an all-Asian cast. Blazing the trail for Asians in the business.

Shortly afterwards the Japanese troops invaded the city of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, Nancy and her  brother, hidden and carried in a wicker basket, fled with their father and house servants. They hid out in western China until the war was over, then they returned to Hong Kong.

In 1963, Nancy Kwan’s long haiThe World of Suzie Wong received three nominations at the 1960 Golden Globes, including ‘Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama’ and ‘New Star Of The Year – Actress’, for which Nancy won the latter award. The film was also nominated for Best Score

What were the biggest challenges during your beginning Have you faced some unexpected moments?

We face challenges every day. That’s part of our growing process. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes.

What limits of life did acting help you overcome and what did it help you strengthen? What is the biggest lesson you have learned from it?

I am still learning from life every day.

Nancy Kwan is of mixed heritage. Her Chinese father, Kwan Wing Hong, was a successful Cambridge-educated architect; her English/Scottish mother Marquita Scott was a Conover fashion model.

How do you feel when watching your acting work?

Once I finish a film, I seldom watch my work.

What are your thoughts on the current state of Asian representation in Hollywood? How much has changed in the last few years compared to when you started?

When I started in the business, there were hardly any Asian actors working in films. I am happy to say I see many more talented young Asian actors working today.

“People always criticize. If they want to, they will find something to criticize. Hey, we all criticize. You like a film or you don’t. It’s up to you. You can’t stop that anyway. That’s part of human nature” – Nancy Kwan

Nancy Kwan was promoted as the “Chinese Bardot”, but she was also blessed with the gamine charm of a young Audrey Hepburn

Can you share with us a meaningful story related to a movie or from the backstage that you have carried in your heart over the years?

I am often asked which is my favorite film. I don’t have a favorite film. But I do remember special moments in the films I‘ve made.

Nancy Kwan was on the October 1960 cover of Life, cementing her status as an eminent sex symbol in the 1960s. The following year she was voted a “Star of Tomorrow”

You are the first Eurasian American actress that has played many roles in Hollywood. You dressed different identities, and with your acting, you deeply investigated women’s souls. What does identity represent for you and what does it mean to be a multicultural person?

I come from two cultures, my father was Chinese and my mother was English, and I always felt it gave me a better understanding of human nature.

“She was everything that I imagined her to be when I was a young girl growing up, idolizing her, she’s elegant, and beautiful, and just incredibly generous.” – Ming-Na Wen 

Nancy Kwan became the first Chinese actress to achieve fame in Western cinema, and has made dozens of films from the sixties to today.

How do you feel about cinema nowadays? From your point of view, which are the main opportunities and advantages? Do you think cinema is helping Asian actors and people behind the camera? Are things slowly changing, or is there still much to do?

There is a vast improvement of Asians working in the Entertainment industry today. I would like to see more Asian Actors in substantial roles. 

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kwan,
A special thanks to Rochelle Srigley & Asian Hall of Fame

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