Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong is the archetypical postwar Asian-mystique story. Most critiques of the work and especially the film adaptation focus on its problematic depiction of the titular Wong. Often overlooked, however, is the book’s use of an exoticized female characters to set up a specifically expat wish-fulfillment fantasy, rather than a generic male one. Consider:
- The first-person hero, Robert Lomax, was barely scraping by back in England, but after moving to Malaysia he quickly saved enough money to kick-start a hip new career: painter. Now he’s respected as an artist by both the locals and the art world back home. The problem was England all along! That’s the kind of validation that a 9-to-5 gig at the Far East branch of Fotherington Industrial Concerns Inc. simply can’t provide.
- Lomax lives in the “real” Hong Kong. He stayed in the white-person part of town just long enough to confirm its residents’ lack of appreciation for the island, then moved into a cheap hotel on the waterfront with an unapologetically Cantonese name (the Nam Kok). The staff and regulars there warmly accepted him on the spot, and he easily settled into a routine of chatting with local color and snacking on exotic treats bought fresh in the market.
- Lomax has both wisdom and perspective. He’s always right and always cool — James Bond without the assassins. Suzie accuses him of crazy nonsense: he explains with tolerant good humor why she is wrong. Jealous expats lash out at him: He defends himself with quiet dignity, feeling more sympathy than anger. A man tries to buy his wife for the night: Lomax expresses his anger in devastating witticisms. On the rare occasions when Lomax does make a mistake, it’s only because a woman has worked unusually hard to deceive him.
On its own, none of this is surprising. Rare is the author who would write a first-person narrative based loosely on their personal adventures in which the protagonist is an asshole without any friends. But consider the other foreigners Lomax runs into, neatly classifiable into three types:
- Sailors – Although they, too, visit the dark underbelly that Lomax calls home, they don’t belong there the way that he does. Their transient nature only underlines Lomax’s firmly ensconced status.
- Fellow Male Expats – These are either oblivious government bureaucrats with no private lives or timid half-tourists who envy Lomax’s insider status. A couple try to usurp him through crude application of wealth or power, but inevitably fail. Unlike Lomax, they just aren’t street.
- White Women – They’re catty! They’re neurotic! They’re totally harshing the Hong Kong buzz! The one exception is Lomax’s nurse friend Kay, who ends up one of the most intriguing characters in the book simply because she isn’t explicitly drawn as a one-dimensional shrew. (This is because the story requires that she do Lomax a favor later. After this, she quietly vanishes.)
Lomax is alone among foreigners in that he likes Hong Kong and it likes him back. His casual superiority over the sailors also symbolizes his status as a new man, a postwar man, no longer a slave to the I-will-always-love-you-but-I-must-return-to-my-true-home Sayonara narrative.
Suzie Wong wasn’t the first English-language fantasy about a white man being accepted and loved by an exotic foreign land — Imperial British writing on India, for example, is a can of worms I am carefully leaving closed here — but it was influential in modernizing the idea, bringing it closer to reality. To be hip like Tarzan, you had to be marooned in Africa and spend your formative years working out in the jungle, but to be hip like Lomax, you just had to head east and loaf in a seedy bar with good-natured hookers. That’s progress.