Nancy Kwan

Born May 19, 1939
Hong Kong

Nancy “Ka Shen” Kwan (traditional Chinese; born May 19, 1939) is a Hong Kong-born American actress, who played a pivotal role in the acceptance of actors of Asian ancestry in major Hollywood film roles.

Born in Hong Kong on May 19, 1939, and growing up in Kowloon Tong, she is the daughter of Kwan Wing Hong, a Cantonese architect, and Marquita Scott, a Caucasian. model of English and Scottish ancestry. The son of a Chinese lawyer, Kwan Wing Hong attended Cambridge University and became an eminent architect in Hong Kong. After he met Marquita Scott in London, the two married and moved to Hong Kong. In that era, society held a dim view of marriage between different races. Kwan has an older brother, Ka Keung.

In fear of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong during World War II, Wing Hong, in the guise of a coolie, escaped from Hong Kong to North China in Christmas 1941 with his two children, whom he hid in wicker baskets. Kwan and her brother were transported by servants, evading Japanese sentries. They remained in exile in Western China for five years until the war ended, after which they returned to Hong Kong and lived in a spacious, contemporary home her father designed. Marquita Scott escaped to England and never rejoined the family. Kwan’s parents divorced when she was two years old. Her mother later moved to New York and married an American. Remaining in Hong Kong with the children, her father married a Chinese woman, whom Kwan called “Mother”. Her father and her step-mother gave her, in addition to her brother, five half-brothers and half-sisters. Five of Kwan’s siblings became lawyers.

Except during World War II, Kwan had a comfortable early life. Cared for by a woman who looks after children, Kwan owned a pony and passed the summer in resorts in Borneo, Macao, and Japan. An affluent man, her father owned a several-acre hilltop property in Kowloon. In her youth, she was called “Ka Shen”.She wrote in 1960 that as an eight-year-old, her fortune-teller “predicted travel, fame, and fortune for me”. The Associated Press called the fortune-teller “either a gifted or lucky” one.

She attended the Catholic Maryknoll Convent School until she was 13 years old, after which she traveled to Kingsmoore, an English boarding school that her brother, Ka Keung, was then attending. Her brother studied to become an architect, and she studied to become a dancer. Her four years of studying at the school earned her the General Certificate of Secondary Education.

Her introduction to tai chi sparked a desire to learn ballet. When Kwan was 18, she pursued her dream of becoming of a ballet dancer by attending Royal Ballet School in London. She studied performing arts subjects such as stage make-up, and danced every day for four hours. Her studies at the Royal Ballet School ran concurrently with her high-school studies. Because Kwan’s high school had deep connections with nearby theater groups, Kwan was able to perform small parts in several of their productions. Upon graduating from high school, she sojourned in France, Italy, and Switzerland on a luxury trip. Afterwards, she traveled back to Hong Kong, where she started a ballet school.

The World of Suzie Wong was a “box-office sensation”. Critics lavished praise on Kwan for her performance. She was given the nickname “Chinese Bardot” for her unforgettable dance performance. Kwan and two other actresses, Ina Balin and Hayley Mills, were awarded the Golden Globe for the “Most Promising Newcomer–Female” in 1960. The following year, she was voted a “Star of Tomorrow”. Scholar Jennifer Leah Chan of New York University wrote that Suzie provided an Asian actress—Kwan—with the most significant Hollywood role since actress Anna May Wong’s success in the 1920s. Designed by London hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, Kwan’s bob cut in the film drew widespread media attention for the “severe geometry of her new hairstyle”. Sassoon’s signature cut of Kwan’s hair was nicknamed “the Kwan cut”, “the Kwan bob”, or was plainly known as “the Kwan”; photographs of Kwan’s new hairstyle appeared in both the American and British editions of Vogue.

In 1987, Nancy Kwan co-owned the dim sum restaurant Joss. Kwan, producer Ray Stark, and restaurateur and Hong Kong film director Cecile Tang financed the restaurant, located on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.

wan wrote an introduction for the 2008 book For Goodness Sake: A Novel of Afterlife of Suzie Wong written by American author James Clapp using the nom de plume Sebastian Gerard. Clapp became acquainted with Kwan through director Brian Jamieson, who was filming a documentary about Kwan’s life.

She serves as a spokeswoman for the Asian American Voters Coalition, a Pan-Asian political group established in 1986 to aid Asian actors.

In her performing arts career, Kwan appeared in two television series and over 50 films. The Straits Times reported in March 2011 that Kwan continues to serve as a film screenwriter and executive.

Kwan currently resides in Los Angeles and has family members in Hong Kong. Once every few years, she travels to the island.

Selected filmography

The World of Suzie Wong (1960), with William Holden
Flower Drum Song (1961)
The Main Attraction (1962)
Tamahine (1963)
The Wild Affair (1964), with Terry-Thomas
Honeymoon Hotel (1964), with Robert Morse
Fate Is the Hunter (1964)
Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966), with Dick Van Dyke
Drop Dead Darling (1966)
The Peking Medallion (1967)
Nobody’s Perfect (1968)
Hawaii Five-O (pilot episode) (1968)
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969)
The Wrecking Crew (1969), with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer
The McMasters (1970)
Wonder Women (1973)
That Lady from Peking (1975)
Night Creature (1978)
Angkor: Cambodia Express (1982)
Walking The Edge (1983)
Noble House (1988)
Miracle Landing (1990) (TV)
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
The Golden Girls (1995)
Hollywood Chinese (2007)
To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey (2010)[67