Romance

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Mason, Richard. (1957). The World of Suzie Wong. London: Fontana/Collins, Rpt. New York: Pegasus, 1994.

Bored with his life as an estate agent in post-World War Two England, Robert Lomax went to work on a Malayan rubber plantation. Because sex with local women was prohibited, Robert’s sublimation of desire took the form of painting them. Arriving in Hong Kong, he becomes impatient with the constraints of an expatriate society that consciously separates itself from the local population. The colonial divide is debilitating for his art in which he tries to express his sympathy for the local subjects he paints.

Leaving the expatriate enclaves in the best areas of colonial Hong Kong, Lomax moves into the Nam Kok Hotel in Wanchai, a district where the colony’s poor jostles with the prostitutes plying their trade in the bars. The novel represents Lomax as living a life in bohemia, painting and living among locals whom he transforms into the subjects of his art. He meets and falls in love with a bar girl, Suzie Wong. The reader sees Suzie mostly through Lomax’s eyes, and in many ways, his perspectives are those of an orientalist male fascinated by the female embodiment of his desires. Typical of romance, the two survives various misunderstandings and problems in their relationship, and end up marrying each other.

The novel develops some subtlety in two ways: first, Lomax’s shifts between Suzie as woman and as the subject of his art, and his self-conscious musings about the similarities and differences between the two. Second, the narrative also attempts to make Suzie much more than just a cipher of Lomax’s fantasy. She confronts, in one direction, the racist prejudice of Lomax’s male compatriots, some of whom are her former clients and exploiters. In another direction, she is shown as the devoted mother who feels the need to keep her son a secret. Shoring up her pathos with vignettes of poverty and destitution in the streets of mid-twentieth century Wanchai, this novel of bohemia and orientalist romance also reveals a socially critical aspiration. These qualities give the novel more texture than its better-known Hollywood film adaptation. (EH)

 
 
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