Nancy Kwan was just 18, studying dance with England's Royal Ballet School, when she was spotted by producer Ray Stark, who tested her and gave her the starring role of a free-spirited Hong Kong prostitute who captivates artist William Holden in "The World of Susie Wong" (1960). She followed it the next year with the hit musical "Flower Drum Song" and became one of Hollywood's most visible Asian actresses.
"Both roles were very bold," Wong recalls today. "I've never really played a demure little Asian."
The Chinese-English Kwan spent the '60s commuting between film roles in America and Europe, but faded from view in the West when she returned to her native Hong Kong in 1972 to be with her critically ill father.
Then divorced from an Austrian hotelier, with a young son, Kwan intended to stay a year--but wound up staying a decade. As managing director of her own production company, she produced and directed dozens of commercials for the Southeast Asia market. She also acted in a spate of films made for Southeast Asian audiences, including a 1977 movie, "Fear," that introduced her to filmmaker Norbert Meisel, the man she now calls "my other half."
She returned to the States in 1979 so that her teen-age son, Bernie Pock, could complete his education here. (A martial-arts master who speaks fluent Chinese, he's now a stunt coordinator and actor.)
Since returning, Kwan's appeared on numerous TV series and co-starred in the NBC miniseries "Noble House" and the recent CBS TV movie "Miracle Landing." She's politically active as the spokeswoman for the Asian American Voters Coalition, and touts a beauty product, Oriental Pearl Cream, in TV spots.
She's also about to get back into the movies--this time as a producer as well as actress.
The project, "Endless Voyage," set during the fall of Saigon, is an interracial love story about an American woman who's been separated from her Vietnamese husband. Kwan co-stars as the United Nations delegate who attempts to reunite them.
Kwan and writer/director Charles Wallace have already scouted locations in Thailand, and have secured government permission to film in Vietnam after a visit to Hanoi. Budgeted at $5 million-$6 million for Phoenix International Prods., "Endless Voyage" may be the first American movie to shoot in Vietnam since the war's end.
"I hope that our filming there will be another bridge to peace," says Kwan.
Over the years, she's seen many changes regarding Hollywood's treatment of Asian performers. "When I first came here, it seemed I was the only Asian actress. When there weren't Asian roles for me, they cast me as an American Indian. I also played French and Italian! That wouldn't happen today--and I'm glad. Hollywood is more sensitive."
But there's still progress to be made, Kwan adds.
"There are now many, many Asian actresses--and not many roles."