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Nancy Kwan: The real 'Suzie Wong'

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Talk Asia: Nancy Kwan
  • Actress Nancy Kwan played lead role in 1960 film 'The World of Suzie Wong'
  • It was her first role and launched a career in Hollywood
  • Was friends with Bruce Lee and starred in film opposite Dean Martin
  • Hong Kong
  • China
  • Hollywood

(CNN) -- Nancy Kwan is the actress who immortalized "The World of Suzie Wong'" in the 1960 film.

That fictionalized account of Hong Kong's red-light district helped create the cultural stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of gold, but for Kwan it launched a career in Hollywood.

"I'm kind of glad the film held up, and Hong Kong looks great ... And the film too, I think it's very enduring for me. It was my first film," she told CNN.

Born to a Chinese father and British mother, Kwan grew up in Hong Kong. Her parents separated while she was a young child, and it was her father who smuggled the young Nancy and her brother out of Hong Kong in a wicker basket when Japanese troops occupied the former-British territory in the Second World War.

Moving back to Hong Kong after the war, she landed the role of Suzie Wong after being asked to screen test for the film by the movie's director while she was watching auditions.

The role propelled Kwan to international stardom and she had parts in musicals and was able to work alongside Hollywood great William Holden and crooner Dean Martin. She also formed a friendship with Bruce Lee.

"I did a film with Dean Martin, and Bruce was the stunt coordinator. We had some fight scenes and he taught us," she told CNN.

Kwan's own life was documented in "To Whom it May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey" and it's now been fifty years since she made the film that changed her life.

"I don't know how my life would have turned out if I didn't do "Suzie Wong." But I just know that that was my choice, that was what I wanted to do, and that was my journey," she said.