Richard Mason •
The World of Suzie Wong •
You might expect this 1957 book to rankle with present-day sensibilities. But here’s the kicker: It’s remarkably good writing—clear, swift, precise—and tells a touching love story, with characterizations that are simply masterful.
While working on a Malay rubber plantation, the narrator takes up sketching. “It was as if, by accident, I had pulled open a drawer that I had always thought to be empty, and found it to contain a treasure.” Encouraged by his first sales of paintings, Robert sets off for Hong Kong—where, in defiance of British colonial mores, he chooses to live among the lowest strata of society. And if you’ve ever felt at sea in an unfamiliar culture, you immediately sympathize with Robert’s naively trying to engage a room by the month in an establishment where an hour is the normal tenancy. How was he to know that the Nam Kok was a house of ill repute?
The ladies of the evening, once they learn he’s not there for their services, adopt him as a sort of surrogate brother, teasing him, confiding in him, borrowing his arm when they want to enter the bar. And when Robert and Suzie finally consummate their relationship, the floor boy who brings their morning tea is vastly relieved to find that Robert is a man after all.
In another scene, Robert struggles with the pronunciation divide between East and West, attempting different versions of a famous name to make it comprehensible to Suzie. Once she understands who he means, her reaction is unforgettable. “One-shoe Chee-Chee? He is England’s Number One Top Man—only he is finished now. He always smokes a big fat cigar. And he is a big fat man with a big white face.”
You’ll never think of Winston Churchill the same way again.