Nancy Kwan

This post was originally published on the New Beverly Cinema blog on November 1, 2016. It is being republished here with full permission of the New Beverly. For the original post (with different artwork) please see the original post here.

“Life is too short to not have dreams! I have been in the film industry for a long time. Show business is not for sissies, but it’s been a great ride!’

–Nancy Kwan

Nancy Kwan was born Kwan Ka Shen in 1939 in Hong Kong. Her mother, Marquita Scott, was a British fashion model who worked for the Harry Conover Modeling Agency. Her father, Kwan Wing Hong, was from Hong Kong and had a Cambridge degree in architecture. Ka Shen’s parents divorced at an early age, leaving her to be raised by her father. Her early years showed a keen interest in and talent for performance. She was a ballet dancer with the Royal College of London and involved with various theater groups before becoming a Hollywood actress. Ka Shen/Nancy Kwan has established a strong body of work within a multitude of film genres ranging from action to comedy. The discussions on race and representation that she has catalyzed (and begun herself) are important to the Asian community and women in film. Nancy Kwan is a figure of power.

Her career has been quite varied. After her debut in the highly popular The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Quine, 1960), Nancy moved into films like The Main Attraction (Daniel Petrie, 1962) and the remarkable Fate is the Hunter (Ralph Nelson, 1964) with Glenn Ford and Rod Taylor.  Her performances in films like Arrivederci, Baby! (Ken Hughes, 1966) and The Wrecking Crew (Phil Karlson, 1968) platform her fun demeanor as well as her ability to combine a uniquely choreographed physicality with hip and swingin’ characters.

The roles Nancy played in Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song (Henry Koster, 1961) are of critical consequence to the Asian American community both then and now. At the time of release, these films were recognized as being revolutionary in breaking racist barriers in Hollywood and increasing Asian representation in film. In the modern era, Asian American communities have reconsidered this response and found it wanting. There is validity in looking at these films and saying: the archetypes and Hollywoodization of Asian culture and characters is hurtful and harmful.

There is certainly value in modern readings of these films as not being the most positive portrayals of Asian culture or even interracial romance (in the case of Suzie Wong). However, many of these same cultural critics that dislike the roles Kwan was cast in still maintain an affection for, and attachment to, Nancy Kwan. I posit that it is her existence as a leading Asian woman in film that is at least part of that.  The lack of women of color in strong or interesting leading roles has been one of Hollywood’s biggest faults and Nancy Kwan has been able to play some of the most dynamic and fun characters, regardless of the film’s social content. The reason? Quite simply, she’s Nancy Kwan. Once you’ve seen her, you’re never the same.

While most refuse to give up Nancy Kwan as a strong symbol of Asian representation, one of the first women they ever saw on the big screen, the Asian American community now makes a delineation between the roles she played and the importance she has as an Asian woman in cinema. This is a critical part of her story.

Many roles that Kwan played over the years- non-Asian, non-Chinese, stereotypical Asian “insert archetype here” – are quite problematic. Kwan’s talents as a comedienne were of high caliber. While the content of Lt Robin Crusoe, U.S.N (Byron Paul, 1966) is certainly questionable (island girl, “exoticism” etc), the cast is heroically great (Akim Tamiroff! Dick Van Dyke! WOW!!), Nancy Kwan’s comic timing is epic. As any great actor will tell you, a great comic performance is worth thousands of dramatic ones. It’s hard to get people to genuinely laugh, but she has that skill.

Nancy Kwan’s bravery is also nothing to sniff at. She left Hollywood against the better advice of her agent to take care of her sick father in the 1970s. In an environment where even white women did as their agents were told this was an incredibly risky move. It could’ve been a career killer!

While away, Kwan set up a film company and continued to be productive. According to her,

“I was looking to the other side of the camera and I felt it would be nice to have an overall knowledge of the film business. So when I was in Hong Kong I did a lot of films in Southeast Asia. I worked in the Philippines, I worked in Thailand, I worked in Hong Kong, I did well, I only did one Chinese speaking film but the rest was shot on location and I would come back here [USA] once in a while and do a TV show or a movie of the week… at this point I consider myself a filmmaker and I’m glad that I started out acting… as a producer I learned more. I think the more knowledge you have, the better you become.”

The woman who was nicknamed the “Chinese Bardot” and had a haircut specially designed for her by the one and only Vidal Sassoon is not simply a sum of the films that she was cast in. Unless, of course, you count some of the lesser known delights like Wonder Women (Robert O’Neil, 1973) or Walking The Edge (Norbert Meisel, 1985) where she kicks as much ass on the screen as she does in real life. 

Nancy Kwan’s work over the last 50 years is nothing short of groundbreaking. She has formed her own production company (Nancy Kwan Films), made a documentary about her life, won a slew of awards based on her political activism and film/TV work, and been adjunct faculty for MFA film students at CAL State Los Angeles. She’s also still a working actress. Her most recent credits are this year- 2016 – in Amber Tamblyn’s recent film, Paint it Black.

There are very few women in the film world who can say that they have been good friends with Bruce Lee, played opposite William Holden, Rod Taylor and Dean Martin as well as made it a point to retain a personal sense of self within her career, both as a woman and as a person of Asian/biracial heritage. In an industry that doesn’t look fondly on that, Nancy Kwan is a heroine of high class. Plus, the fact that she can play a kick-ass action gal, melodramatic role, and comedienne beautifully really doesn’t hurt.  When asked about the kinds of characters she would/wouldn’t play (since she does have a fairly diverse catalog of roles), her response was eloquent:

“Are there characters I wouldn’t play at all or would consider demeaning to an Asian? Yes. If it was demeaning, I certainly wouldn’t do it, or I would say, hey, this is demeaning. I mean, I have a big mouth too… I think it’s very important that I set standards because I have to live with them.”

There’s Nothing Like It: Ursula Liang’s 9-MAN

9-Man (Ursula Liang, 2014)

To a native Californian and Angeleno like myself, volleyball has always meant white guys and the beach. While I know that it is played professionally, and there are women’s teams, the concept of anything volleyball-esque brings up a Pavlovian response in me. Visions of blonde men with their tanned caucasian bodies appear in my imagination and I see these perfectly formed specimens, glistening with sunscreen, throwing themselves around in the sun and sand, as their bikini-clad-companions watch. While that may seem romantic and sexy, it’s always been an extreme turn-off to me.

These are precisely the kind of guys and just the kind of culture that I want nothing to do with. In fact, it is the kind of world that I spend an alarming amount of time railing against. They represent the worst of the worst to me. They are the frat-boy types who eat, sleep and breathe white privilege and couldn’t see the world any other way than monied and upper and of the higher-classes. They are blind to what is really going on and that pisses me off. I feel a little bad for the sport of volleyball, since it has suffered my associations, but I will recognize here and now that is my prejudice.  Too many summers near Santa Monica watching people play, I guess.

With this in mind, I can only describe myself as insanely curious and awkwardly starving for Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-MAN (Ursula Liang, 2014), which played at the Director’s Guild of America as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday night, May 2nd. Co-presented by the Asian Youth Center in the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese American Museum in Downtown LA (they’re currently running a whole exhibit on hot sauces called “LA HEAT”- it’s totally great! Check them out!), and introduced by the popular and highly entertaining Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man, this documentary blew my mind. Completely unseen, Yu told the audience that he was putting 9-MAN on a list of films he would consider to be in his “Angry Asian Film Club.” “Unless it sucks.” he joked,  “But I know it won’t suck!” And boy was he right. This belongs on that Film Club List with honors!

For what it’s worth, 9-MAN is a sports documentary. Technically, 9-man is a volley-ball-style sport that began in Chinatown communities in the 1930s but it is quite definitely not volleyball.  In fact, that may be why I liked it. The terms “jungle ball” and “streetball” were thrown around quite a bit. Yeah, my ears perked up for sure. As a huge fan of brutal and hyper-masculine sports activities, the minute one of the athletes described 9-man as a game that commits itself fully to a “warrior mentality” I was IN. But it’s not simply a game. 9-man developed historically and has played a significant part in the way that Chinese men have been able to keep their culture alive and dynamic, especially between fathers and sons. As Liang documents so eloquently, this was one of the only outlets that many Chinese men had to express their masculinity during the 1930s/40s and onwards. The Chinese Immigration Acts that started in the late 1880s had seriously diminished roles for Chinese men to play in American culture, and the places that they were allowed to inhabit were exhaustively feminized at that time: laundry work, food service, etc. In order to regain a sense of masculinity and as a way to bond as a community, this game was created. It gave them a sense of dignity, fun and released the stress from these daily horrors.

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

But, as Liang stated in the Q&A after the film, she wanted to give a sense of this historical background while still keeping the modern storyline. And that is what she most certainly did. The core of the film and the “meat” focused on today’s teams and the journey towards the 2010 Boston Labor Day finals for several regional teams, and, like a truly great sports film, she makes you truly love and care for all the characters. If I thought that I cried in fictional films like Warrior or He Got Game, this film gutted me. I was at the edge of my seat, really WITH every character. Loving them, routing for them, on their journey. But what made it more interesting was each person’s discussion of the cultural ties and the fact that this was not just a game to them. This was part of their life. While Liang did pointedly say afterwards that her goal was to reimagine Asian men in the sports world and do some stereotype-busting through diverse portrayals (which was quite well-done, I might add) the sports/culture/ethnic connection was what really stood out. The media does not often investigate these issues for Asian men. The discussion of these 9-men player’s masculinity stories, whether done through tales of family connections, cultural struggles or sports dedication was really singular and revealing.

Credit: A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh), published in

The film does an excellent job in explaining the rules of the game with animated visuals- there is a difference between 6-man and 9-man games, for instance, and no women are allowed to play. There were wonderful illustrations to explain these things and the placement of the players as well. The intertitles were also quite helpful, as far as technical info was concerned. As of 1991, there was an “ethnic rule” that became part of the rule book- at least 6 men on the court had to be Chinese. The other 3 could be mixed. When asked about this in the Q&A afterwards, the responses were fascinating and reflected a very different 9-man than what had started so many years ago. Ursula was joined on-stage by two 9-man players, and each answered this question differently but with the same basic result. Both agreed (as did Ursula) that at this point it is really up to how good the player is. Many times, it comes down to that and not ethnicity. They will have the “how Chinese is he” arguments, but it will really boil down to “how good of a player is he.” They added that there are many mixed players now, and that will probably increase with time.

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

I wondered if this was losing the spirit that been expressed by so many of the older interviewees in the film, especially certain men who had discussed playing 9-man in the 1970s, who had learned to have Chinese community and brotherhood through this activity, and had passed the tradition on to their children. It also made me think about something more serious. As someone who has studied sports that are familial and passed on in that manner (ie wrestling), this “more sports than culture” view being expressed might end up deteriorating the 9-man community and a cultural history and important activity that goes beyond “sports.” But as the final interviewee in the film said about the game, sports or cultural expression, “There’s nothing like it and I’d never give it up.”

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Ursula Liang has created a documentary that has inspired tears of triumph and heartbreak, nail-biting suspense and loud cheers of joy. This primarily female-produced film (as Liang discussed during the Q&A, most of the crew were women as well, something “you don’t see very often these days!”) combines historical fact with tough sportsmanship and really intelligent discussion about a highly marginalized and underrepresented community.

One of the most beautiful things about the screening was when Phil Yu asked the athletes during the Q&A what it was like to watch the film, and Lawrence, one of the athletes, replied, “I got to see people I know for once.” While it was clear that this referred to 9-man players he was pals with, it had a double-meaning: he got on-screen representation for once. Which is really what the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is about, and I am glad for it.



FILM ARCHIVIST’S PLEA:  One final note that I would have to make and this is more of a plea. I spoke to Ursula after the screening because, as a moving image archivist I was SINGULARLY IMPRESSED by the footage in the film. Not only is the subject INCREDIBLY unique and rare (she told me very few people she encountered had even heard of 9-man) but the stills and visual elements that are used have come almost entirely from personal collections. Museums and archives that specialized in Asian or Chinese historical works didn’t have anything on this, regional archives were empty, barely anything. I know that Prelinger Archives was on there, but they are amazing like that. Here’s the thing-  THIS WAS ALOT OF HOME MOVIE STUFF, GUYS.  This is not a surprise to mePLEASE see this movie. I will tell you why:

1) It is THAT good. I’ll say it again. IT IS THAT DAMN GOOD.

2) The archival footage will show you that you need to go looking in your Nana’s house for all the cultural 16mm/8mm/etc stuff. It can be really important. LIKE NOW. GO.

3) If you are a POC, your works are EXTRA important and MUST BE SEEN. This film is a FABULOUS WATERSHED EXAMPLE of what can be done if you have a good subject and are a great researcher & can get some help. Liang went the extra mile on this because she taught herself how to be a filmmaker as she was making this film.

4) If you know of anyone who might have any other footage like this, let’s make sure it’s all out there. Seeing this was so great. As an archivist & as someone in preservation, this is *exactly* what we strive to do- restore history to its rightful viewers: us and everyone in the future. Make goodness happen with film. It can be magic. I BELIEVE THIS.

5) Female filmmaker. Need another reason?????




MONDAY, MAY 05, 2014 – 4:30

Tateuchi Democracy Forum, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012