Billed as the ‘Chinese Bardot’, Nancy Kwan was one of the first Chinese actors to have a successful career in Hollywood.

She was born as Kwan Ka Shen in 1939, in the then British crown colony of Hong Kong. Her Chinese father, Kwan Wing Hong, was a successful Cambridge-educated architect, her English and Scottish mother Marquita Scott was a Conover fashion model. The marriage ended in divorce when Nancy was only two.

When Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, her family’s servants carried Nancy and her brother to safety hidden in wicker baskets. They hid in western China until the end of the ware before returning to Hong Kong.

As a child, Nancy developed a love for dance. At age twelve she was sent to England to the Kingsmoor School in the Peaks District, which was close to a ballet school in Manchester, where twice a week, Nancy studied all forms of dance.

After graduating from school, she was accepted into the Royal Ballet in London, where she studied and performed for four years. She danced in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden, and earned her teaching certificate in ballet.

It was on a summer holiday in Hong Kong that a chance event changed her life. Ray Stark, a Hollywood producer, was in town scouting for the film adaption of The World of Suzie Wong, an interracial romance set in Hong Kong.  Nancy’s architect father had built the studio where Stark was holding his auditions. When Stark spotted Nancy, and despite the fact that she had no acting experience, he summoned her for a screen test, which lead to her being sent to Hollywood for extensive coaching and more screen tests. She eventually landed the part.

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving weekend in 1960 and was a huge commercial success, making Kwan an international star.

Her next film, the adaptation of Rodgers and Hammersteins Broadway hit musical Flower Drum Song, earned five Academy award nominations. Also co-starring James Shigeta and Miyoshi Umeki, it was the first major Western film with an all-Asian cast.

Following her first two big hits were a whirlwind of films, always in a starring role, made in Hollywood, Europe, and the Far East. Perhaps recognizing the limited number of parts that cinema had to offer an Asian actor, she made a deliberate attempt to take on diverse non-Asian and non-traditional roles.

After taking some time out to be with her first husband, Austrian ski instructor Peter Pock, and their son Bernhard, Kwan returned to a successful career in Hollywood and Asia both in film and TV.
Also a producer, narrator and charity campaigner,  Nancy Kwan continues to work on various projects.


image:  Terence Donovan for British Vogue