Before Hong Kong–born actress Nancy Kwan came along, when Hollywood needed an Asian actor they would often put eye makeup and bronzer on a white one. For proof, look no further than the very Caucasian Mickey Rooney playing Audrey Hepburn’s downstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Kwan’s breakout role as the lead in The World of Suzie Wong was filmed less than two decades after World War II, when anti-Asian sentiment was still high. Even the character seemed taboo for its era: Suzie Wong was a free-spirited Hong Kong prostitute who captivated an artist played by Hollywood’s “Golden Boy” William Holden. The role, heralded by her image as Wong on the cover of a 1960 issue of Life magazine, established Kwan as the first Asian actress in Hollywood. The daughter of Kwan Wing Hong, a Cantonese architect, and Marquita Scott, a Scottish model, Kwan could look either classically Asian or darker-skinned Caucasian; she could conjure up a barefaced California beauty with freckles and a headband, or, with a slap of makeup, a vampy Mod pinup. Perhaps it was this versatility that made her so in-demand. Indeed, the desire to sculpt Kwan’s beauty into something new led to her most iconic look: the asymmetrical bob that Vidal Sassoon made famous was first carved out on Kwan’s sleek locks. After debuting in 1963’s The Wild Affair, it became a staple of that era, and it is still seen today.
Nancy Kwan, 1963
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