I knew Suzie Wong
American architect Robert Lomax (William Holden) moves to Hong Kong to discover himself as an artist in the 1960 film “The World of Suzie Wong.” Due to his limited funds, he inadvertently rents a room in a hotel used by prostitutes where he meets and falls in love with Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan).
When I say I knew Suzie Wong, I should include the word “figuratively.” The prostitute I knew worked in a sailor bar in the town of Olongapo, Republic of the Philippines. And, unlike Holden and Kwan, Leila and I did not end up becoming lovers.
First, I should say that the movie, by today’s standards, would probably be called sappy. Here he have a well-intentioned artist who sees Suzie, finds she has a heart of gold and hates the business, and they end up together. By now, we’ve seen this same story told a hundred different ways, including the portrayal by Richard Gere and Julia Robers in “Pretty Woman.”
My aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Ranger was stationed off Vietnam during that so-called conflict and made monthly visits to Subic Bay, PI (for supplies and maintenance) where sailors spent their liberty hours in the rough and tumble town of Olongapo. I went into town on a lark with a sailor who’d been there many times and in the first bar we visited I ended up having a beer thrown at me when I turned down a bar girl who invited me to have sex with her in her air conditioned hotel room. Not a good beginning.
Then we went to another bar and another and another and finally ended up at a rather nondescript upstairs bar that featured a juke box, occasional strip shows and plenty of San Miguel beer and bar girls. The other sailor pointed out a girl watching us from behind the bar and said, “she plans to get her hooks into you before the evening is over.”
She did, but not in the way he meant. She brought me a beer, sat on my lap, and said “you want to go short time?” I had a ready-made excuse: “Too hungry. I haven’t eaten all day,” I said. “I’ll fix that for three pesos.” She disappeared into the murk of the bar where sailors and girls were dancing over and over to “Hey, Jude” and “Summer in the City.” When Leila returned, she had a plate of fried rice with a fried egg on top with–as I learned later–the bar’s only spoon.
It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. You come back to me, sailor man, she said, when I left the bar ten minutes before the midnight curfew.
If you have heard this story before, it’s because you read a highly ramped-up version of it in my novel “The Sailor.” Suffice it to say, that account is much more exciting than a writer who hides in a sailor bar to get away from the ship.
When I joined the Navy, it was to avoid the mandatory draft. At the time, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and shipboard life was hell in more ways than I have room to list here. We had liberty basically every other day while in port. I spent my time in that bar at a corner table with a Blue Horse notebook and wrote.
Once the girls saw I was a crazy writer who probably hated women, they left me alone–except for Leila. She sat with me while I wrote. She brought me beer and plenty of fried rice (when the spoon was available). She made me dance with her and she clung to me while we did and the thought on my mind was that this wasn’t going to turn into a Suzie Wong experience.
The first time I saw Leila without her bar-girl make up, I didn’t recognize her. I was shopping early in the morning and somebody called my name. “It’s you,” I said. “Not dressed for work,” she said. “Come to Zambales Bank and beauty party with me.”
It all seemed surprisingly normal except for the beauty parlor where she told the beauticians I was her property and to keep their hands off me. There was a lot of giggling going on in Tagalog and I felt like a piece of meat on a hook.
The guys on the ship called our relationship an Olongapo Marriage, a phrase usually reserved for the chief petty officers who were able to live in town with a girl while the ship was in port. I let them think that because telling them I was writing in a bar rather than going short time to every hotel in town wasn’t going to fly. The conventional wisdom about going into Olongapo was “If you’re not in bed by 9 p.m., you might as well come back to the ship.”
One night after hearing some disturbing news, I had more beer than I should and couldn’t make it back to the base by midnight. Leila snuck me out to her house in a section of town that was out of bounds to sailors and gave me a couch and a blanket. “I’m on my period,” she said, “but if you need a girl, my roommate Stella thinks you’re cute.”
“Too sleepy,” I said. “That’s you,” she replied, “always too sleepy or too hungry. Not good for a man, staying away from women make their balls blow up.” So it was that I was UA (“unauthorized absence,” the navy term for AWOL) that night but–being a crafty writer–got back onto the ship without being caught. As it turned out, the whole office had been UA. The last guy to make it back to the office did get caught and ended up in the brig for several weeks. When the officer in charge asked what that guy was thinking, the rest of us acted shocked and innocent. “Glad I can trust most of you guys,” he said. “Right,” we said.
The last time I saw Leila that cruise, she asked me if I was going back to the States to get married or if that was just an excuse because I didn’t care enough for her to be her real “honey ko”) “Prove it to me when you come back,” she said.
I did. She was no longer working at a bar when the ship returned the following year. But the bar tender recognized me and sent somebody to fetch her. She threw her arms around me saying “Show me ring, show me ring.” When I did, she was all smiles, “you okay now,” she was saying. I stayed long enough for one beer.
Before I left, she asked if I’d ever written anything in my notebook about her. When I said that I had, she wanted to know what it was. I knew the poem by heart:
what sadness lies behind
your dark mascara eyes.
“Damned married man, you can see behind my makeup,” she said. When I wiped away the running mascara tears, and told her crying wasn’t allowed in a sailor bar, she said, “Not tears, you asshole, hair still dripping from shower I was taking before you sent for me,” she snapped with put-upon seriousness. “You’re right, Filipina lady,” I said and gave her a goodbye hug.
Knowing “Suzie Wong” taught me many things. For one thing, Leila–as a friend–was a bright spot in a dark time. For another thing, it changed the way I saw the William Holden and Nancy Kwan movie, though I’d watch it again in a heartbeat if it appeared on some late nigh movie channel. And for yet another thing, I developed a very strong feminist outlook. You see, Leila and I talked about so many things and, as it turned out, neither of us was anything like who we appeared to be when we were in that bar. The reasons why we were there were complex.
I’ve forgotten most of the Tagalog I learned, but she–as I said in “The Sailor”–is the angel who kept me out of the ship’s brig and from jumping off the fantail of the ship where I would never be seen again. Most writers have experiences (perhaps not like this, but unusual) that anchor them to themselves and to their work. Or, as Dr. Phil says, knowing Suzie Wong was a defining moment.