Childhood & Early Life
She was born Ka Shen Kwan on May 19, 1939, in Hong Kong, to Marquita Scott, an English–Scottish model, and Kwan Wing Hong, a ‘Cambridge’-educated Chinese architect. She has an older brother, Ka Keung, and five younger half-siblings. Her parents divorced when she was 2 years old.
During World War II, her father fled Hong Kong (1941), with his servants carrying his two children in wicker baskets. They stayed in Western China for 5 years and returned only after the war was over.
Growing up in affluent surroundings, Kwan studied at the ‘Maryknoll Convent School.’ Interested in sports since childhood, she learnt ‘T’ai Chi’ and horseback riding.
At 12, Kwan was enrolled at the ‘Kingsmoor School,’ Glossop, England. She learnt all dance forms at a ballet school in Manchester. After graduation, she joined the ‘Royal Ballet School,’ London and studied and performed ballet for 4 years, procuring a ballet teaching certificate.
While holidaying in Hong Kong, Kwan was spotted (in a studio designed by her father) by Hollywood producer Ray Stark, who was looking for an Asian/Chinese actor for the film adaption of the popular ‘Broadway’ play ‘The World of Suzie Wong.’ Although she did not have any prior acting experience, Kwan was called for a screen test. The test did not go very well. However, because of her Eurasian features and also because of the spark Stark had spotted in her, she was considered for the role.
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Kwan was sent to the US, where she attended a Hollywood acting school. She was offered a 7-year contract by Stark’s ‘Seven Arts Productions.’ Besides Kwan, another established actor, France Nuyen, who had successfully portrayed the same role on stage, was being considered for the movie. Kwan had a small role in the stage production and was an understudy for the main role. Later, ‘Paramount Studios’ chose Nuyen for the film role. Disappointed, Kwan continued with the stage shows.
Nuyen could not be part of the film due to personal issues. Thus, Kwan received her first role. ‘The World of Suzie Wong,’ which was about a free-spirited Hong Kong prostitute, premiered in 1960 and proved to be a major success. Kwan was awarded the ‘Golden Globe’ award for the ‘Most Promising Newcomer-Female’ in 1961.
Kwan’s next film was ‘Flower Drum Song’ (1961), an adaptation of a hit ‘Broadway’ musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The role of a nightclub singer and dancer named ‘Linda Low’ gave her ample scope to display her dance skills. The film earned five ‘Academy Award’ nominations.
Soon, Kwan appeared in several American, European, and Eurasian films. In ‘The Main Attraction’ (1962), Kwan essayed an Italian citrus artist, opposite singer Pat Boone. She appeared in a starring role of an uninhibited Tahitian in the film ‘Tamahine’ (1963).
After a break, Kwan returned as a Chinese–American scientist, ‘Sally Fraser,’ in the aviation drama ‘Fate Is the Hunter’ (1964). She also appeared in two comedies: ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ (1964) and ‘Drop Dead Darling’ (also known as ‘Arrivederci, Baby’). Kwan then played the leading role of ‘Marjorie Lee,’ a British secretary, in ‘The Wild Affair’ (1965). She starred as ‘Wednesday,’ opposite Dick Van Dyke, in the hit ‘Disney’ comedy ‘Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN’ (1966).
In ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (1969), Bruce Lee choreographed the martial arts, while Kwan appeared opposite Dean Martin. Following this, she worked in the far-east action movie ‘The Corrupt Ones,’ opposite Robert Stack, and the TV series ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ opposite Jack Lord. In the western ‘McMasters’ (1970), she played a Native American woman named ‘Robin.’
In 1970, Kwan left Hollywood to be with her critically ill father and stayed there for a decade. In Hong Kong, she formed her company, ‘Nancy Kwan Films,’ and appeared in the TV series ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Fantasy Island.’ She also appeared in some action films. ‘Spring Comes Not Again’ was her first Chinese-language film.
Kwan met producer-director Norbert Meisel (her future husband) during the shooting of the movie ‘Fear’ (or ‘Night Creature’). In 1979, she returned to Hollywood and subsequently appeared in indie films such as ‘Walking the Edge’ (1985), ‘Keys to Freedom’ (1988), and ‘Night Children’ (1989). She appeared on the TV shows ‘Noble House’ (1988) and ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’ (1993). She produced an instructional video titled ‘Tai Chi Chu’an: Touching the Clouds’ with her son, Bernie.
Kwan worked as a lead in stage productions such as ‘Love Letters,’ ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ and ‘Arthur & Leila.’ She has provided voice for several audiobooks, such as ‘Katherine,’ ‘Red Azalea,’ ‘When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.’ She produced ‘Loose Woman with No Face’ (1993), a film about Eurasians, which was written and directed by her, too. She has appeared in infomercials of ‘Oriental Pearl Cream.’
In 1997, Kwan published a book about her departed son, ‘A Celebration of Life – Memories of My Son.’ She is a spokesperson of the ‘Asian-American Voters Coalition’ and devotes her time to charity work for homeless children.
In the 1980s, she invested in a “dim sum” restaurant named ‘Joss.’
Kwan met the ski instructor Peter Pock during the filming of ‘The Main Attraction’ in the Austrian Alps in 1962. The two got married the same year. They had a son, Bernhard “Bernie.” However, they divorced in 1968.
In July 1970, she married scriptwriter David Giler in Nevada. The marriage ended in 1972.
Kwan married Hollywood producer-director Norbert Meisel in 1976. Her only son died of AIDS in 1996, at the age of 33.