In the opening credits, the title card for the production companies reads: "A World Enterprise, Inc.-Worldfilm Limited Co-Production." Although numerous reviews refer to "Suzie Wong" and her friends as "yum yum" or "yum-yum" girls, that term is not used in the film. In the picture they are called "Wanchai girls," after the area in which they work as prostitutes.
In 1957, trade paper news items announced that producer Ray Stark and his partner, Eliot Hyman, had purchased Richard Mason's novel from galleys for their company, Associated Artists, which would later become Seven Arts Productions. Stark and Hyman co-financed the Broadway production based on Mason's novel and owned the film rights to the property, according to the Variety review of the play. The successful stage production, which opened in New York City on October 14, 1958, featured the Broadway debuts of France Nuyen as Suzie and William Shatner as "Robert Lomax."
In July 1958, Hollywood Reporter announced that Paramount would produce a film version of the play and novel in conjunction with Seven Arts. Although Stark had previously worked as a literary and talent agent, The World of Suzie Wong marked his first experience as a motion picture producer. In a December 1960 New York Herald Tribune article, Stark stated that the play, which did excellent business despite receiving poor notices, was valuable to him because he "saw faults which had to be corrected in the film...the play provided a framework for the film."
Information in the Paramount Collection, located at the AMPAS Library, indicates that William Schorr was scheduled to co-produce the film with Stark. Although a July 15, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item added that Schorr had recently joined Stark's company, his contribution to the completed picture has not been confirmed. According to a studio press release, the picture marked the first time that screenwriter John Patrick toured Asia for research purposes, even though he had previously written the screenplays for the 1955 Twentieth Century-Fox film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and the 1956 M-G-M picture Teahouse of the August Moon, both of which were set in Asia.
According to an June 18, 1959 "Rambling Reporter" item, Paramount initially considered hiring British director Jack Clayton, who had recently helmed Room at the Top, to direct the film. Jean Negulesco was offically hired in late October 1959, according to Hollywood Reporter, simultaneous to the casting of William Holden as Robert. [Holden had been Stark's client when Stark was an agent, according to a May 19, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item.] As noted by contemporary reviews, when Holden was cast as Robert, the character was changed from a young man to one nearing forty, with many reviews applauding the change, but others commenting negatively on Holden's age and haggardness in the film. The picture marked Holden's first since moving to Switzerland to avoid the high personal income taxes then faced by American citizens. As noted by Hollywood Reporter news items and modern sources, Holden was highly criticized in film circles for his move and for insisting on working only in productions that were filmed abroad. Because The World of Suzie Wong was shot in Hong Kong and the M-G-M Studios in Boreham Wood, Elstree, England, it qualified as a British quota picture, according to a December 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item.
Although Eurasian actress Nancy Kwan played Suzie in the finished film, the casting history of the role was complicated. Nuyen, who received acclaim for her Broadway performance as Suzie, was not immediately cast in the film, according to Hollywood Reporter news items, which reported that Hyun Choo Oh, "Miss Korea" in the 1959 Miss Universe pageant, and Kwan, a dancer studying ballet in England, were among those considered for the role before Nuyen. In September 1959, Hollywood Reporter noted that Stark and Patrick had just returned from a 17,000-mile location scouting trek through Honk Kong, Japan and the Philippines, during which they interviewed "hundreds" of Asian women for roles. In December 1959, Hollywood Reporter announced that "after negotiating for months," Stark had secured Nuyen's services for the part. According to a July 1960 New York Times article, when Nuyen was cast as Suzie for the movie, Kwan replaced her in the title role in a theatrical company touring America and Canada.
The picture, which began shooting on January 7, 1960, was shut down in early February due to the illness of Nuyen, which caused her to drop out of the production, according to Hollywood Reporter news items. Other contemporary sources reported that the main reason Nuyen left the film was due to clashes between the star and producer over how the role should be played, and that her departure was not voluntary. A February 4, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Stark was forced to conduct a "second global search for another Suzie," with a February 10, 1960 Variety article stating that actresses considered to replace Nuyen included Natalie Wood, Nobu McCarthy, Lisa Liu, Rita Moreno, Grace Chang, Pascale Petit, Charita Soliz and Luz Valdez. On February 15, 1960, Hollywood Reporter announced the casting of Kwan, who made her motion picture acting debut in the film.
Only a few days after the casting of Kwan, production was again disrupted when Negulesco stepped down and was replaced by director Richard Quine. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the change was made due to "differences between [Stark and Negulesco] over portions of the story still to be filmed." The switch to Quine caused problems for the production with the Directors Guild of America, according to a February 19, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item, because Quine "had failed to notify the Guild...before entering into negotiations to replace Negulesco." According to the news item, DGA regulations required that the "present director of a film be notified of another's intention to dicker for his spot." A Daily Variety item on the matter stated that possible disciplinary action against Quine was to be decided by the guild's board of directors. It has not been determined how much of Negulesco's work remained in the completed picture.
The casting of Kwan necessitated that the production leave England, where interiors were being filmed, to reshoot the Hong Kong exteriors already done with Nuyen. Extensive location shooting in Hong Kong was redone in April and May 1960, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, according to contemporary reports. In a March 1960 Los Angeles Times article, Stark asserted that both Kwan and Quine had been his first choices for the film anyway, but that Kwan had "lacked experience" when she was tested originally.
Although a January 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Ron Randell would reprise his Broadway role of "Ben Marlowe" for the film, Michael Wilding ultimately was cast in the part. A December 10, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Sir Ralph Richardson had been signed for the picture, presumably for the role of "O'Neill." Although a Hollywood Reporter news item includes John Wallace in the cast, his appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. A studio press release reported that Juliet Yuen, the mother of the one-year-old child who played "Winston Wong," had an "important supporting role," but her appearance in the final film also has not been confirmed. An April 1960 Variety article reported that members of the British Actors Equity Association were questioning the casting of Wilding's wife, socialite Susan Nell, in "a three-minute roll [sic], specially written into the picture." It has not been determined, however, if Nell, who was not a professional actress, appears in the completed picture.
Yvonne Shima, who played "Minnie Ho," had played Suzie in the London stage presentation. The picture marked the screen debut of Jacqui Chan, who also appeared in the London version of the play, as well as the first appearance in an American film by British actress Sylvia Syms. According to August and September 1960 Hollywood Reporter and Los Angeles Examiner articles, the picture was dubbed in Hamburg, West Germany at the Real Studios, because Holden was then in Germany filming the 1962 Paramount release The Counterfeit Traitor (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Paramount submitted a copy of the screenplay to the PCA for approval in late October 1959 even though there were "lots of things still wrong with it," because the picture was being "rushed into production" abroad, with most of the crew and cast to be leaving shortly. The PCA replied that the basic story was unacceptable due to "the portrayal, both in theme and in detail, of the mechanics of prostitution and the use of a brothel as a locale." Also singled out by the PCA was the relationship between Suzie and Robert, which was deemed a "glorification of an illicit sex affair without any compensating moral values." Despite a mid-November 1959 conference between PCA and Paramount officials, the script was rejected again in late November for the same reasons.
On December 9, 1959, PCA head Geoffrey I. Shurlock noted for the file that Paramount was "endeavoring to get Mr. Stark to shoot as many protection shots covering the unacceptable items discussed in our various letters and conferences," and also that because the picture was to go into production in Hong Kong in Jan, there was little the PCA could do until the finished picture was submitted for review. On August 18, 1960, Shurlock wrote to Paramount, stating that it was the "unanimous opinion" of the PCA staff that the completed picture could not be approved for a Code seal, due to the depiction of prostitution and the sexual relationship between Suzie and Robert.
On August 19, 1960, however, the assistant of Paramount president Barney Balaban called Shurlock to express Balaban's distress over the rejection of the picture, which he considered "inoffensive." Shurlock then discussed with Paramount censorship liaison Luigi Luraschi the "involvement of the studio with the producer [Stark, who maintained control over the final product because he held the rights to the material], and the studio's inability to make any changes in the picture." Luraschi and another Paramount executive told Shurlock that the PCA's rejection of the picture had been leaked to the press, and upon their request, Shurlock issued another letter withdrawing the official rejection notice. When Luraschi asked for a review of the situation by the PCA Review Board of the MPAA, the board screened the film and decided that the picture could be approved without eliminations and released with a Code seal.
The picture, which received a "B" rating from the National Catholic Legion of Decency, was listed as "restricted entertainment" in several areas of Canada. The Variety review, noting the picture's controversial subject matter, stated: "Box office is going to reflect the moral stance of the filmgoing public. There is likely to be some controversy stirred up, and the result will be a stimulus to adults and a caution to parents." April 1961 Daily Variety items reported that Paramount encountered some difficulties in placing a newspaper advertisement that featured Kwan in a revealing dress, which had a long slit up to her hip.
In an August 1960 article about the film's censorship difficulties, Daily Variety reported that an extra day's shooting had been set to "change the ending and bring added emotions into play," although the new ending was "reported to have nothing to do with the Code squabble." The article stated that the scene would include Kwan and "three Chinese girls featured in the film," but no further information about a possible alternate ending or additional shooting has been found.
As noted by contemporary sources, Paramount arranged for special engagements of the picture in selected cities in November and December 1960, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, so that The World of Suzie Wong would be eligible for Academy Award consideration for 1960, although the picture's national release date was not until February 1961. According to several 1960 news items, IATSE planned to picket showings of the film in Los Angeles and New York to protest the trend toward "runaway productions" filmed abroad rather than in the United States. The union particularly intended to target Holden, who, as noted above, had begun filming abroad exclusively. Although a song entitled "Suzie Wong," written by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, was used in the picture's exploitation, it was not included in the final release. The Los Angeles premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which was a benefit for the City of Hope, featured UCLA students of Asian descent pulling guests to the theater in rickshaws, according to reports about the event.
The World of Suzie Wong received mixed reviews, with a number of critics remarking on the spate of films then in release that featured prostitutes as main characters, including Butterfield 8 and the Greek production Never on Sunday. Some reviews also criticized the picture's portrayal of the Chinese characters, with Time labeling it "a mad chow mein of Chinese-laundry English," and "a cruel jest to the undernourished minions of Asia's vast sex industry, many of them dead of disease or exhaustion long before they reach the heroine's comparatively advanced age: 21." Numerous reviews did praise the photography of the location sites, however, as well as the acting, especially Kwan's. The Los Angeles Herald Express review commended her appearance as "one of the most enchanting first performances in a long time."
In November 1960 and February 1961, Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported that Stark was selling his almost fifty percent interest in the film property to Hyman, who had maintained control of Seven Arts, although he was not directly involved in the picture's production. The February 1961 Variety item stated that Stark's reasons for selling his interest in the high-grossing film were unknown, and that Paramount had offered to buy him out at one point but the deal was not consumated.
Although in the 1960 Cosmopolitan article, author Richard Mason, who spent five months in Hong Kong researching his book, stated emphatically that the character of Suzie was totally fictitious, in October 1965, Daily Variety reported that Wong Yuet Lan had filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Paramount, Mason and the publishers of the novel. Wong, who claimed to be the "real" Suzie Wong, stated that the book and film made "unauthorized use of her name and incidents of her private life." In addition to the damages, Wong asked for an injunction against further distribution of the book and the film, which had been reissued "several times," according to the Daily Variety article. The outcome of the suit has not been determined.