Approaching middle age, American Robert Lomax puts behind his job as an architect to live in Hong Kong as an artist. With sufficient savings to last a year if he lives frugally, he will reevaluate this plan after that year, he keeping with the art if his paintings sell at a price on which he can live. He finds long term accommodations at the budget Nam Kok Hotel located in the poor district of the island. It isn't until after he moves in that he discovers not only that the hotel is populated with Chinese prostitutes who meet their largely sailor johns at the bar next door, but that the most sought out girl is Suzie Wong, the late teenage woman he met earlier on the Kowloon-Hong Kong ferry, she having passed herself off then as Meeling, an upper class girl saving herself for marriage. Robert befriends all the regular prostitutes and others around the hotel and bar, but begins a special friendship with Suzie, who ends up sitting for him. This paid arrangement masks both their true desires, which is to be in a loving relationship with each other. Suzie has to make a living, and may take whatever offers that provide some financial comfort, such as that from middle aged Brit, Ben Marlowe. Robert tries to deny his feelings as he doesn't know if he can handle knowing of Suzie's line of work, with Kay O'Neill, the daughter of the banker with who Robert has been dealing hoping that he can overlook Suzie actually to see her as a better alternative for him. Suzie always turning to prostitution as an option if the going gets rough, something she is hiding about her past, and Robert being able to make a living doing what he wants in Hong Kong are further obstacles to the two getting together in that loving relationship.