Jadin Wong: She Danced Through Stereotypes

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Wednesday, 19 May 2010.

Jadin Wong: She Danced Through Stereotypes

Let’s not let the passing of Jadin Wong go without notice. For one thing, Jadin Wong thrived on being noticed. She was the essence of showbiz, as a nightclub dancer and actress.

And she’s of particular note because she was a pioneer in those fields – and not necessarily by choice. Ms. Wong was 96 when she died in New York on March 30. When, at age five in Stockton, Calif., she began expressing an interest in singing and dancing, it was 1918. She was just a little ahead of her time, and she’d stay ahead of her time when, as a teenager, she ran away from home – and disapproving parents – to pursue her dreams.

Jadin, whose name has also been spelled Jadine in posters and advertisements, wound up in Hollywood, where she tap-danced for spare change before getting some roles in films. She was an exotic dancer in the 1939 movie, Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation. She was also a natural for the Chinatown nightclubs that sprang up in San Francisco in the late Thirties, and became a star performer at the Forbidden City.

Since filmmaker Arthur Dong produced the documentary, Forbidden City U.S.A. in 1989, alumni of that club, and of other such nightspots, have gathered for reunions, fundraisers and other events. At one such gala, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1997, Ms. Wong was one of a couple of dozen performers who showed up. She was one of a handful selected to perform for the audience. And she was the only one who made a grand entrance, in a carriage carted by a team of muscle-bound young men. Then the dancer, now aged 84 and costumed to the hilt, pulled off one more exotic dance. “Ho yeah, ho yeah,” you could hear men in the crowd yelling. Good stuff! Good stuff!

By then, Ms. Wong had retired from show business, opening a talent agency in New York, with a focus on Asian American clients. Although, in her youth, she was largely limited to stereotypical roles, “She always told people, if you have talent … and you’re willing to train and work hard, you can perform any role you want,” her brother, Wally Wong, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Sue Lee, director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, added: Jadin Wong defied tradition and broke racial and gender stereotypes to pursue an unconventional path. We owe much to her brazen nature for carving a path in show business for Asian Americans today.

So noted.

RANDOM NOTES: Since my last posting, I’ve had a cover story in Parade magazine; it was on Tom Petty, and you can find it at www.Parade.com.

Music fans should also look for the additional piece I filed, all about Petty’s favorite musical memories… I also hung out with the great Quincy Jones for a piece to go with a new hip-hop and R&B tribute album to him, with artists like Akon, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris and many others reinterpreting classic Q compositions and hits. As more artists clamber onboard, the album’s being delayed, so the story will come out when the CD does … Also, I’ve agreed to a deal with University of California Press to reissue my memoirs, The Rice Room.

Since that book came out in 1994, a new last chapter is called for, don’tcha think, and so I’m writing one. I’ll also add a bunch of photographs, which the original edition should’ve had. It’ll be out in 2011 … A fond farewell to Anne Yamasaki, master calligrapher, hula dancer and beloved wife of attorney and jazz pianist George Yamasaki. She passed away May 16th after a short battle with cancer. Anne and George epitomized the song, The Second Time Around.

They were childhood pals and schoolmates at Punahou School in Honolulu, went their separate ways and raised families, and reunited in 1985, when both were in their late 40s. From then on, they were inseparable, and, they professed, love was lovelier the second time around.

George was the bandleader for the CD by Larry Ching, Till the End of Time, that I co-produced in 2003. Larry, of course, was one of the stars at the Forbidden City, alongside Jadin Wong.

And so we come full circle … Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As Tim Gunn says, Make it work!