[PROFILE] Jadin (Anna May) Wong - Agent/Actress/Dancer
- Superstar Jadin Wong, 88, finally considers retirement
How is 88-year-old acting agent Jadin Wong celebrating her
retirement? By giving herself a memorial, of course.
From the earliest days of her career as a glitzy showgirl in San
Francisco's world-famous Forbidden City nightclub, to her stand-up
comedy routines in the '60s and '70s, to her present job
representing hundreds of Asian-American performers, Wong has always
dared to be different.
In keeping with her larger-than-life persona, Wong is marking her
retirement, scheduled for the end of this year or early next year,
with a big room, cocktails, live singing and dancing, and
"I would like to hear the good things people say about me when I'm
alive," Wong said recently from her midtown Manhattan apartment,
which she also uses as an office.
Her desire to give herself a living memorial comes as no surprise to
people who know her. "She's one of a kind," said Arthur Dong, a
filmmaker who featured her in a documentary about the Forbidden City
in the 1980s.
Wong's influence in breaking down racial barriers in the
entertainment industry has been highlighted in countless articles
documenting her dancing, singing and acting career, which took her
from the stages of Broadway to cabarets from London to Rome to Hong
"She's been the foremost supporter of Asian-American talent in New
York City," said Arista, an actor, writer and producer who has known
Wong for eight years.
When Wong (whose first name is actually Anna May)graduated from high
school in the 1930s, she left her Stockton, Calif., home to chase
her Hollywood dreams, something rarely heard of in the culturally
isolated Chinese communities of the time.
She began her Hollywood career with roles in Charlie Chan and Mr.
Moto flicks. But her first love was dancing, and eventually the
tall, slender young woman received a scholarship to train and
perform with the San Francisco Opera Ballet.
Some members of the Chinese community were taken aback by her
provocative acts in the late '30s and early '40s at the Forbidden
City, a club featuring all-Asian revues and stars like "The Chinese
Sinatra" and "The Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."
"The first eight months, we were ostracized," Wong said of those
days of short skirts and high kicks. "They would say things
like, 'Why don't the girls go get a good job?'"
In those early days, the club catered to a mostly white clientele.
But with time, the Chinese community began patronizing the club,
too, especially after Wong made the cover of Life magazine in 1940,
an honor she attributes to her shapely breasts and long legs.
During the Second World War, Wong traveled overseas to entertain
American soldiers. When the war ended, Wong returned to the United
States to discover that the nightclub scene was beginning to drift
as television invaded people's homes.
Wong set her sights overseas again, performing dance and song
routines in cabarets all over Europe, and later in Asia. In the
late '50s, she performed on the luxury cruise liner the Leonardo da
Eventually, she found herself back in the United States, landing
roles in Broadway plays including "The King and I" and in "The World
of Suzie Wong." During this time she met the man who became her
husband, Edward Dowling, a Broadway producer. He died in 1967.
Always looking to try something new, Wong began doing stand-up
comedy in the '60s, amusing crowds with her line, "I may be Wong,
but I think you're beautiful."
Her wide range of work was later recognized by Congresman Norman
Mineta in a speech before the House in 1985. "Whereas before, Asians
could only get jobs in the industry in stereotypical roles,
portraying coolies, cooks, and servants, Jadin was recognized for
her talents as a dancer and an actress," Mineta said.
For the last quarter of a century, Wong has been busy managing her
own acting agency, which has built up a clientele of over 700 Asian-
American actors. How she ended up on the managing side of the
business was purely accidental: the agency that represented her was
destroyed by fire, and she was brought in to help out.
A "Theater Week" cover story once described Wong as a "sweet Lotus
Bloosom with a heart of gold, and tough Tiger Lady -- both living in
Wong was not offended. "I was brought up as a nice Chinese girl, to
be genteel, don't be too vocal, always be nice," said Wong, who was
named one of the 500 most influential Asian-Americans by "Avenue
Asia" magazine in the late '90s. "You can't do that and be in this
business. Sometimes, you have to kick ass, and I do."
One of Wong's clients, a performance artist named Zoie Lam,
remembers how intimidated she was by Wong's straight-shooting style
the first time they met in the mid-'80s.
Wong's advice to the young actress was blunt. The roles for Asian-
Americans are limited -- take what you can get. "You can't control
other people's perceptions of you," Wong told her. "They're going to
see you as a China doll."
"Even though she was tough, it was like tough love," Lam said. "She
was very honest."
Wong says Asian-Americans have made great strides in recent years,
landing more and more prominent roles in film, television and
However, she says the chances of an Asian man being cast as the love
interest of a pretty blonde on a daytime soap opera are still
remote. While Hong Kong movie stars like Jackie Chan and Chow-Yan
Fat are good at what they do, Wong is concerned that their films may
leave audiences with the impression that Asian-Americans can only
perform in martial arts.
There is a desperate shortage of Asian-Americans producers,
directors and writers, she added.
As she points to the theater memorabilia featured prominently on the
walls of her apartment -- including a photo of her sitting next to
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall, and signed greetings from Frank
Sinatra and Bob Hope -- it becomes quite evident that she is
approaching retirement with ambivalence.
At 88, she recognizes that she deserves to give herself a break. But
as she pulls out her resume -- the one that lists her height as
5'4'', her weight as 105 and her hair color as "silver fox" -- and
tells a reporter, not once, but twice, that she is "famous, you
know," it is clear she will never lose her love for the stage.
"Look it, she's 88," said Sharon Jensen, executive director of the
Non-Traditional Casting Project, a nonprofit organization that
advocates on behalf of minority actors. "She's still going to the
theater, putting herself out there like she's in her 20s. There are
few people anywhere with that passion."
Wong said people who don't follow their heart usually "wind up on a
"You've got only one life to live," she said. "Do something you