NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of talent manager/singer/dancer Jadin Wong.
"Age is a number, and I have an unlisted one," says Jadin Wong.
The self proclaimed “old broad” is 90. Not that you'd believe it from her energy level, her ability to dance, and a sense of humor honed through some 70 years in show business.
Jadin Wong has been called New York's foremost talent manager of Asian-American actors, singers and dancers over the last 30 years, providing opportunity and encouragement for performers from 8 to 80. One of her clients, B.D. Wong, is currently starring on Broadway in “Pacific Overtures.”
She's lost none of the feistiness that first got her into show business in the 30’s, going against the perception of Asian women at the time.
"I'm unusual for an Asian girl. They're very subservient. I'm very nice to people, but I’m not your average Chinese girl,” she says. “I kick tush.”
Wong had been a performer, a dancer, all her life.
“I didn’t really want to be an agent. I'm a nightclub person - I like to sleep until 10:00 or 11:00 or 12:00," she says.
But her agent's office burned down, setting in motion a chain of events in which Wong took over the business. Not that she wanted it.
“The casting people came to me and said, ÎDon't give up,’” she says. “I said, ÎI don't want to work all day and all night and get up at 7:00,’ so they said, ÎWhy don't you specialize and just do Asians. We have a need for it.’"
So began three decades of working with Asian and Asian-American performers. Wong has been described as "a sweet lotus blossom with a heart of gold and a tough tiger lady both living in one woman."
"I'm a tough businesswoman when I know it's in my favor," she says.
So when she was first starting out as an agent, was she as tough as she is now?
“No - they took advantage of me,” she says. “They would come here and have lunch, for them, or they would steal. You learn by people doing you in. I've been done in a lot until I learned how. On the other hand, people have been very kind to me.”
Wong was married twice. She says she was too busy traveling around the world to have children. In a sense, the people she's helped were all her children.
“I want them to learn what no one taught me,” she says. “When I came to New York City as a young Chinese girl, no one wanted to help me because there were very few calls for Asian.”
But has Wong seen any improvement for the Asian-American performer in her 30 years as an agent?
“It's getting better for the Asian, but this is still America,” she says. “It's like a Caucasian actor in Hong Kong saying, 'Why don't they make more pictures for Caucasians?' Because you're in Hong Kong, that's why.”
Wong’s Midtown office/apartment is filled with pictures and memories of 70 years in show business. One of her more provocative photos — where she is scantily clad - was recently used on the cover of a CD. That picture, for that day, must have been pretty racy, no?
"Oh, if my mother could see that out on the Internet, she’d say my honorable ancestors [were] turning in their honorable graves,” she says. “My mother covered it with a towel, then when it came out in all the magazines, I said, ÎMom, it's ok. All the statues in museums are naked, do you go and put clothes on them?’ Well, the Chinese don't believe in showing anything.”
But Wong has made a life of going against type. From her days as a kid growing up in Stockton, California, she wanted to head to the big city, San Francisco, to dance.
“So I was climbing out the window and my mother came to the window and I said, ÎOh my God, I’m going to get it now,’" she says. “Instead, she reached out and said, ÎI know you are going someplace because you are going to dance. I saved just $$20 out of the food money - I want you to have it.’”
She made her way to San Francisco, studied ballet, and struggled financially. At one time she was so poor her music teacher would bring her food.
But she eventually got a job at Forbidden City, which would become San Francisco's most famous Chinese nightclub, and she landed on the cover of Life magazine.
“Asian women don't show legs, and I'm different from most Asian women, I guess,” she says. “I was intense in what I do. I still am. I'm very intense."
Years later Forbidden City would be the subject of a documentary about the nightclub.
“We used to get letters from Chinese people telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves doing what we do for a living, showing our legs in a nightclub - we should get a decent job," Wong says in the documentary.
She traveled all over the world and rubbed shoulders with movie stars, performing in New York, London and Paris.
She performed for American soldiers during World War II, and it almost cost her her life. Wong was in a small military plane that was going down, and was told she could stay on the plane for an emergency landing and risk injury, or she could use a parachute and jump, all alone.
“I said, ÎOk, give me my purse and my makeup,’” she says. “They said, ÎYou can't have your purse.’ I said, ÎI don't go anyplace without my purse.’ They said, ÎIt will open.’ I said, ÎOk, I'll take lipstick and a comb and money.’ I'm going to a strange country with no money? I'm crying, I look awful, and I couldn't open it. Finally, when it was almost at a danger point, it opened, my knees came up and hit me in the eye, and I had a black eye. I landed in a tree."
She survived, and later that day performed for American soldiers, for which she was honored in the Congressional Record.
“I was so happy to be alive, I promised to God I would be so good and kind to everyone,” she says. “And it helped. Before, I was a little bit shy. Now I talk to dogs, cats, people."
Wong would eventually move to New York to perform here, appear in movies, even work the Borscht Belt as a comedian in the Catskills. But even after years of helping other performers, once a dancer, always a dancer.
Wong has spent countless hours over the years as a dancer, performer and agent. She says she's met thousands of people who have come and gone in her life, and have often come back again.
“I say that life is like a tapestry. You meet people, you don't see them again,” she says. “Somehow you cross paths. I firmly believe in that, because it’s happened to me so many times. “There's an old saying in show business, that applause is like food to an entertainer. Thank you for the banquet.”
- Budd Mishkin