Famed Dancer and Agent Jadin Wong Dies at 96

Obituaries   Famed Dancer and Agent Jadin Wong Dies at 96 When Jadin Wong was asked how old she was, the celebrated dancer, comedienne and talent agent quipped, "Age is a number, and I have an unlisted one." In reality, the Chinese-American pioneer, whose career spanned nightclubs, theatre, comedy and film, was 96 when she died March 30 of natural causes in New York City.
Jadin Wong in 1951
Jadin Wong in 1951

David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning playwright of M. Butterfly, said, "The character of Madame Liang in my 2002 rewrite of Flower Drum Song was my tribute to Jadin: a brassy, brilliant ex-actress-turned-agent for 'Oriental' talent. An innovator and a pioneer, Jadin was the quintessential Broadway dame: bursting with chutzpah, never less than glamorous, a showgirl - with a showgirl's body - to the end."

Jodi Long, who played Liang in that Broadway revival, added, "Jadin was quick as a whip, had a great sense of humor, a generous spirit and as a performer, always knew where the camera was. It's the end of an era." Wong's life also was the basis for Forbidden City West, a musical that ran shortly in 2008 at the Yangtze Repertory Theater of America in New York.

Born on May 24, 1913, in Marysville, CA, Ms. Wong grew up in Stockton and started dancing at age five. She moved to San Francisco and headlined as a dancer in 1938 at Charlie Low's Forbidden City, the country's best-known Chinese-American nightclub (such as the one featured in Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical of C.Y. Lee's "Flower Drum Song"). Wearing an exotic headdress and costume, she was featured in Life magazine and written up in Walter Winchell's column in New York. Critics praised her "Dance of the Moon Goddess," in which she performed to Debussy's "Clair de Lune."

In 1941 Ms. Wong was set to make her Broadway debut as a housegirl in Lowell Barrington's The Admiral Had a Wife. Starring Uta Hagen, Alfred Drake and Jose Ferrer, it was a wartime comedy set in Hawaii. However, it closed out of town in Wilmington, DE, because it was set to open only days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ms. Wong once recalled, "How do you do a satire after that?" She then married her dance partner, Li Sun; they toured the country throughout the 1940s but later divorced.

During the 1950s, Ms. Wong stayed in Europe for five years, entertaining the troops. Once she returned to the States, she said she realized that TV had killed the nightclub business, so Wong reinvented herself as a comedy act in the 1960s. She once recalled, "A booker in the Catskills said, 'You're a dancer, you're a woman and you're Chinese. It'll never work. If you're so funny, say something funny.' I told him 'F*ck you!' and I got the job." Wong was billed as "the Oriental chanteuse with a new slant on life," and her theme song was: "I May Be Wong, But I Think You're Beautiful." In 1964 she married Broadway producer Eddie Duryea Dowling, who directed Hellzapoppin’ (1938) and An Evening With Bea Lillie (1952) and worked in the Shubert Organization. In the 1970s Ms. Wong shifted careers again, by running Jadin Wong Management. The talent agency specialized in handling over 400 Asian-American actors for the next three decades. Her clients were cast in Broadway shows like Miss Saigon and South Pacific, as well in TV and film. Wong sometimes acted herself, appearing in movies like "Year of the Dragon" (1985) and "China Girl" (1987). In 1997 she married her third husband, ex-ballplayer Gil Chichester.

Ms. Wong's past as a performer was back in the spotlight in 1989. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong released "Forbidden City, U.S.A.," a documentary inspired by her reminiscences of the "chop suey circuit" of nightclubs in the 1940s and the struggles of minority singers and dancers. Dong said, "In the same way that Jadin [as an agent] encouraged generations of Asian-American entertainers to reach their goals, my chats with her moved me to produce a film that would chronicle the pioneering achievements of Jadin and her colleagues from a bygone era." Since then, she was honored at Lincoln Center and saluted by the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York (MOCA). MOCA plans to host a tribute to Ms. Wong's life on May 24, which would've been her 97th birthday.

Reflecting on her career, Ms. Wong once said, "Applause is like food to an entertainer. Thank you for the banquet."

Ms. Wong is survived by her brother, Wally Wong of New York City; four nieces, Jadin, Lissa, Paula and Isis; one nephew, Chance, and two great-nieces, Jade and Lyric.

(Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News; he was not related to Jadin Wong.)

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