Little Miss Mischief

Throughout her career, Jan Wong has continuously reinvented herself. With the death of "Lunch with" two years ago, she's once again looking to cut out a new role

Julia Williams
Summer, 2004 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

The bus platform at Toronto's Lawrence subway station is uncharacteristically quiet for a Friday evening. There are few commuters, no buses and little noise. It doesn't even feel like rush hour until Jan Wong arrives. Wearing a green hooded coat and bright royal blue backpack, Wong could just as easily be coming from school as from a conference on human rights in China. She is disarmingly youthful, energetic and talkative. In fact, Wong's barely settled on a concrete bench when she chirps up and offers directions to a stranger. Then she notices the young woman sitting on the bench beside her. "I didn't even see you there," Wong says cheerfully, turning toward her. The woman, frizzy-haired and plaid-skirted, looks up from a game of computer solitaire on her laptop and nods.

"I recognized your voice when you were talking," the woman says to Wong. She giggles but doesn't say more. Wong giggles too, and half-jokingly offers to give the woman directions. But when Bus 124 pulls up, the chitchat ends. Suddenly Wong is all business. "Tell them to call me," she pleads, springing up from her seat. "Tell them they should talk."

She touches her companion's arm before walking away. "Tell them the story's dying."

By "them," Wong means the parents of nine-year-old Cecilia Zhang, a Toronto girl who was kidnapped from her North York bedroom. Her baffling disappearance has dominated the news for days, particularly in The Globe and Mail's three-month-old Toronto section. Toronto editor Simon Beck has two of his big guns on the Zhang case: while columnist Christie Blatchford works the police angle, Wong covers the Chinese community.

This encounter with the woman at the bus stop should prove useful - for once, Wong's byline might get more play than Blatchford's. As a Zhang family friend, the anonymous laptop woman has been able to provide Wong with material - like how Cecilia was named after a Simon and Garfunkel song - that has set her stories apart. But before Wong scored this too-good-to-be-true source she had to rely on the shrewd reporting tactics that have shaped her career as an investigative journalist. For her third article, seven days after Cecilia's disappearance, Wong talked her way into a North York neighborhood home so she could peek out a window that overlooked the Zhang family's back yard. This, she explains, was the only way to come up with the following two sentences: "The kidnappers appear to have jimmied open a kitchen window more than two metres above the ground, facing the back yard. Cecilia's bedroom was above the kitchen window, and also faced the back yard."

Most Globe readers probably skimmed over those 34 words. But that wouldn't matter to Wong, who's never content with secondhand accounts or truths that can't be confirmed with her own eyes. She just has to get as close to her stories as possible and she'll do whatever it takes to get there. "Jan comes from that old school of journalism," says Maryam Sanati, Wong's editor at Report on Business Magazine. "She's one tough cookie."

Wong's toughness is legendary. And while it may not win her friends, it does mean she's bestowed with a grudging respect from industry colleagues. If there's one thing journalists agree on, it's that Jan Wong knows how to go out and get a story. Call her pushy, fearless, tenacious, persistent; any way you look at it, she's a reporter on a mission. This demon reporting has led Wong to break some original stories, such as her discovery that Terry Popowich, a senior vice-president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, lied about graduating from the London School of Economics. (Popowich was immediately fired). But her toughness also courts controversy. Some colleagues saw Wong's post-9/11 attempt to expose lax airport security by bringing a box cutter onto an Air Canada flight as little more than sensationalism. Readers questioned why Wong risked putting others in danger for her work.

But what makes Wong controversial is also what makes her one of the country's most talked-about reporters. She rarely censors her thoughts, and spills them onto the printed page with savage honesty - as anyone who's lunched with her would know. Former "Lunch with Jan Wong" subject Pamela Wallin once compared Wong to Hannibal Lecter. CBC's Michael Enright went even further: "A request for lunch with Jan Wong is like hearing from Revenue Canada - it's a phone call you don't want to get."

Wong's tough approach has seen her through plenty of successful career roles. With three books, a stack of newspaper credits and two distinct claims to fame, first as a foreign correspondent and later as a columnist, Wong's journalism has thrived by constant "self-reinventions" - a term coined by Edward Greenspon, her boss at the Globe. Take a glance at Wong's résumé and you'll see it's true of her life, not just her work. Nestled among her brag-worthy credits at The New York Times, the Globe and The Wall Street Journal is "peasant, rural China" - her occupation from 1975-76. "Pneumatic driller and lathe operator" is listed for the year 1972.

But it's a nagging pressure, this self-reinvention. Since the death of Wong's column in 2002, she has struggled to find a new niche at the Globe. Wong's most promising stint - as an ROB Magazine writer - was sacrificed for the Toronto section, where editors appreciate her name, if not her talents. Sandwiched between other big-name writers, she doesn't fare well. Like a handy crutch, her tough journalism persists, propping up a few stories - like Cecilia Zhang. But so far, it's not enough. Journalist Robert Fulford, like many in the business, talks about Wong in the past tense. Still, like everyone else, Fulford knows you can never count her out. "What Jan Wong lacks at the moment is a role," he says. "That's it."

* * *

On a quiet Tuesday in early September, Wong is anxious to get to her meeting. Preferring to work from home, she hasn't been to the office since the Globe launched its Toronto section. At noon, Wong will meet many of her editors and colleagues for the first time. None of this matters, of course. She has already predicted the meeting will be a waste of time, conducted simply because the Globe is a meeting-oriented institution and editors have nothing better to do than hear themselves talk. But, she explains, rifling through mail and blue sticky notes at her desk, she is anxious to get there because there will be sandwiches - "Reporters will go far for a free sandwich," she quips.

Wong is usually - and remarkably - void of personal vanity or self-consciousness. ("What would really embarrass me?" she once asked in an article for Toronto Life. "It's hard to say when you have no threshold of embarrassment.") She also has a penchant for thinking aloud. "I'm checking my email - is that rude? Am I rude?" Wong asks, whipping around in her chair. "Let's keep talking, I'm just reading something."

Before long, Wong walks briskly through a maze of cubicles to a drab boardroom at the back of the building. The room is empty, save for Tony Reinhart, the Globe's newly hired Toronto columnist - and the promised sandwiches. As more people trickle in and sit down at the boardroom table, Wong unpackages the food and distributes napkins. "Do I have to wash my hands because of SARS?" she jokes. Then, as unfamiliar faces drift in, she asks loudly, "Who's that? I don't know any of these people."

Once the room is full, Wong suggests they go around the table introducing themselves. But as Saturday Toronto editor Dianne de Fenoyl explains her role in the weekend section, Wong quickly interjects: "You have egg on your face," she announces. De Fenoyl blushes while everyone else chuckles. "That's just like Jan," someone at the other end of the table says.

* * *

It was at another table - the family table - that Wong most likely came by her legendary frankness. By the time Wong was born in 1952, the Wong and (on her mother's side) Chong families had two generations of Canadian experience behind them. Both families were survivors. Wong's grandparents had paid the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants to Canada, while her parents and had lived through the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act and become pioneers in the Chinese-Canadian community. At family get-togethers, where everyone battled to be heard, Wong learned the skill of speaking up.

Her childhood was comfortable, if sheltered, growing up in Montreal with sister Gigi and brothers, Earl and Ernest. Their father, Bill Wong, was a businessman and successful restauranteur who urged his eldest daughter to adopt the "Confucian work ethic" at an early age. So Wong brought home good-girl grades and searched for a role model. Her mother, Eva Wong, suggested then-journalist Adrienne Clarkson. Wong picked Lois Lane.

That was before China's Cultural Revolution. By 1972, Wong had replaced Lois Lane with a new ideal: Beijing Jan. That summer a 19-year-old Wong moved to China to study the language, find her roots and become her ideal: a woman who could renounce capitalism, abandon Western society and live the life of a Chinese peasant while propagating Mao Zedong's vision. She was one of only two Westerners enrolled at Beijing University at the height of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

The next six years were Wong's most formative. As a revolutionary, she studied Maoism at school, worked as a lathe operator at Beijing Number One Machine Tool Factory and lived off her own sustenance at Big Joy Farm in rural China. "Bright Precious" Wong (as she was known in Chinese) also watched as Mao's government perpetuated a two-tiered class system and clamped down on civil liberties. Wong herself reported two fellow workers to the authorities for their "counter-revolutionary" plot to leave China for the West. Then, at some point in all of this, Wong changed her mind about Mao.

In her 1996 memoir, Red China Blues, Wong recounts her Maoist phase as "radical chic," naïve and idealistic. "I thought I was a hard-nosed revolutionary," she writes, "but I was really a Montreal Maoist." A passing fad, perhaps, but one with lasting consequences. Experiencing Mao's China firsthand pulled the tunic from Wong's eyes. Rather than becoming disillusioned with power, she learned to be more skeptical. She refused to be pushed around. And in doing so, Beijing Jan acquired the skills that would lead to her no-bullshit journalism.

In 1980, after working as a news assistant for Fox Butterfield, The New York Times' China correspondent, Wong returned to the West to complete her Masters in journalism at Columbia University. Fresh out of journalism school, she became the marine reporter at The Montreal Gazette, where her editor, Joseph Gelmon, nicknamed her "Skipper." Given a beat no one wanted in a puffy, lightweight section, Wong opted instead to write investigative pieces about the shipping industry. When a less hard-hitting competing publication appeared, advertisers backed out and the paper killed the marine section. Other novice journalists might have been scared for their jobs or reputations. Wong simply thought: good for me.

It was an attitude she would take with her back to China. In 1988, after eight years working as a journalist back home, Wong returned to Beijing as the Globe's China correspondent. But this was a very different Beijing Jan. For six years, Wong's hard eye reported a country in turmoil. After Mao's death in 1976, the government was losing its grip on political dissidents and in 1989, tensions erupted in a bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square. Camping out on a hotel balcony overlooking the Square, Wong watched and took notes as the body count mounted.

Her furious, methodological documentation of the Tiananmen massacre earned Wong a reputation back home. "[Tiananmen] was one of her real high points," recalls John Fraser, Wong's predecessor as Beijing bureau chief. "That's when I realized she was a superb journalist." Others agreed, and in 1994, Wong returned to Canada as the Globe's darling. She brought with her a strengthened conviction for real reporting in Canada's landscape of polite, sycophantic and politically correct journalism. She knew people might get hurt by her tough words, but she also knew that, back home in Canada, freedom of speech was hers to exercise. "I know that people get upset [at what I write]," Wong explains. "But I'm not afraid. We have so little to fear as journalists in the West. So I'm going to have a reputation. Big deal. I'm not going to have my house firebombed. That's real fear."

o o o

Back in Toronto, Wong wasn't exactly safe. After publishing a best-selling memoir, she prepared herself for the possibility that, like many foreign correspondents before her, she could disappear into obscurity. But Wong didn't disappear, she reinvented herself - again. And as Jan Wong the columnist, she became more famous still.

"Lunch with Jan Wong" wasn't Wong's idea, but it was certainly her creation. It began when Wong's editor Cathrin Bradbury asked her to write a profile of author Margaret Atwood that made readers feel as if they were sitting at the lunchtime interview. It took off when Wong's behind-the-scenes portrayal of the meeting revealed everything from Atwood's surprising shortcomings (she couldn't spell macaroni) to her appalling diva behaviour (after choosing the restaurant, Atwood complained about the table and refused to eat). From there, Wong had to figure out how to follow her own act. So, she perfected the art of the inappropriate questions - like the length of KISS frontman Gene Simmons' penis or whether Canadian beauty queen Danielle House was menstruating the day she posed nude for Playboy. And only Wong, with her unassuming little-Asian-girl bit, could always get those answers. The column became a must-read.

Wong's "Lunch with" style was typically light, if condemnatory. Her take on Canadian author Evelyn Lau: "Now, I left my comfortable Montreal home at nineteen to voluntarily haul pig manure in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I have trouble understanding why someone so smart would drop out of school and run away from home at fourteen and end up as a junkie-whore."

Critics like journalist Allan Fotheringham called her unsympathetic, unhappy even. Yet readers generally welcomed Wong's hard eye - as long as her gaze was focused on public figures. It was when she veered from the relative safety of celebrity profiles to write about everyday people that Wong was more often accused of being indiscriminately judgmental. Her column on Toronto beggar Nancy Lynn Hallam was particularly controversial. Her description of Hallam partly read: "She was fat - 277 pounds on a five-foot-two inch frame. And she always begged from a government-supplied $4,000 Ultramatic wheelchair-scooter, less a necessity than an accessory… [She] was wearing blue eye shadow, pink stretch pants, a teal-blue sweatshirt, and a soiled white hockey sweater."

Letters flooded in to the Globe about Wong's harsh description of an ordinary person - and about her questionable decision to take a homeless woman to a fancy restaurant for its sheer shock value. But Wong makes no apologies for this, or any of her other columns. "When you're a journalist," she says, "you have to be very critical and analytical of people - whether they're rich or poor. I don't treat anybody with deference." But as willing interview subjects became harder to find, "Lunch with" was eventually killed.

The column survived just over six years, from 1996 to 2002. Some, like Fotheringham, would say it was six years too long. Even friends, such as Globe colleague John Saunders, felt Wong's fierce reporting was wasted on the trivial celebrity beat and were glad to see her move on. But moving on would be Wong's biggest challenge yet. Unlike her news writing, the distinct narrative voice of "Lunch with" made Wong a subject of her own journalism. She was now a persona. As Fulford wrote in his review of the "Lunch with" book, "[it] tells us only a little about each subject, but it amounts to an extensive portrait of Wong."

That self-inked portrait lingers on. These days, Wong faces two equally unappealing possibilities: that readers can't remember her name outside of "Lunch with" infamy, or that they can't remember her name at all.

o o o

It is late November, nearly four months since the birth of the Toronto section, and the days are getting shorter and colder. Cecilia Zhang is no longer on the front pages (Wong won't revisit the story until the spring). So, with nothing better to do, Wong goes to Rochester, New York, for an inconsequential story about a ferry line that will soon link that humdrum city to Toronto. Her editors aren't crazy about the piece but she can't postpone the assignment any longer. She's tired. She has other things on her mind. And to top it all off, it's raining.

Walking into Rochester mayor William Johnson Jr.'s office, Wong looks, by her own admission, quite pathetic - "Like a drowned cat." Perhaps because of this, Wong speculates, her interview with Mayor Johnson goes very well. Her story, "Ferry Bad Place" goes on to impudently outline the reasons Torontonians wouldn't want to go to Rochester, even quoting the mayor himself about one particular stretch of the city: "I wouldn't walk there. Don't go there again."

With its damning details and acid-dipped humour, the Rochester story is classic Wong. And, like other classic Wong articles, it creates quite a stir. Wong's editors are pleasantly surprised; the people of Rochester are outraged. The mayor writes into the Globe and refers to Wong as "Rush Limbaugh in drag." Even The New York Times picks up the story about Rochester's indignation. But Wong, for her part, seems unperturbed. She is, in fact, bemused. Aside from the hassle of constant interview requests, she thinks the story is no big deal. And comparisons to Limbaugh fail to faze her. As she tells the Times, China's secret police are capable of much worse threats.

You wouldn't expect any less from a woman who, in Fraser's words, "is someone whose errors of judgment are as big as her successes." The thing about Wong is that her errors and her successes can sometimes be one and the same. "There must be people who roll their eyes and say, 'There she goes again!'" Wong says of the Rochester story. But, she adds, "I love doing that kind of thing." Being mischievous, causing a stir - these things come naturally to a journalist who prefers infamy to obscurity and self-reivention to predictability.If Wong's editors at the Globe would recognize this, they could save her from her current limbo.

Whether to promote good citizenship or just good gossip, every society needs a troublemaker. This is one role, at least, that should always be open to Wong if she wants it. And she does.

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