A hard-nosed and capable reporter, Jan Wong is best known--and despised--for her weekly column called Lunch With Jan Wong which was published in The Globe and Mail up until quite recently. Her interviews were charcterised by a lack of inhibitions on Wong’s part when it came to revealing unflattering details about her guests. A recent quotation from National Post columnist Robert Fulford accurately depicted the notoriety with which Ms. Wong is regarded by many: “A Jan Wong interview has all the charm of a train wreck,” wrote Fulford, “complete with the moaning survivors.”
Among these survivors include internationally renowned figures such as author Margaret Atwood, the late Pierre Trudeau’s former wife Margaret, designer Peter Nygard (who took legal action when Wong compared his complexion to that of a baseball mitt after a lifetime of tanning), and actress/fitness guru Suzanne Somers, who Wong described as suffering from crepe neck (although in Wong’s defense, Somers’ latest product was a contraption which she claimed could magically smooth away wrinkles).
Although by its very nature, celebrity reporting is a trivial and easily dissmissable venture, Jan Wong has undoubtedly raised it to a respectable form of journalism through her successful column. Since her often critical writing style has earned Jan Wong national recognition, Canadians mainly think of her as a catty and vicious celebrity schmoozer, few of them knowing any details of her career prior to celebrity lunches.
The daughter of a well-off Montreal restauranteur, a young Jan Wong fell under the spell of Maoist China, which offered her a seemingly perfect opportunity to put into practise her Vietnam era left-wing beliefs while experiencing her cultural heritage. Despite already being enrolled as a student at McGill University, Wong applied and was accepted at Beijing University, where she became one of only two Westerners allowed to study there in 1972. She remained there for four years as a committed Maoist who gladly submitted to hours of manual labour while eagerly devouring the works of Marx and Lenin.
When Mao Zedong died in 1976 and his widow was purged, Wong abandoned her willful blindness and really began to consider the darker repercussions of China’s Cultural Revolution. Wong then decided to return home and pursue a degree in journalism from Colombia University. When she returned to China in 1988, she did so as the chief correspondent to the Globe and Mail’s Beijing bureau. Her disenchantment with Chinese politics was tragically affirmed in 1989, where Wong was a first-hand witness to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, helplessly watching from her hotel balcony as thousands of Chinese citizens were slaughtered by the People’s Army.
Following her experiences in China, Wong wrote her non-fiction memoir, Red China Blues, which is still banned in China today. She also later authored another non-fiction work, Jan Wong’s China: Reports From a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent. The former book, published in 1996, details her experiences as a student in China at Beijing University, where the curriculum appeared to contain much more manual labour than actual studying. The second book chronicles Wong’s experiences as a reporter in the tight-lipped post-Mao nation. Both books contain detailed first-hand accounts of historical events, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, along with a great deal of political and social commentary on the state of modern China.
As in her celebrity profiles, Wong’s reverence for China does not appear to interfere with her ability to depict her subject in a truthful manner. On page 302 of Jan Wong’s China, she quotes a disgrunted husband barred from the delivery room where his wife is giving birth to their son, who says: “There’s too many Chinese, so we’re not treated like people.” This essentially sums up Jan Wong’s Chinese experience, in which she chronicles the tales of drug addicts, and closeted Chinese homosexuals, along with everyday citizens suffering under an oppressive government.
Wong writes with a meticulous and informative style resembling that of a news briefing, conducting interviews while using her intimate knowledge of Chinese cultural nuances and politics to her advantage. With her trademark blend of tact and directness, Jan Wong has proven herself to be one of Canada’s brightest journalists. While she is often criticised for her indiscreet treatment of celebrities’ flaws, anyone who has read any of her books knows that Wong writes with the same lack of inhibitions even when dealing with her own experiences.