Who’s Afraid of Jan Wong?
by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 12/22/2008
A lunch invitation from Jan Wong was not one you wanted to get when the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s highest-paid and most notorious columnist was writing her eponymous “Lunch with Jan Wong.” The column ran from 1996 to 2002, with a stated aim to “Ask tough questions, check résumés, scrutinize every boob job, tuck and lift.” It garnered her two lawsuits and the moniker “the Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set.”
But her memoirs—Red China Blues (Doubleday, 1997), Jan Wong’s China (Doubleday, 1999) and her latest, A Comrade Lost and Found (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)—are as serious as her celebrity portraits are scurrilous, detailing what Wong, a third-generation Canadian and “Montreal Maoist,” witnessed as a foreign exchange student at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
A Comrade Lost and Found is her third book on China. “I can’t get away from it,” she says. “It’s more modern than the West, you know. Cellphones work everywhere, even in the Gobi desert. Restaurants have small bells that light up to summon waiters. It’s an innovative culture. That’s what happens when you send a whole generation to the pig farms. They’re hungry and don’t take anything for granted.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Wong became enamored with communism while a student at McGill University in the 1970s. She was one of the first two foreign students admitted to Beijing University in 1972, where she “made widgets in factories, transplanted rice in paddy fields, read Marx and Lenin, snitched on class enemies and did my best to be a good little Maoist.” She met and married her husband, Norman—an American computer programmer and draft dodger—while in China and became disillusioned with communism. In her latest book, she takes her family back to Beijing, on the eve of the Olympics, to try to find the “class enemy,” she informed on, a student named Yin Luoyi who was subsequently expelled.
Wong had her own taste of expulsion when her long tenure at the Globe and Mail ended. “I’m still getting used to living without a paycheck,” she says. After her column was pulled in 2002, she turned to writing provocative feature articles, weathering controversy with her trademark bravado, until a 2006 article on a school shooting in Montreal in which Wong analyzed school shootings in Quebec. She observed, “The shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not so in Quebec.”Wong was slammed in the Quebecois press for accusing the province of xenophobia: newspaper cartoons depicted her with exaggeratedly slanted eyes and eating fortune cookies; she was besieged with hate mail and death threats, and publicly rebuked in the editorials of her own newspaper by Prime Minister Stephan Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest. It was dubbed “L’Affaire Wong” in Quebec, and she had a well-publicized breakdown.
Jan Wong today is stripped of her famously thick skin and eager to discuss her new project, an “accidental memoir” of her depression. “People are always amazed at how nice I am,” she tells me, perhaps looking for confirmation. The writer who only four years ago boasted, “I’m not afraid. We have so little to fear as journalists in the West,” looks weary and admits, “I’m shakier, closer to the edge now. I ran this idea by my shrink: depression and vulnerability have an aura. It’s like how pedophiles can sense which kids are vulnerable. People can smell it and then they know they can bully you. Now I know what it’s like being the new kid, the shunned kid.”
The experience, she says, has given her a fresh understanding of Yin Luoyi: “I understand her pain. How she felt when she was attacked. Everyone piles on in this kind of political correctness, which is what the Cultural Revolution was all about. People want to understand how I could [inform on Yin Luoyi]. They don’t understand naïveté. You can believe in Santa Claus, if that’s your culture. It was the same thing. I was a believer; I wanted to fit in. Why did so many people rat out their friends and neighbors? China had its own Holocaust—so many people died and had horrible things done to them. We have no conception of what they went through. We only see them today, bursting onto the scene with their pollution, their insatiable desire to consume.”