Lunch with Jan Wong—this one’s on her

In Arts & Life /

By Jessie Stones

After three years of being a professional lunch date, Jan Wong sure makes a good first impression.

Her weekly Globe and Mail column, Lunch With, has earned her a reputation in celebrity circles as one of the ferocious ladies who lunch. But in person, she’s quite pleasant.

She arrives for lunch at the Bloor Street Diner only a few minutes late, and apologizes immediately.

She wonders if my eggs Benedict will come with enough Hollandaise sauce. She makes sure the waitress knows we’re in a hurry—she has a festival film to catch in an hour at the theatre upstairs.

It’s hard to imagine this middle-class, middle-aged homeowner and mother of two digging ditches and hauling manure in Maoist China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

She will share her experience with foreign, exotic jobs at Ryerson on Sept. 21 in a lecture on international career opportunities for students.

Wong says the best advice she can give students is to just get up and leave. “I’m talking about living and working somewhere else,” she says. “People who see the world broaden so much more.”

Her first foray into a foreign environment was in 1972, when she went to Beijing for the summer after her third year studying Chinese history at McGill University in Montreal—she ended up staying almost six years. She was the only Canadian allowed to study at Beijing University that year. It was her fourth freshman experience.

“Being a freshman is like an endless cocktail party,” she says. “You walk into a room and everyone is sizing you up. Are they interesting? Do I want to be friends with them?”

At Trent University in Peterborough, Wong’s first frosh run, she was selected by the administration as one of the five ‘Freshettes.’ “I think I probably sat nicely,” she says, wincing. “Kept my legs together.”

But life was no garden tea party at Beijing University. “I was there for the hard labour,” she says.

She finished her degree at McGill the next year, but returned to China and spent another four years in support of the revolution.

Wong had to learn about her ancestral country at university. Raised in an English-speaking, Canadian household in Montreal, she is a third-generation Canadian.

Her cultural naiveté made it difficult to feel at home in Beijing—especially as a dinner guest.

“My mother taught me to clean my plate,” she says. In China, she soon learned to leave a small portion on her plate to indicate she was finished—otherwise her hosts, being polite, would give her refills.

“I probably ate all their rations for the whole year in one meal,” she jokes, her fork halfway to her mouth.

Today she finishes her entire salad—a treat because she’s not working, she says. “I hold my pen and my fork in the same hand,” she says. “So I try not to order things where I have to dig.”

She became disillusioned with the revolution when Mao died in 1976. “I thought I was going to change the world.”

Instead, two years later, she moved on to Columbia University to get a master’s degree in journalism. But she feels her decision to abandon revolutionary action for the printed word was a logical evolution. “I don’t see it as a betrayal of my former self—words are really powerful.”

She would know. Because of her high-profile vitriol, it can be hard to get a coveted lunch date. She desperately wants to interview Martha Stewart—“It would be like shooting fish in a barrel”—but Stewart’s publicist says it’ll never happen.

Wong’s reputation as a celebrity slayer has obviously preceded her. She tends to hold back nothing in her critical reviews of her dining companions.

She leaves in a rush to make her 1:30 p.m. movie. But she has no ticket. She’s not even an accredited member of the press for the festival. She sweet talks the publicist, box office staff and fellow journalists to get in.

After posing for photographs outside the theatre, Jan Wong heads inside to buy some popcorn. Lunch, it seems, won’t be enough.

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