Former Beijing Correspondent: Why Only One Woman of Colour in 62 Years?

"I'm really angry about all this time that I ended up being a one-time-only exception to the white male parade," says Jan Wong

When I reach Jan Wong at her house in Toronto, she is in the process of killing a pesky moth.

“I hate moths,” she says. “They eat all my sweaters.”

“I have one of these Chinese-executioner badminton rackets [bug zapper], which are good for killing insects because you don’t have to hit it, you just have to have contact and then fry it. I love it.”

Wong was fired from The Globe and Mail in 2008 after taking an extended medical leave following the backlash to a column in which she suggested that three Quebec school shootings of the previous two decades — the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, the 1992 Concordia University massacre, and the 2006 Dawson College shooting — might have been related to the fact that the perpetrators were not old-stock “pure laine” Québécois, and had been alienated by a Quebec society concerned with racial purity.

On June 10, Wong retweeted an announcement from The Globe and Mail about their new Beijing correspondent, James Griffith, who is replacing Nathan VanderKlippe, who’d held the post since 2013. She spoke to Canadaland about her own history as a foreign correspondent, and why women should get all the foreign-correspondent positions for the next hundred years.

Wong was the Beijing correspondent for the Globe from 1988 to 1994.

The following Q & A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What prompted you to tweet that?

Serious annoyance. I felt seriously annoyed that all these years they can’t hire a woman. They can’t hire someone who’s not white. I mean, it’s a country, a region of people who aren’t white, and sure, it’s okay to send a white guy every now and then, but 100% is outrageous. I was trying to figure it out before you called, how many Beijing-office correspondents there have been. I think I was number 12 or 13.

So that needs to change. How about for the next 60-something years, maybe next 100 years, we only have women of colour in the job?

I thought that at least I would be the start of something. You know how you’re if you’re first, you want to make sure you leave the door open for other people to come behind. And I felt I had done a very good job. And I had to be 10 times as good as any white man. I had, for instance, a degree in Chinese studies, Chinese history, I also had a degree in history from Peking University. Like, what more do you want, and I was fluent in spoken, written, and in reading Chinese, and it’s not my mother tongue. I am a third-generation Canadian, 140 years from when my grandfather came to Canada to build the railway, so I had no built-in advantage. I learned it all from scratch.

Why do you feel like diversity is important for a foreign-correspondent position?

I think it’s very important, especially in a country like China, to be able to blend in and go places where you don’t stand out like a sore thumb. And so, if you are a foreigner, if you look like a foreigner, it’s much harder. I am a foreigner, but I don’t look like a foreigner. So I was able to get into all kinds of places. I just walk in.

I am Canadian. And I am ethnically Chinese, but the thing is, I had lived in China for six years before I went as a correspondent, and the things that they lived through in the Cultural Revolution, I understood because I was there, I lived through it. If someone told me their age, I knew exactly what they had experienced during the Cultural Revolution, and that means I can jump right into what I want to interview them about.

I think that it is important to be a woman, too, because so many stories are about the women in China, about their situation. And how the Chinese government is still extremely male-dominated. You would think it was really weird if [all of the Globe’s Beijing correspondents over the years] were all female and all Asians, right? But everybody seems to think it’s fine that another white male has been appointed. I’m pretty, pretty sure he doesn’t speak Chinese. So it would be as odd as if China sent a foreign correspondent to Canada, and they didn’t speak English, and they always had to rely on an interpreter. If they had to hire somebody to take them around, take them by the hand, every time they talk to somebody, every time they answer the phone because they don’t speak English. So how can you be a journalist, if you can’t speak the language?

Do you have someone you would like to see get the position?

The Globe is the only Canadian print job in China. It’s the reason I came back to Canada, because it was my career goal. I was working in the U.S. at The Wall Street Journal and thought, “Okay, this is the job I want,” so I came to Toronto. I worked as a business reporter, and I made it clear that this is what I wanted. The correspondent job is such a precious commodity. I like Joanna Chiu [at the Star]. She’s very good, but I’m sure there’s others, right? We have quite a few Chinese Canadian reporters now. I don’t know if they want to go, but I don’t know if there was a real search. I didn’t hear that [the Globe] was looking.

What was the response to your tweet like?

Oh, I think, quite a few people retweeted it. I think I got one snarky comment calling me a Maoist, which is rude, but you always get that on Twitter. I think a few people felt it was mean to the new guy, but I don’t care. A few journalists retweeted it. You know, [former CBC correspondent] Patrick Brown came to China while I was there for the CBC, and he ended up learning fluent Chinese reading and writing because he really knuckled down, and he took lessons every morning, but he’s so unusual. The other guys in Beijing that I was with had all studied Mandarin. I never got recognition because people just assumed, “Oh, you’re Chinese, you speak it at home.” That’s another irritation. So I guess I’m really mad. I’m really angry about all this time that I ended up being a one-time-only exception to the white male parade. I think that these jobs are so precious, these experiences are so precious. And it’s monopolized by, you know, by white people. I’m kind of tired of it.

What do you say to the young journalists who might be BIPOC who are looking at the news, and they’re feeling really deflated because they see the credentials foreign correspondents have and they don’t know how they can get their turn at this job?

I had to be 10 times as good as my predecessors and the people who came after me. You have to be at the top. That’s the first thing: you have to be better than the average white guy, but you also have to make noise. You have to let everybody know this is what you want. So, you have to go out there and grab it. And that’s what I did.

I remember at my job interview, I was working for The Wall Street Journal in Boston. And I applied to the Globe, because they had a Beijing bureau. I was hoping to go to China for the Journal, but they had just shut down their Beijing bureau. It was incredibly stupid, but they said there was no news. So then I looked around and I said, “Okay, I’m Canadian. There’s one job in Canada for a print reporter who wants to be a foreign correspondent, and it’s The Globe and Mail.” So I applied. And then I told everybody that’s what I wanted. They flew me from Boston to Toronto for my interviews. I had 10 minutes with each editor. And I said to the foreign editor, “My goal is the Beijing bureau.” He laughed in my face. And he said, “Get in line.” I still remember what he said to me, it was so contemptuous. So I did. I wrote an application. I handed it in, and I remember the managing editor said, “You know, this is a really good application, I wish everybody did this,” because I told them all the reasons why I should be the next Beijing correspondent. And it wasn’t a shoo-in, there were two others at the Globe who wanted to go, and they both spoke Mandarin. So it was a real competition. And the other thing I had to do was to really perform as a business journalist. I had to hit home runs every day. That’s what we said. I had to break myself onto page one. So that’s what I mean when I say I had to be 10 times better.

Photo: Adapted from the original

Correction 06/19/2021 10:20 AM: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Patrick Brown as the former Ontario PC leader and current Brampton mayor; Jan Wong was actually referring to Patrick Brown, the journalist who has been posted outside of Canada for the CBC and Global News. An earlier version also mistakenly said Wong worked for The Washington Post

Latest Stories
Dear Taliban (Extended)
Announcing Our 2024 Podcast Slate
Introducing CanadaLabs