In the postwar years, when cavernous night clubs, hotel entertainment lounges and supper clubs thrived in towns and cities across North America, Paddy Wing was a showbiz sensation. With entertaining, fast-paced dance routines he called “ballet-tap,” Mr. Wing was known as “the Chinese Ray Bolger,” after the song-and-dance man who had rocketed to fame in The Wizard of Oz as the lithe-limbed scarecrow who would have been fine, if he only had a brain.
But Mr. Wing had no shortage of smarts. He parlayed his athleticism and a relentless drive to succeed into a career that took him from an early upbringing in British Columbia’s rustic Cariboo region to the bright lights of New York by the time he was 21. Over the next two decades, he was rarely far from a stage, starring on the vaudeville circuit even as it waned, until television did its work and regular gigs began to dry up in the 1960s.
Along the way, Mr. Wing, who died Sept. 10 at the age of 94, broke new ground for ethnic Chinese performers, eschewing stereotypes by opting for top hat, tuxedo and cane for his show-stopping numbers. While that was his most successful act, Mr. Wing adopted a number of other personas during his career, including a yodelling cowboy, a stand-up comic and guitar-playing troubadour. He also found time to drop into New York’s legendary Brill Building in a successful quest to have some of his songs published, perform in a pair of touring Broadway musicals and appear on television in an episode of the ultrapopular Phil Silvers Show. “In those days, the Chinese were in the restaurants, the grocery business or laundries, so I was very grateful to be able to make a good living by doing what I loved,” said Mr. Wing, later in life. “I loved it all.”
Paddy Wing was born Aug. 24, 1926, in Quesnel, 600 kilometres north of Vancouver, to Yip Shee and C.S. Wing. The family, with roots in British Columbia stretching back to the gold rush days of the 1860s, subsequently operated a general store in Soda Creek, before relocating again in 1936 to the gold-mining town of Wells, east of Quesnel, to take over a thriving business, which included a pool room, gambling club, barber shop, beauty parlour and a laundry in the basement. The young Paddy took up sports there in a big way, playing on the Wells junior hockey team and swooping to victories on local ski slopes.
After the family moved once again, to Vancouver in 1939, this time to run a grocery and convenience store beside the historic Ovaltine Café on East Hastings Street, he continued to shine as an athlete, winning junior downhill and slalom races against competitors from across the province. In hockey, with his brother Dave and a third Chinese-Canadian, Harry Keen, he was part of a rare all-Chinese forward line. When their line scored the winning goal in a juvenile game against “the Buckeroos,” the Vancouver Province scribe hailed the game-winner as “an all-China Clipper effort.”
But he found himself increasingly drawn to dance. After winning an amateur tap competition and receiving a few lessons, he did well during an impromptu engagement at the city’s Cave Supper Club. “That was my big break,” Mr. Wing recalled. With the brash confidence of youth, he quit his accounting job and headed off to New York. Just a few months later, Mr. Wing was emcee and solo tap dancer for a spectacular new revue at one of the city’s “Big Four” nightclubs, the China Doll at 51st and Broadway that featured ethnic Asian performers.
The show opened before a celebrity-studded audience that included Rosalind Russell, composer Richard Rodgers, the Epstein twins, who wrote Casablanca, King Kong star Bruce Cabot, and, according to one wag reporter, “a dame who looked like Hedy Lamarr but wasn’t.” The show was a hit, and so was the 22-year-old Mr. Wing.
Hardened New York nightlife columnists were impressed. “Paddy Wing’s hoofing is tops,” wrote the Daily Mirror’s Nick Kenny. Penned Robert W. Dana of the New York-World Telegraph: “Paddy Wing contributes handsomely to the China Doll show.” The revue ran for 32 weeks.
Despite having “made it” in New York, however, Mr. Wing did not want to be typecast as an Asian performer. He honed his skills with famed dance instructor Henry LeTang, adding splits and twists and leaps to his polished routines, plus a marvellous train imitation to the tune of jazz standard Take the A Train that always got the biggest ovation of the night. He labelled it “ballet-tap” and headed out onto the road as a solo act.
Agents booked him into nightclubs and revues across North America, from Dubuque, Iowa, to Detroit, from Palm Springs, Calif., to the Palomar in Seattle, appearing on the same bill as Sarah Vaughan. In Reno, the managing director of his show at the Golden Hotel was gambling mogul and mobster Bill Graham. Mr. Wing never failed to generate raves. Typical was a review of his appearance at the Oasis Club in Houston, published in the show business bible, Variety: “Paddy Wing spins a mean tapping hoof. He has an affable charm, and his most difficult routines seem almost too easy the way he does them. He has a polished style in keeping with his immaculate dress that gathers plenty of handpatting [clapping].” There was also the reviewer, in vintage hyperbole, who called him “an H-bomb of activity” on stage.
Still, he could not always escape the era’s paternal attitudes toward non-white performers, referred all too often as a “Chinese boy,” as if he were a houseboy or servant. When he returned home to Vancouver for a brief stay with his family, a local reporter, noting how he had danced his way into "American big-time entertainment', marvelled that he was “as Chinese as East Pender [Chinatown].”
None of it bothered Mr. Wing. He loved being in a different city every week, travelling by train, accompanied by a special trunk that functioned as a closet for his stage attire. “I was not in the business to be a star,” he reflected to an interviewer. “I was in it, because I felt it was me. It was just so much fun.”
Over time, he broadened his act, mixing in comedy, singing and even yodelling. At the Skyline Club in Billings, Mont., he appeared in a cowboy getup, billed as “The Only Chinese Yodelling Cowboy Act in the Country,” a claim that was undoubtedly true.
By the 1960s, however, Mr. Wing found himself in an entertainment era that was rapidly disappearing. Glitzy floor shows were becoming passé. He moved to Montreal, where he had always been popular, picking up smaller gigs in the city’s few remaining clubs and performing on cruise ships. A few years later, still barely 50, he retired, settling in Vancouver to care for his ailing mother. “I think he just wanted to simplify his life, to have a slower pace,” his niece Valerie Wong said.
But performing was too much in his blood for Mr. Wing to give it up completely. Aside from an occasional convention appearance or stand-up comedy routine (“It was goofy, cornball humour,” his nephew Howard Jang recalled), he took to entertaining seniors, carrying his guitar and a small amp on the bus to residences and centres all over the Lower Mainland.
And there was one last hurrah. Mr. Jang decided to take his uncle, then pushing 80, to a Tap Jam organized by a local tap dancing collective. When the piano player began How High the Moon, Mr. Wing suddenly got up and began to dance, twisting and turning and sliding, like he did in the old days. “All the kids stopped dancing and circled around him,” Mr. Jang said. “They wanted to know who he was. What had he done? He sat down and regaled them with his stories. It was such a special moment.”
Mr. Wing was predeceased by siblings Bill and David Wing, Eva Jang and Lorna Wong. He leaves his two nieces, five nephews, and seven grandnieces and grandnephews.