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Happy Birthday, Barbara Jean Wong!

It became one of old-time radio’s most cherished traditions.  The annual Christmas broadcast of Amos ‘n’ Andy, in which family man Amos Jones tucks his daughter Arbadella into bed on Christmas Eve and explains to her the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer.  While you probably know that the role of Amos was played by Freeman Gosden on that long-running series, it was an Asian-American actress who essayed the role of Amos’ little girl.  Her name was Barbara Jean Wong, and she was born in Los Angeles, California on this date in 1924.

Barbara Jean began her show business career at the age of five. Due to her charm and her long black hair (which was curled into ringlets), many people thought of her as an Asian-American version of Shirley Temple.  Wong, who had attended the Fanchon and Marco School of the Theater, didn’t dissuade them from this notion when she performed as a dancer for charity events and women’s clubs.  A small part in the 1934 film The Painted Veil stoked Barbara Jean’s interest in acting. After landing roles on NBC’s Strange As It Seems and CBS radio shows like White Fires of Inspiration and The Lux Radio Theatre, she provided the voice of Judy Barton in the syndicated The Cinnamon Bear, a Yuletide-themed show that continues to entertain new generations of fans every year.

A role as the eldest daughter on the Charlie Chan radio program in 1938 would later be mirrored with an uncredited part (she was demoted to Daughter Number Three, sadly) in the film Charlie Chan in Honolulu, released that same year.  Barbara Jean continued to balance her radio work with her studies, graduating from the Mar-Ken Professional School for Children in 1941 (one of her classmates was Mickey Rooney!).  She was already appearing on Amos ‘n’ Andy, but she also found steady work playing Asian characters (P.Y. Ling, Lee Taw Ming, etc.) on Carlton Morse’s I Love a Mystery (and later I Love Adventure).  In addition, Wong appeared in such motion pictures as China (1943), Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Babes on Swing Street (1945), and God is My Co-Pilot (1945).

Barbara Jean Wong later made appearances in three of the Charlie Chan films produced at Monogram—two with Sidney Toler (The Red DragonThe Trap) and one with Roland Winters (The Chinese Ring).  Upon earning degrees in English and drama at USC and Columbia University, Wong dropped the “Barbara” and began billing herself as Jean Wong while working on such films as Calcutta (1947) and Chinatown at Midnight (1949).  Barbara Jean also kept her hand in radio, with appearances on the likes of The Cavalcade of America, Hallmark PlayhouseThe Hallmark Hall of FameNight BeatRomance, and Tarzan.  One of her best performances was on a February 17, 1950 broadcast of The Halls of Ivy, in which she played a Chinese student who wants to leave college after experiencing extreme prejudice.  Wong would reprise that role when that episode was adapted for the TV version of the show. In addition, her small screen resume includes such series as Boston BlackieFireside Theatre, The Lone Wolf, and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

While Barbara Jean Wong was an accomplished radio actress, she didn’t always have great luck in motion pictures. By the 1950s, most of the movies in which she appeared were placing her in the background in uncredited parts: China Corsair (1951), Soldier of Fortune (1955), and The Left Hand of God (1955).  Her last film appearance—not counting the 1965 animated film The Man from Button Willow, in which she provided the voice of “Stormy”—was as a nurse in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).  (The IMDb credits her with an appearance on the TV series Anna and the King of Siam in 1972.)  After marrying Robert Wah Lee in 1950, she began a retreat from acting. Barbara Jean would earn teaching credentials from Cal State in Los Angeles and work as an elementary school teacher until her retirement in 1992.  Barbara Jean Wong passed on from a respiratory illness in 1999 at the age of 75.

Radio Spirits’ compilation Stop the Press! Gives you an opportunity to hear Barbara Jean Wong earn her “bread and butter” on an April 17, 1950 broadcast of Night Beat entitled “The Tong War.”  Happy birthday, Barbara Jean!

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