CERRITOS — Daniel Wong, the city councilman who wears many hats, is trying on a new one.
"I see myself as the Chinese Kissinger," Wong remarked Monday on the eve of his latest mission to the Orient, a 16-day journey to the People's Republic of China, where he will sing on national television for an expected audience of several million. The occasion is a special Chinese New Year's Eve telecast Tuesday. Wong is the only American invited by Communist Party leaders to perform in the government-run gala.
Wong, a Chinese-American who literally landed in this country (he first stepped on U.S. soil at Los Angeles International Airport in 1961), jumped at the chance to sing in Peking--a decision that has troubled some officials on Taiwan, the anti-Communist nation off mainland China's coast.
In October, Wong went to Taiwan and sang on a special independence day television broadcast. When he was mayor of Cerritos, in 1983-84, he also traveled twice to the island republic to discuss foreign trade, policy and relations between the two countries.
A Touchy Proposition
Because of Wong's ties to Taiwan, his trip to mainland China and the upcoming TV appearance is a touchy proposition for the Cerritos official, who said he has received "indirect pressure" from Taiwan officials to cancel his travel plans.
But Wong, who runs a family medical practice in Norwalk, where he specializes in obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics, said he must go to "help bridge the gap" between all Chinese. He arrived in Peking, the Chinese capital, Thursday.
"Like (former President Richard M.) Nixon and (President) Reagan, I believe you can't ignore a nation of 1 billion people just because you don't agree with its politics," said Wong, who was born in Hong Kong and lived there until he emigrated to the United States as a teen-ager. He eventually graduated from Los Angeles City College and later the University of Utah, where he studied medicine.
"China is a sleeping giant that is waking from a 30-year hibernation," he said. "It is a superpower that must be reckoned with. I am going to build better ties, better understanding between all Chinese people--those in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. I want to build a unified Chinese community."
Wong, a 42-year-old Republican who was first elected to the Cerritos City Council in 1978, views his trip to China and his televised appearance in the 30,000-seat Peking Sports Arena as the first step in a personal diplomatic crusade to patch up differences between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China.
He is trading on what he calls his "sizable reputation" in the Far East to spread his "togetherness" message.
Throughout the Orient, Wong said, he is widely known because he is one of only a handful of Chinese-Americans who hold elected office in the Los Angeles area and the first to be named mayor of a California city. Wong's successful medical practice and weekly appearances as an exercise and kung fu expert on Channel 18, a Southern California station that carries Mandarin Chinese programs, have further enhanced Wong's status across the Pacific.
But it was about two years ago, while Wong was taking a cold shower, that he discovered his passport to acclaim in the Orient.
'I Had a Voice'
"One morning as I was standing in the shower soaping up, I discovered I had a voice," Wong recalled during an interview in his Norwalk medical office. On the door, above his nameplate, is a small silver star, similar to the kind often found on dressing rooms backstage in concert halls and theaters.
"The rest, as they say, is history," he said, laughing.
He was quickly nicknamed the "singing mayor" and began performing at charity functions and public events from Lakewood to Santa Ana. He was a novelty, an elected official who could act outside the political arena. He grew fond of the singing spotlight, although he admitted that he cannot read music and does not know the difference between a minor or major musical scale. "Tell me to sing it in C minor, and I'll just laugh," he said. "What's a C minor?"
But Wong learns quickly--he always has.
When he arrived in the United States, he had only $200 in his pocket (his mother's savings), no job and spoke little English. Within days, he was working as a busboy in Chinatown. In time, he taught himself English by listening to his college teachers, other students and patrons at bars where he mixed drinks to pay for his tuition and books.
Developed Own Style
He picked up singing the same way, listening to cassettes or to performers, memorizing the words and mimicking their style until he developed his own.
Several Filipino friends encouraged Wong--who chose Daniel as a first name when he arrived in America because in the Bible it says, "He was a wise man"--to pick up a mike and sing.