The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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When Dorothy Toy (1917-2019) and Paul Wing (1912-97) entered the American tap dance scene, they were the first Asian Americans to do so.
During their heyday—the 1930s through the 1950s—the dancing duo captured the hearts of audiences. They became known as the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” never mind that Toy was Japanese American. Toy (born Shigeko Takahashi) and Wing (born Paul Wing Jew) tapped their way across the United States and England to become one of the most famous Asian American dance duos in history.
Both Toy and Wing were from California. She grew up in Los Angeles, while he was born in Menlo Park and raised in Palo Alto. They began dancing together in 1932 as part of a trio—Toy’s sister was the third member and they called themselves The Three Mah Jongs. While her sister left the trio to become a solo singer, Toy continued dancing with Wing. Their act was called Toy and Wing.
They gained fame performing on the Chop Suey Circuit—a nickname for the loose network of nightclubs and supper clubs in major American cities featuring Asian and Asian American entertainers during that era. Toy and Wing were the first Asian Americans to perform on Broadway and at the London Palladium.
Toy and Wing married in 1940, but it was more for convenience and to save money (on the road, it was easier to rent one hotel room as a married couple). They later divorced but continued dancing together.
Despite their success, Toy and Wing had their challenges, facing discrimination in Hollywood. When they were invited to perform in a film with comedian Chico Marx in 1942, a rival duo outed Toy as Japanese. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still recent, so Toy and Wing were not allowed to be in the film.
World War II took its toll on the pair. Toy’s family was sent to an internment camp near Topaz, Utah (she avoided this by leaving California for New York) and Wing was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. Although they continued dancing together after the war, it’s said that Wing wasn’t the same after taking part in the Normandy landings in France.
After her dance career, Toy became a pharmaceutical technician and dance instructor while Wing continued to perform solo and with various partners. His final performance was on his 85th birthday in October 1996. He died the following April. Toy died in 2019 at the age of 102.
Published on May 11, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.