University of Minnesota
Voices From the Gaps
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Nellie Wong

You came out of disability
out of skin and teeth
and bones and rage
at inequities
of race, gender, class

You walked out into the sun
with the ferociousness
of a tiger
You teethed in Selma, Little Rock,
in the Third World Strikes
out of free speech
and Blacks who refused
to sit any longer
at the back of the bus

You came in different sizes and shapes,
heights, skin tones
You were hanged, gunned down,
chased out of town, murdered,
sold, put on the auction block

But your humanity shone through
the voices of the Fannie Lou Hamers,
Robert Williamses, Ella Bakers,
and countless unknowns,
the Browns, Yellows, Reds, and Whites
who fought alongside you
who saw a vision of this life,
on earth, on the plains, valleys,
through rivers and forests
and urban sprawls[

          — From "You Were Born" in Voices of Color

Biography / Criticism

Nellie Wong is a poet and revolutionary feminist activist living in San Francisco. She was born on September 12, 1934 in Oakland, California. She was the first U.S. -born daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her father emigrated to Oakland in 1912. He married twice and fathered six daughters and one son. Three of Nellie's siblings were born in China.

When WWII began and Japanese Americans were evacuated to concentration camps, Wong's family worked in a grocery store in Berkeley. Consequently, the family borrowed $2,000 to start a restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown. During the WWII years, Wong attended public school and worked as a waitress at her parents restaurant, The Great China.

After graduation from Oakland High School, Wong began to work as a secretary. She worked for 46 years before retiring in 1998 as a senior analyst in affirmative action at the University of California, San Francisco.

When in her mid-30's, Wong's world split open when she began attending classes at San Francisco State University; this is when she began to write and publish her poetry. While at the University, Wong learned that she had much to offer as an older woman among young people. Wong credits her feminist classmates at SF State with keeping her writing. A male professor had once told her to throw away an angry poem she had written. One classmate told her, "You don't have to listen to him!"

Wong was also involved with the Women Writers Union on campus, organizing around issues of race, sex, and class. There she encountered members of two affiliated socialist feminist organizations, Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, and within a few years had joined their ranks.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wong co-founded and performed with an Asian American feminist literary and performance group, Unbound Feet, at colleges, universities and community centers. Lesbian poet, educator, and sister socialist feminist Merle Woo was also part of this groundbreaking troupe.

In 1983, Wong traveled to China on the first U.S. Women Writers Tour to China sponsored by the U.S. -China Peoples Friendship Association with Tillie Olsen, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, among others.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Wong keynoted at many national and regional conferences, including Third World Women and Feminist Perspectives, Women Against Racism, and the National Women's Studies Association. She has read her poetry in China, Cuba, and throughout the U.S. She has also participated on panels concerning labor, Asian American literature, and poetry. Furthermore, Wong has taught Women Studies at the University of Minnesota and poetry writing at Mills College in Oakland, CA

Excerpts from two her poems have been permanently installed as plaques at public sites at the San Francisco Municipal Railway. She has received awards from the Women's Foundation (San Francisco), University of California, Santa Barbara's Asian American Faculty and Staff Association, and Kearny Street Workshop (San Francisco). She is currently the Bay Area Organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party. She is active with Radical Women and Bay Area United Against War.

Wong's first collection of poetry, Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park (1977), was published by Kelsey Street Press. This book went through four printings and was the most successful release in the history of Kelsey Street Press. Her other titles are The Death of Long Steam Lady (1986), published by West End Press and Stolen Moments (1997). Her work has appeared in approximately 200 anthologies and publications.

Wong writes directly from her working life as well as from her family history, bridging China and Asian America. Her poetry spans issues of feminism, the fight against racism, workplace injustice, and finding identity as a writer and activist.

In 1981, Wong participated with Mitsuye Yamada in a documentary film, "Mitsuye & Nellie, Asian American Poets," produced by Allie Light and Irving Saraf. The film recounts the experiences and hardships that affected the writers and their families. Significant to the film's focus is how WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor encouraged divisive perceptions of Japanese as "bad" Asians, while the Chinese were seen as "good" Asians. "Can't Tell," one of the poems Wong recites in the film, highlights the author's attempt to understand why her Japanese neighbors were being sent to internment camps when she and her family, as Chinese Americans, were considered patriotic citizens.

The film also shows lively exchanges between Wong and her siblings, highlighting the feistiness of her older sister, Li Keng, and her youngest sister, Flo, who fought to attend university despite the family's limited financial resources. Wong's family members are artists, writers, and journalists. Her brother, William Wong, is the author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America. Her sister, Flo Oy Wong, is an installation artist.

Wong was  featured with other artists and writers in the documentary, "Art as Revolution," Forward Films, 2003.

Wong has donated her papers to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Three Asian American Writers Speak Out on Feminism (co-authored with Merle Woo and Mitsuye Yamada) (2003). Voices of Color (editor) (1999)
Stolen Moments (1997)
The Death of Long Steam Lady (1986)
Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park (1977)

Works about the Author

A biographical sketch of Wong by Jeong Young Sook will appear in CONTEMPORARY ASIAN AMERICAN WRITERS, in The Dictionary of Literary Biography series. Publisher: Bruccoli Clark Layman. Expected publication date: 2004 or 2005. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000). Review of Stolen Moments. Reviewed by Cindy Lum. Hawaii Pacific Review. Volume 13 (1999), Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu, HI. Revolutionary Spirits: Profiles of Asian Pacific American Activists, by Dana Kawaoka, American Studies Senior Thesis, June 1, 1998. Mitsuye & Nellie, Asian American Poets. Allie Light & Irving Saraf. Women Make Movies. 1981. 58 min. On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment. Interviews and photography by Cathleen Rountree (New York: Harmony Books, 1997). Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology. Edited by Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind (Mountain View, CA:, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995). A Formal Feeling Comes. Edited by Annie Finch (Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1994). Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. Edited by King-kok Cheung and Stan Yogi. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988).

Related Links

Langston Lives
Tribute by Wong to Black radical gay poet Langston Hughes

Nellie Wong Papers
Biography introducing Nellie Wong's archive at University of California Santa Barbara

Voices of Color
Small press publisher of Wong's book, Voices of Color

Socialism.com
Includes various writings by Wong; use the internal search engine to find essays by Wong

Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing voices@umn.edu.

Contributors

This page was researched and submitted by: Helen Gilbert on 7/8/2003.