“It’s adversity, being in the heat of the struggle, that moves us forward. Fighting gives me back my energy.” ~ Nellie Wong
Nellie Wong’s focus is poetry, social justice, and feminism. She writes about her family history and identity as well as her experiences in the workplace with classism, racism, and sexism.
Wong was born and raised in Oakland in the ‘30s living in Chinatown. Her father immigrated to the United States in 1912. She worked in her family’s restaurant, The Great China restaurant, throughout her childhood. Wong toured China in 1983 with the US-China Peoples Friendship Association and returned to Oakland, teaching for two years at Mills College from 1983 to 1985. At this time, she was helping her friend and UC Berkeley colleague Merle Woo win a wrongful termination suit alleging discrimination. Though she continues to speak at conferences and on political panels, Wong still calls the SF Bay Area home.
Wong attended Oakland High School. She studied at San Francisco State University, where she was involved with the Women Writers Union on campus, which was organized around issues of class, race, and sex. She and other Asian-American writers organized the writing collective called Unbound Feet.
It could be argued that one of Wong’s inspirations to launch as an artist was working in her family’s restaurant growing up. Her poetry is rich in imagery of the restaurant, the waitressing and clerical tasks that she had performed, and the foods served within. Wong started to write and publish her poetry in her mid-30s when she attended San Francisco State University to study creative writing. Though a professor told her to throw away a poem that she had written in anger, a classmate told her not to listen to him. Wong credits her feminist classmates for encouraging her to keep writing.
Wong has performed her poetry at Bird & Beckett in San Francisco as well as The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, to name a few places. She taught poetry writing at Mills College for two years, and she considers her workplaces to be a source of inspiration for her work.
- She worked at Bethlehem Steel Corporation as a secretary from 1964 to 1982, arguably one of her greatest haunts. The Bethlehem Steel Office Building (598 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107) was in operation from 1917 through 1992, meaning that Wong spent time in it near the end of its use. This quote is what Wong would have seen when she went to work each day: “The octagonal main lobby features cast stone walls over pink marble wainscoting and a pink marble floor. Centered on the coffered ornamental plaster ceiling is an octagonal bronze and glass pendant light fixture. The elevator, with Art Deco doors and a pink marble door surround, is along the south wall” (Building 101 Overview (Main Office/Administration Building)).
- Mills College (5000 MacArthur Boulevard, Oakland, CA 94613) was the first women’s college west of the Rockies, moving to Oakland in 1871 from Benicia. The grounds and buildings of the Mills campus comprise 135 acres. Mills has a natural science building, an art museum, and a children’s school. The prominent architect Julia Morgan designed six buildings for Mills College, and the bells of the clock tower can be heard resounding throughout campus every quarter of the hour.
- Wong performs at The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University on Holloway Ave. The Poetry Center has presented over 125 seasons of contemporary poets and writers and was founded in 1954 after a donation to the school. If you were to walk into The Poetry Center now, in 2019/20, you would see a continuous wall of books in the front of the room and about fifty maroon-colored chairs for the expectant audience.
~ by Hannah Parkins ~