Feminist Encouragement Gave Her Poetry Wings

Many of the role models I highlight here in “Herstory” are from minority groups, but have you ever thought of just how much of a minority any particular group might be? Today, in 2019, Americans of Chinese descent make up about 1.5% of the entire US population. When Nellie Wong was born on September 12, 1934, they were around half a percent! Yet Wong used her gift for poetry to speak out loudly for social equality.

Wong’s parents were Chinese immigrants to California during a period of intense anti-Asian policies. Her father came to the United States in 1912. During WWII, her parents worked at a Berkeley grocery store. It was also during WWII that Wong witnessed the damage that national racism can do as Japanese-Americans lost their homes, businesses, and jobs, and then were rounded up and shipped out to internment camps. After the war, the Wong family was able to borrow enough money to start a restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown area, where Wong worked for a while as a waitress. Wong is one of four siblings, all of whom have gone on to become writers, artists, and journalists.

After graduating from Oakland High School, Wong started working at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation as a secretary, a job she held until 1982. Her second job was as a senior analyst in affirmative action at the University of California, San Francisco. From 1983-1985 she taught poetry writing at Mills College in her hometown of Oakland but also playwriting at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco. In 1985, she was a visiting professor in women’s studies at the University of Minnesota.

As is true for even famous and culturally important writers, most cannot support themselves simply on their writing. Wong came to writing a bit later in life, too. In her 30s, she enrolled in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Her poems often grew from her frustrations at work in a sexist and racist environment. If her male professors hated them, feminist classmates encouraged her, so Wong kept writing.

In the early 1970s, Wong and other Chinese-American women created Unbound Feet Collective as a group that would be supportive of the writers as well as promote their work. The group did small readings and participated in campus events at universities around California throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally the authors get together to do readings as a group, but the collective is no longer a formal organization.

The collective helped Wong personally as an author, too. She published four books of her own poetry, but her work has appeared in over 200 publications. In 1981, she and Mitsuye Yamada were the focus on the documentary Mitsuye & Nellie, Asian American Poets, produced by Light-Saraf Productions. The film looks at the lives of Chinese and Japanese wives and daughters who were allowed to follow their husbands and fathers into the US during those decades of strict and racist immigration policies. In 1983, she joined the first Women Writers Tour to China from the US. In 1996, her poem, “Song of Farewell,” was installed at F-Line Muni platform Embarcadero roadway near Greenwich Street in San Francisco as part of the city’s Waterfront Transportation Project Historic and Interpretive Signage Program.

Wong has also written non-fiction works about feminism, racism, and labor inequalities. She has worked with many social and feminist organizations throughout her lifetime. Among these are the Freedom Socialist Party; the National Asian American Telecommunications Association; Poets & Writers, NY; Radical Women; the San Francisco Central Labor Council; and the University Professional & Technical Employees.

Wong’s writing and activism have garnered recognition from the San Francisco-based Kearny Street Workshop, a multidisciplinary art collective; University of California, Santa Barbara's Asian American Faculty and Staff Association; and the Women's Foundation (San Francisco). Her old high school named one of three new buildings after her in 2011; the Nellie Wong Building is a two-story structure that houses the English and science departments along with a computer lab. Her poem, “The Building Song,” was written specifically for the dedication ceremony.

Nellie Wong is still writing and speaking out about social injustices and her personal struggles today. If you are lucky, she might come to a venue near you so you can hear her.

No free or public domain images are available of the poet.