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Nellie Wong


The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Nellie Wong was born in Oakland, California, on September 12, 1934. As a teenager she worked in her parents’ Chinese restaurant, and after graduating high school, she took a job as a secretary for Bethlehem Steel Corporation, where she worked until 1982. In her mid-thirties, she began studying creative writing at San Francisco State University.

Wong published her first book of poetry, Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park (Kelsey Street Press), in 1983. That same year, she served as a delegate on the first United States Women Writers Tour to China.

She is also the author of the poetry collections Stolen Moments (Chicory Blue Press, 1997) and The Death of Long Steam Lady (West End Press, 1986). Juan Felipe Herrera has said that Wong’s poetry “fuses a stark historical landscape with the deep passion for life that emerges from generations of cultural wisdom and generations of suffering.” Her poems often deal with issues of immigration, identity, and feminism.

Wong also edited Talking Back: Voices of Color (Red Letter Press, 2015) and cofounded Unbound Feet, a writing collective of Chinese American women in California. In 1989, she received the Women of Words Award from the San Francisco Women’s Foundation. She has taught at the University of Minnesota and at Mills College, and she lives in San Francisco.


Stolen Moments (Chicory Blue Press, 1997)
The Death of Long Steam Lady (West End Press, 1986)
Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park (Kelsey Street Press, 1983)

By This Poet


Mama, Come Back

Mama, come back.
Why did you leave
now that I am learning you?
The landlady next door
how she apologizes
for my rough brown skin
to her tenant from Hong Kong
as if I were her daughter,
as if she were you.

How do I say I miss you
your scolding
your presence
your roast loin of pork
more succulent, more tender
than any hotel chef's?

The fur coat you wanted 
making you look like a polar bear
and the mink-trimmed coat
I once surprised you
on Christmas morning.

Mama, how you said "importment"
for important,
your gold tooth flashing
an insecurity you dared not bare,
wanting recognition
simply as eating noodles
and riding in a motor car
to the supermarket
the movie theater
adorned in your gold and jade
as if all your jewelry
confirmed your identity
a Chinese woman in America.

How you said "you better"
always your last words
glazed through your dark eyes
following me fast as you could
one November evening in New York City
how I thought "Hello, Dolly!"
showed you an America 
you never saw.

How your fear of being alone
kept me dutiful in body
resentful in mind.
How my fear of being single
kept me
from moving out.

How I begged your forgiveness
after that one big fight
how I wasn't wrong
but needed you to love me
as warmly as you hugged strangers.