During World War II, the Wong family worked in a grocery store in Berkeley. The internment of her Japanese American neighbors left a profound impact on her intellectual development, sensitizing her to issues of racism and the concerns of Asian Americans. The family borrowed $2,000 to start a restaurant, The Great China, in Oakland's Chinatown, where Wong worked as a waitress during her youth. She attended public school, graduating from Oakland High School, and started bull work as a secretary for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, a position she held until 1982. She later served as senior analyst in affirmative action at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
While in her mid-30s, Wong began studying creative writing at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and began to write and publish her poetry. Wong credits her feminist classmates at SFSU with encouraging 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!"
While a student at SFSU, Wong was involved with the campus Women Writers Union, which organized 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 the Asian American feminist literary and performance group Unbound Feet. The group, which also included the lesbian poet, educator, and activist Merle Woo, performed at colleges, universities and community centers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Wong was keynote speaker 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 recited 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's studies at the University of Minnesota and poetry writing at Mills College in Oakland, California.
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 the San Francisco-based Kearny Street Workshop, a multidisciplinary art collective. She served many years as the Bay Area organizer of the Freedom Socialist Party, and is still active with the party, Radical Women, and Bay Area United Against War. She currently resides in San Francisco.
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; she states "A lot of my poems come from the workplace; that's where I've experienced a great deal of sexism and racism." Other themes include her family history and Asian American identity, about which she has said, "I care about the roots of Asian American culture and how and why they came here [...] It's something every Asian family has experienced." 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 the 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 World War II 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, also an author, and her youngest sister, Flo Oy Wong, an installation artist. Her brother, William Wong, is a journalist and the author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America.
- Wong, Nellie. Breakfast Lunch Dinner: Poems. Meridien Press Works, 2012.
- When I Was Growing Up, autobiographical poem
- Wong, Nellie; Merle Woo; Mitsuye Yamada (2003). Three Asian American Writers Speak Out on Feminism. Seattle, Washington: Red Letter Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-9725403-5-0.
- Wong, Nellie (editor) (1999). Yolanda Alaniz (co-editor), ed. Voices of Color: Reports from the Front Lines of Resistance by Radicals of Color. Seattle, Washington: Red Letter Press. p. 160. ISBN 0-932323-05-7.
- Wong, Nellie (1997). Stolen Moments. Goshen, Connecticut: Chicory Blue Press. p. 43. ISBN 1887344039.
- Wong, Nellie (1986). The Death of Long Steam Lady. Los Angeles, California: West End Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-931122-42-2.
- Wong, Nellie (1977). Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park: Poems. Berkeley, California: Kelsey St. Press. p. 45. ISBN 0-932716-14-8.
- "Nellie Wong". Voices from the Gaps. University of Minnesota. 2005-05-14. Retrieved 2007-04-18.
- Güereña, Salvador (2002-10-22). "BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH". Guide to the Nellie Wong Papers. California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives. Retrieved 2007-04-18.
- "Nellie Wong." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Biography in Context. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
- Nellie Wong Papers at UCSB
- Moraga, Cherríe, and Anzalduá Gloria. This Bridge Called my Back Writings by Radical Women of Color. SUNY Press, 2015.
- 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).
- Guide to Women's Literature throughout the World. Edited by Claire Buck (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1994).
- Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. Edited by Barbara J. Love (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006).