In the late 1980s, Jane Wong grew up a restaurant baby: Helping prep wontons, napping on bags of rice, and playing games with her younger brother. Her family’s story seems to be the classic “American Dream,” but as the years went on, the restaurant closed because of her father’s gambling.
Wong reminds readers that the casinos would target Asians specifically, and that many families would suffer the effects of gambling and addiction. In her debut memoir Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City, Jane Wong takes history — both personal and communal — and reexamines the layers it holds.
After losing the restaurant, Wong’s mother took up night shifts with the postal service. Wong describes her mother’s unwavering resolve to provide for her children and the special psychic connection the author shares with her. Memoirs are based on an author’s memories, in a genre- bending move, Wong creates a new character: wongmom.com. This website is a fount of her mother Jin’s knowledge and advice.
Wong writes vulnerably, recounting stories of relationship abuse, of racism, and of not being taken seriously. In fact, in the chapter “The Object of Love,” Wong denounces professionals in the publishing industry who urged her to focus her memoir on the days of being in the restaurant rather than includi g parts of her life marred by relationship abuse. What publishers fail to recognize is that this is her Chinese American experience. Just because Wong doesn’t paint a picture of a perfect “American Dream” doesn’t mean she is not sharing a vital experience.
The writing in Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City is beautiful. Wong is a poet, evident through the meter of her lines and her vibrant imagery. The memoir is not a linear narrative, the past and present are intertwined and includes cultural history that add context to present day injustices.
This book isn’t all sad, far from it. Wong writes with fierce joy over connecting with friends and family and on the wonder she finds in her students. This book is a love letter to labor put into the world.
One aspect of community she touches on is her mother’s coworkers at the postal center. How they helped her mom figure out how to use a computer for Wong’s second book launch, which was held via Zoom, as well as their support of her book even though they did not read poetry.
Wong won the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for Washington Artists, which included an opportunity to exhibit work at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Wong’s show describes the opening night of her exhibit, and her family’s reaction. Her show was titled after one of her poems, “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly.” Wong’s poems explore hunger, feeding her ancestors, and healing pains from the past. She writes about worrying over what her family would think of her displaying their hunger so publicly. When they do come to see the opening night, Wong writes about joy and awe, not shame.
Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City is a narrative that resists being a single story. As Wong writes, this is “not a story of small enterprises.” Instead, this book is a lyrical endeavor that unpacks generational trauma, racism, and love that is found within community.
Wong’s writing nourished me and emboldened me to take pride in my own history. The way she writes is full of tenderness, but also ferocity. In sharing a multifaceted story of her life, she gives a fuller picture of what it means to be a person, because we are all multifaceted. We are made of our families, our communities, and our ancestors who came before us. Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City illustrates this, and that it is up to us to figure out how to piece our histories together.
This is Jane Wong’s first work of non-fiction, and I hope there is more to come.
In addition to her memoir, Wong has published two books of poetry How To Not Be Afraid of Everything (2021) and Overpour (2016).