In her debut memoir in essays, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, poet Jane Wong offers a nonlinear narrative of her life and her family’s lives. Her parents emigrated from China in the 1980s, when they were in their early 20s, and settled on the Jersey Shore to run a Chinese restaurant. “This is the story of lost enterprises,” Wong writes about Atlantic City in the elegiac title essay. “Of boarded-up pizza joints, lonely stuffed animals sans tipsy game operators, echoing parking lots with floating trash, and neon lights toppled over like sand castles.”
Those lost enterprises also refer to Wong’s father’s gambling addiction, which led to the downfall of the family restaurant, and his eventual disappearance from their lives. His experience is part of a larger story that also develops throughout the memoir: that of big gambling companies preying on Asian Americans, allowing gambling to take hold of vulnerable communities. These strands of systemic injustice are braided with Wong’s own memories of her childhood. “Here is one scene, on a shore of many: on the way back to Caesar’s Palace, my mother sits on a boardwalk bench, the dune grass behind her like the back of a throne,” she writes. “From her purse: stolen bread rolls from the Palace Buffet. She chews out all her anger on those bread rolls.”
In the gorgeous essay “Root Canal Street,” Wong links the cruelly casual racism she experienced in middle school and high school, her parents’ upbringing in rural Maoist China and trips with her mother to see unlicensed dentists in Chinatown, arranged by a friend of a friend whom they paid in baked goods. “A cornucopia for crowns: crispy almond biscuits; pineapple buns with golden cracks like some fantastical goose egg . . . egg tarts with their pools of custard glory; and chewy winter melon cakes with sesame seeds.”
Wong writes with anger and clarity about men who have abused her and the racism she’s endured throughout her life, including at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But mostly this memoir is a story of family as Wong recalls her absent father, her intrepid and resilient mother, her brother and her grandparents. Interspersed between the book’s longer essays are sections devoted to Wongmom.com, an imaginary website where you could type a question or worry, and Wong’s mother would offer a reassuring answer. (And for those wondering about the book’s evocative title: Yes, the memoir includes a Bruce sighting.)
Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is experimental in form and dense with beautiful sensory images, particularly of food. In her own indelible way, Wong records her coming of age and finding her place in her family, in poetry and in the world.