Gwing Der was born in the 34th year of the reign of Emperor Gangue (August 29, 1908 in the lunar calendar) in the Chinese village of Chong Chin, Kaiping county (or Hoi–Ping, in Cantonese), Guangdong province. He was third of four sons born to a farming family. His father was a sojourner in the United States.
When Gwing was 8 years old, he attended the local temple school in the nearby market village of Hom Kai for two years. He boarded there, returning home only on school holidays. When he was 10 years old, he traveled with his cousins to attend school in Guangzhou.
On April 8, 1924 (lunar calendar), he married Lai Wah Soo Hoo in an arranged marriage. Following the family tradition of giving the groom a new name, Gwing was given the name Der Nea Yick. Shortly after the wedding, Gwing left the village with his cousin Luk Mon to study Chinese Brush Painting in Hong Kong.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Kaiping and its neighboring counties were major sources of Chinese laborers who immigrated to America, seeking better opportunities due to economic hardships and political unrest on the home front. The Der family followed the same path, with Gwing’s grandfather, Der Wai Young and later his father Der Dai Yuen immigrating initially to Victoria, British Columbia before finally settling in the United States. Gwing’s father, Der Dai Yuen eventually settled in Jerome, Arizona where he and his younger brother opened a restaurant, the Bon Ton. They dutifully provide financial support to their family’s home in China.
In 1926, when Gwing was 18 years old, he sailed to America on the S.S. Lincoln with his brother's son, Der Dick who was 8 or 9 years at the time. On board, he was assigned to steerage. During the trip, he made a friend who knew Spanish and had lived in Mexico. This man was relocating to Sacramento. En route, Gwing studiously memorized interrogation prep books, knowing his grasp of the data was critical to gaining entry into his new country, and watched his shipmates gamble.
The ocean voyage lasted more than three weeks. On November 17, 1926. Gwing arrived on Angel Island, often referred to simply as Island, carrying a single suitcase packed with a few changes of clothing. His luggage was taken in away to a separate building by the pier. After being shown to the barracks, he was led to the Mess Hall to eat.
Life on Angel Island fell into a routine. Rice was served with the daily meals, with eggs on Mondays. The detention complex included a hospital, to which his nephew was transferred after he contracted chicken pox. While some detainees exercised or played volleyball in the recreational yard or read newspapers, Gwing continued studying his interrogation prep books. Once or twice a week, people were allowed go down by the pier to retrieve a change of clothing from their luggage. They were each responsible for doing their own laundry.
Detainees were mostly 10 to 20 years old. They largely internalized their feelings, privately worrying about the potential lengths of their detention and difficulties of the interrogation. Gwing saw poems carved on the barrack walls, which gave voice to the detainees’ unspoken desperation, homesickness, fear of failing their interrogation and being sent back to China, etc. On one wall, he recognized the carved name of a fellow Tse relation who left the village years ago, Him Jake Tse. Decades later, he pragmatically recalled his Angel Island experience as “wasn’t that bad… We just weren’t permitted outside. If you wanted to come to America, you had to comply with the laws. That was the way it was.” He added that the “white people didn’t like us Chinese – colored people.”
Gwing’s interrogation date was scheduled a little over three weeks after his arrival. Friends from Chinatown’s Ginn Wall Hardware alerted his father to return to San Francisco. A Chinese cook at Angel Island often delivered coaching papers and mail that detainees’ relatives left at the hardware store, hiding them under lids of teapot warmers and passing them on to their intended recipients at meal time in the Mess Hall.
Present at Gwing’s interrogation were three people: a Caucasian immigration official, a Chinese translator, and a typist. Amongst the perfunctory questions asked of him included his name, age, parents’ names, number of siblings he had, and how many rooms and windows were in his village home. Although caught off guard by some unanticipated questions such as how many steps on the stairs in his house. His answers must have compared favorably to those his father provided the immigration officials and Gwing was not subjected to follow-up questioning. Once he passed his interrogation and without subjection to a physical exam, he was allowed to go down to the pier to retrieve his luggage before being released to his waiting father. Gwing felt fortunate that his detention was relatively short, as he knew some detainees had been there for two years.
Afterwards, father and son lived at Ginn Wall Hardware for a few days before the elder Der returned to his restaurant in Arizona. Gwing stayed and worked at the hardware store for few months before traveling by train to Jerome to join his father. He worked in the family restaurant as well as in the Nevada Café down the block for the next two years. Initially, he found difficulties in dealing with his customers, who were largely Mexicans working in the local copper mines, as Gwing spoke neither English nor Spanish. However, in due time, he picked up enough Spanish phrases to communicate with his Mexican patrons.
In 1928, Gwing went home to China for a two year visit. He returned to San Francisco in 1930 and did not have to go through Angel Island because he claimed citizenship as the son of an American citizen. Instead of returning to Jerome, Gwing stayed in the City and put down his roots. He rented an outdoor fruit and snack stand located on the sidewalk adjacent to a building on the corner of Jackson St. and Grant Ave. Subsequently, he and his older brother operated Sang Hing, a grocery store at 839 Washington Street. To save money, Gwing slept in the loft above the store. During WWII, Gwing avoided military service by working in the defense industry. In 1950’s, he worked at Ti Sun, a Grant Avenue hardware/furniture store retiring in 1964. His enterprising wife, who immigrated in 1939, operated a sewing factory in Chinatown.
Gwing made a few trips back to China in his retirement years, beginning with 1980 after America’s normalization of diplomatic relations with China. His last trip to China was in 2007 when his extended family joined him on a pilgrimage to tour his family village and school. He fell and broke his hip when he was 99 and became disabled. However, he is still able to live in his own home in San Francisco Chinatown. Gwing celebrated his 100th Birthday in 2008 with a big party for family and friends.
Over the years, Gwing and his wife were blessed with six children, 15 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. The lively centenarian attributes his longevity to calisthenics, Tai Chi, using an exercise bicycle and never owning a car.
Nancy F. Fong is a volunteer with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Dorothy Fong and Sandra Tye are Gwing Der’s daughters.