by Robert Lew
Wing Din Lew was nine years old when he left his mother in China to travel to America to live with a person he had never met, his father. Three years later, in 1933, Wing’s father died of cancer. Wing survived the Great Depression as an orphan and ultimately built a thriving family.
Wing holding his granddaughter, Elizabeth.
Wing Din Lew was born on Friday, September 14th, 1921, to Liu Chiu Yuk in the small hamlet of Wo Lock, located in Toi San*, Kwang Tung. The hamlet is just 80 miles southwest of Hong Kong in an area now known as Guangdong Province in southeastern China. In an oral interview with his granddaughter, Elizabeth Lew in 2002, Lew recounted memories of his early childhood:
Liu Chiu Yuk
Wing’s mother, Liu Chiu Yuk**, was less than five feet tall but is reputed to have been a mean and tough woman. Family lore tells of her actions when bandits attacked the hamlet when she was young. A wall and a small lake protected two sides of the village. She defended the third side alone while directing the men of the village to defend the remaining side.
Wing’s father, Lew Fook, was the third of four sons. He arrived in the United States in the late 1890’s and worked as a miner in Rock Springs, Wyoming, until a leg accident forced him to move to Oden, Utah, where he worked in a grocery store with his oldest brother. He became a U.S. citizen by convincing government officials that he was born in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the city’s birth records.
By 1910 Lew Fook had saved enough money to return to China, marry and build a home. He gave his savings to his oldest brother with instructions to buy land and begin the construction of a family compound. Upon returning to China in 1911 he found no land, home or money. Before confronting his oldest brother, he found a wife, conceived his first born and laid plans to return to America to build a second fortune. The confrontation between brothers was the only time anyone could remember Lew Fook losing his temper. It involved a gun and a promise to repay.
Ten years after his first trip to China, he returned to transport his first born to America. During that second visit, two events occurred which profoundly affected him and his progeny. The first was that he conceived his second son, Wing Din Lew. The second was an act of kindness that blessed his family for generations. Decades later, Wing recounted his father’s story:
My father, his three brothers and a feng shui master roamed the hills around their village for days looking for a site to rebury their great-grandfather’s bones. Upon finding the perfect site on top of a “tiger’s head” formation, the five began to dig. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and the skies opened. The feng shui master, never having left China, had only a straw hat to protect himself from the rain.
The brothers, who had all traveled to America, wore western raingear. The rain was cold and the wind was fierce. My father offered to exchange his raincoat for the straw hat, at which point the feng shui master reoriented the grave just slightly and said that now the body was buried not only to honor the dead but also to bring luck to my father and his descendants.
In 1930 Lew Fook sent his first born back to China to bring his second son to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he owned a partial interest in a Chinese restaurant. Wing remembered, “My brother came home, got married and was taking me back. We went on to Hong Kong. I got on the ship S.S. Cleveland.” Wing was nine years old and only 4 feet 1 ½ inches tall when he left his mother to begin his trip to America. He traveled first by foot with his older brother to Bai Sha station where they boarded a Sun Ning train to travel to Doushan. There they boarded a steamer for Hong Kong.
The SS President Cleveland left Hong Kong on July 1, 1930, and arrived at Angel Island on July 26th.
Wing’s union with his father was delayed by the anti-Chinese immigration policies then in effect. An immigration official who believed he was an illegal “paper son” interned him on Angel Island.
In those days, some United States citizens of Chinese descent who lost children during childbirth in China sold their baby’s identity. Others sold carefully crafted false identities of children who were never born. The practice was popular as it allowed some Chinese to buy passage for their children and claim American citizenship for them.
Wing, although legitimate, had to prove during his stay on Angel Island that he was actually the son of his father and not a paper son. Immigrants who were determined by American authorities to be paper sons were sent back to China. So, despite the truth of his story, Wing studied to prepare for the interrogation:
“When I was 7 or 8, I was learning the family history because my father was in America and he was going to bring me over. And we went through that teaching for a long time, which has to be kept secret because you don’t know who was a spy.”
During his stay on Angel Island, Wing spent many days with little to do.
“I was the youngest one. On a routine day in the morning they ringed the bell and you go wash yourself on the face and everything. The second bell would ring later; it was your breakfast bell. So you eat and you come back….you have lunch the same way, you have dinner the same way. There’s not much to do, you can do your laundry or you can go play. It was a routine.
You grandpa send me Chinese sausages and things like that for extra food because you don’t get much eating down there. If I want a sausage tonight, I would take it out from under my bed and give it to the guard. The guard would write the number (one sausage or whatever) and give you a slip of paper. You hang on to that slip of paper. And when you go down to get your rice and get your food you give them a slip of paper and they give you what’s down there.
After nine months, I was finally allowed to set foot on America. At his hearing, my father offered the only evidence he could think of to prove my heritage, the shape of his thumb. “Our thumbs, my father’s, my (brother) and mine, were uniquely shaped. In China, the shape was called Snake Head. They were fat, ugly, identical, and the key to America.”
Wing often told the story of his thumb, with its odd shape being the deciding factor in his being released into the United States. He remembers that his father showed the “judge” at Angel Island that he had a similar thumb to Wing’s at which time the “judge” decided to allow Wing into the United States. Administratively Wing and his father were subjected to interviews and interrogations until August 30, 1930, when an immigration official, G.W Heckert, ruled that:
“The evidence in this case consisted of the statements of LEW GIN FUN (Wing’s brother), the applicant, and his alleged father. This testimony is in fair agreement and considering the age of the applicant, no material serious discrepancies were developed. The demeanor of the three principals was good. I am of the opinion that the claimed relationship has been reasonably established and I therefore move that this applicant be admitted as the son of a native.”
Member Franklin: “I second the motion.”
Member Forbes: “I concur.”
Official records uncovered in 2003 documented that Wing’s internment on Angel Island was 34 days, much less time than the months he believed he was interned. Until he died more than 60 years later in his early 80’s, he would tell his children and grandchildren that he was held for 9 months. To a boy alone at age ten, 34 days must have felt like an eternity.
The Great Depression
Wing’s first three years in America were spent in Casper, Wyoming, where he attended elementary school (his only formal education) and got to know his father.
“He was the kindest person in the world. He loved children. He always treated me well. He would do anything for me.”
Unfortunately, the kindest person in the world was destined to be in Wing’s life for less than three years.
“Then he got sick and he didn’t believe in American medicine so he came to San Francisco and tried the herbs. Then all of a sudden he wants to go back to China, he borrow money from all over. So they took him to the ship, he died on the ship going back. And they sent him back all the way to the village.”
Wing was less than 14 years old when his father died. Alone with no adult support, he survived the next six years working a series of menial jobs.
“I went to work at the laundry. I get $4 a month. I slept where all the dirty laundry was. He gave me $4 a month plus eating. After I couldn’t make it any more, I went to work at a restaurant…$30 a month.”
“You see … it was during the depression. No one had money…I had to go to work. I washed the dishes. I would stand on a milk carton and wash the dishes. We didn’t have dishwashers then. I would then move the milk carton, climb up and rinse the dishes. I would move the milk carton to dry the dishes. I was short. I had to use the milk carton. I slept in the basement of the restaurant.
“I left town. I went to Salt Lake. And working in a restaurant washing dishes. I was offered a job, $25 a month. 14-16 hours a day. 7 days a week. No days off, no nothing. I didn’t trust the bank, didn’t trust my hotel so I made myself a belt and had all my money tied on myself. They had a lottery, a guy who comes down and the lottery was $2000, at that time a lot of money. On payday that guy would show up. And after they paid me he took one of my dollar, “Come on” he said, “press a number.” I didn’t want to do it. But they looked down on me so much that I said, “okay”. I pressed the number. Believe it or not, I hit seven out of ten. That’s over…I think I got about $1100.”
“Well [my father] owes a lot of money during his sickness [to] his uncle and everyone who owns the restaurant—one or two or three hundred dollars.”
I paid off every one of them. Then I heard about the [bank loan that my father took out to pay for my passage to America]…all he did was pay the interest. [After he died, the bank] cannot collect, certainly can’t collect from me. But I wanted to do the right thing because the money was for me. I pay the $800 [back]. I wiped out all the debt your great grandfather had.”
World War II
There are many questions concerning Wing that will never be answered. If asked, he would probably not have been able to explain where his sense of fairness or his work ethic came from. However, you could ask him why he joined the army, how he picked his wife, or why he ultimately moved to San Francisco and he always came up with a story:
“Then in 1941 … I woke up one morning and they said they bombed Pearl Harbor. So all of us had to register. I went in the army drunk and I came out of the army drunk. I got inducted in Fort Collins, Colorado…I ended up in Camp Roberts. After the basic training we was put on a train and went to Camp Butler, North Carolina. We lived in tent and it was nothing but swamp land and a farmland. We actually heard the mosquitoes say, ‘We eat them here or take them outside?’ No kidding.”
According to military records Wing was inducted into the army on July 27, 1942, and entered active service on August 9, 1942, at Fort Warren, Wyoming, and not Fort Collins, Colorado. His ASN was 37 453 898.
He could have joined one of the five fighting Chinese divisions but didn’t because he was tall for a Chinese. Having spent his adolescence in America, he felt more comfortable with white men so he joined a white division.
“We got on a ship Friday on the 13th … My ship was Calvin Castle, that’s the 78 infantry division. How many days we spent over going to England, we don’t know because 90% of the time we were so seasick we couldn’t see. It was wintertime.”
Wing left England and landed in France on November 22, 1944 and fought in a number of battles there, in Belgium and in Germany. His division was one of the first to arrive and cross the Ludendorff Bridge, a critical railroad bridge across the Rhine River that the Germans failed to blow up. He also fought at the Battle of the Bulge.
“(I was part of the) Battle of the Bulge. They broke through 106th, two regiments, which is approximately 8-9000 men, was lost in 20 minutes. The 102 lost one regiment. We was lucky we was on the side.”
“After the war we left …Germany January 1st, 1946, on the slowest boat, smallest boat they had in the history. We took 16-17 days. We get along fine because we (were) all happy we going home. White people, Chinese, everything. The 78 Infantry division had 8 Chinese…but I was the only Chinese in my troop.”
During one of the battles he asked for a cigarette to keep his teeth from chattering. That cigarette started a habit which came back to haunt him many years later when he died of emphysema.
One of his jobs during his years in the army was as a cook. He liked it because he didn’t have to fight as often and he always had food to eat. As a result, many of his war stories were food-related. War stories he often told his children included:
One day his unit was searching for Germans but found some cognac. They were loading the cognac into their truck when a colonel drove by and asked, “What are you doing? Unload that truck.” When told that they were loading cognac the colonel took off his gun belt to help.
The Germans and the Americans were shooting at each other across a field when all of a sudden a cow walked by. How could the cow have survived until now? An American soldier shot the cow and brought it to Wing who butchered it for dinner.
Wing and another solder were left behind by his unit when Germans overran the town they were guarding. The two of them hid inside a potato bin, covering themselves with potatoes until the Americans returned.
Bride and America
Wing was honorably discharged at Fort Logan, Colorado, on January 20, 1946. In December he returned Toi San to see the mother he left 17 years earlier and to take advantage of the War Brides Act. He hired a matchmaker to introduce him to potential brides and promptly rejected the first five because they were all short and mousy. His memory of meeting the sixth, Lau Chung How, was different.
“I met her and within 20 minutes I was ready to give her the ring." We married and just stayed there (in China). “Just lived and did stuff. American money last a long time.”
Wing returned to San Francisco on January 17, 1948, with his new bride whom he called Jean. They borrowed money and made their way to Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he had a job waiting for him in a Chinese restaurant. Their first child, Robert, was born in 1950. Since Chung How (Jean) spoke no English and the Chinese population of Idaho Falls was small, she became very lonely and depressed. For this reason they moved to San Francisco after their second child, Donna, was born in 1952.
While the family was settling into an apartment on Green Street near Columbus Avenue, Wing found work as a cook first at the Round House Restaurant located at the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge and later at Sam's Hoff-Brau in Oakland.
One day he stopped by at the Strand’s Castle, a restaurant located on Market Street in San Francisco, to buy some cigarettes. The owner, recognizing Wing, lamented that he would probably have to close his restaurant. Wing asked the owner for an opportunity to run the restaurant and was hired for $14.75 a day to save a restaurant that employed one bartender, one waitress, one cook, and one dishwasher. Within six months, the restaurant employed two bartenders, two waitresses, a cook, an assistant cook and two dishwashers.
From 1952 to 1962, Wing worked six days a week. On most days, he worked from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. On some days, usually Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays, he added catering assignments which usually prevented him from returning home until after 10 p.m. With the exception of Sundays, his growing family, now three children with the addition of Richard born in 1955, did not see him much.
His hard work paid off as he was able to save enough money to buy The Walk-In Cafeteria on McAllister Street in 1963. It was a restaurant that would require him to work from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. The Walk-In Cafeteria was a family affair with his wife, Jean, working the cash register from noon to 7 p.m.; his daughter, Donna, working the service line, and his oldest son, Robert, washing the pots and pans and counting the day’s receipts.
Wing sold his restaurant in 1970 but did not fully retire. Instead he worked six hours a day running St. Anthony’s Dining Hall’s kitchen. He was very proud of the fact that he served over a thousand free meals a day and nearly three thousand meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas to those in need. Wing finally retired in 1980 and spent hours reading, watching television, cooking, drinking Jack Daniel’s and playing Ma Jong. He also traveled with Jean to China, Europe, the East Coast and gambling destinations like Reno and Las Vegas.
He led a successful immigrant’s life. He worked hard, raised a family and found time in his later years to love and spoil his grandchildren until he died on October 1, 2002.
Wing’s family sponsored the following Angel Island Immigration Station Heritage Wall Plaque:
* Wing believed that he was born on September 21, 1921. His Angel Island interrogation records initially stated that he was born on April 2, 1920 (CR 9-2-14). This was later changed to March 21, 1921 (CR10-2-14). His army enlistment papers listed his birthday as March 21, 1923. Based on the latter, Wing was 9 years old when he arrived on Angel Island, or 10 years old using the Chinese method of calculating age. March 21, 1923, was chosen for his tombstone.
Toi San is now known as Taishan. Past variations of the name include Toisanese or Hoisanese as pronounced by Cantonese and Taishanese as pronounced in Mandarin.
** Wing’s mother, Liu Chiu Yuk, was born in Toi San, Kwang Tung, on May 12, 1891. According to the Angel Island interrogation records, Wing and his father (Lew Fook) claimed that Wing’s mother was called Louie Shee. (Her name was spelled Louie See in his application for a certificate of citizenship.)
Place of Origin
Place of Settlement