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Gue Gim “Missy” Wah

At a glance:

Born: 1900
Place of Birth: Lin Lun Li, a village in a district in the Guangdong province of South China
Died: June 15, 1988, at Prince, Nevada
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Chinese
Married: Tom Fook Wah
Children: Adopted son
Primary City and County of Residence and Work: Prince/Caselton near Pioche in Lincoln County, Nevada
Major Fields of Work: Boarding house operator, restaurant owner and chef
Other Role Identities: Student, garment factory worker

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Biography: Gue Gim Wah image

In 1870 or 1880, Gue Gim’s father, Ng Louie Der (Der Ng Louie in Chinese), 1 immigrated to California, where he established a business in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He married before leaving China, but his wife remained behind to serve his parents, as was the custom, while he was away seeking better opportunities. As a merchant, one of the classes exempted from the anti-Chinese immigration acts of the time, Der was able to travel freely back and forth to visit his wife, who bore him five children. When Gue Gim was eight, her mother died, and she was sent to live with relatives. As for Ng Louie Der, he married a woman living in China and started another family there.

In 1912 Der decided to bring his second wife and four of his children, including Gue Gim, to the United States. The family sailed to California by way of Hong Kong and Honolulu. On arriving in San Francisco, they were taken to Angel Island, the immigration station, and detained there for five days. Generally, the Chinese immigration acts excluded from entry Chinese without family connections within the United States. The result was that “paper sons” were born. These were children with papers that falsely claimed they had relatives in the United States for the purposes of immigration, and a rigorous and intensive examination process was created by immigration officials to identify them. At first, the interrogators did not believe Gue Gim was Ng Louie Der’s daughter because she was very slender, while her father and brothers were fat. The problem was solved when the family was called together to see if they looked alike. Fortunately for Gue Gim, “…my face looked like my daddy’s face. Because of that, they told me I could go on shore.” 2

In Chinatown Gue Gim and her stepmother led secluded lives, which was customary for the wives and female children of upper-class Chinese, and for the next four years she probably spent most of her time helping her stepmother care for the growing Der family, leaving the home only to attend church and a private Chinese language school.

In 1916 Gue Gim married Tom Fook Wah, one of her father’s old friends. Tom had visited Der the year before while he was on vacation from his job in Nevada, saw Gue Gim and asker her father for her hand in marriage. Tom, born in Marysville, California around 1871, was taken to China as a young child when his parents died. He returned to the United States as a young man and traveled around California, Arizona and Nevada, hoping to find work in the mines. Instead he worked first as a laborer and then as a cook. In 1911 he arrived in Prince, just outside Pioche in Lincoln County, Nevada, and eventually had a good job working for the Prince Consolidated Mining Company as manager of the mine’s boarding house and restaurant. When Tom, a bachelor, injured his leg in 1914 or 1915, the doctor treating him advised him to get a wife to take care of him. But finding a Chinese wife in the Pioche area would be difficult – the Chinese population, which had dwindled since the boom days of the 1880s, was mostly male. His problem was solved when he met Gue Gim.

At first, Gue Gim was not enthusiastic about marrying an older man. However, such marriages were common in Chinese society, and Gue Gim obeyed her father’s wishes. Although Tom wanted to get married right away, the wedding was postponed until the following year because Gue Gim’s stepmother was pregnant again and needed her help. Gue Gim and Tom had a traditional Chinese wedding, planned and paid for by Tom, as was the custom.

When the newlyweds arrived in Prince, Tom returned to work, but Gue Gim, being shy and knowing no English, remained secluded in their home. Tom, whose dining room was the town’s social center, was well liked in the community and tried to encourage Gue Gim by teaching her a few words in English. She learned a few more words from a teacher on a visit to her family in San Francisco. Then one of the mine owners who knew of her desire to learn English made arrangements for her to attend the Prince School, where she learned quickly and passed through eight grades in several years.

During her time at the Prince school, Gue Gim formed two friendships that lasted throughout her lifetime. One friend was Mary Thomas, daughter of Leonard G. Thomas, the superintendent of the Combined Metals Reduction Company of the Prince Mine; the other was Elizabeth Gemmill, whose father purchased the Prince Consolidated Mining Company.

Tom’s business, which had prospered during the years of World War I, declined when the war ended in 1918, but revived during the 1920s. Sometime in 1927 or 1928 a fire broke out in the boarding house where Tom, who did not believe in banks, kept all his money. With all their money gone, Tom and Gue Gim decided to go to South China, hoping to collect some of Tom’s inheritance and to liquidate some of his investments there.

In China Gue Gim enrolled in a teacher’s training course in order to continue her education while Tom took care of business. The Wahs had planned to return to the United States within the year, but remained for another year because Tom became ill. While in China, Tom and Gue Gim adopted the two-year-old boy of a poor family. The Wahs were forced to leave the child behind with relatives when they returned to the United States in 1929 because American government officials did not recognize the adoption.

Back in the United States, Gue Gim stayed in San Francisco with her relatives and went to work for the first time doing finishing work at a garment factory. Meanwhile, Tom returned to Prince to reestablish himself and find a permanent home, but when he got to Prince, he discovered that the Depression was making an impact on the activities of the Prince Mine. He decided to move to nearby Caselton where the mine was doing better. He rented a building and sent for Gue Gim. Being short on cash and needing help, Tom, for the first time, asked Gue Gim to work in his boarding house restaurant.

In 1933 Tom’s health began to fail to the extent that medical treatment was needed, and with the community’s help, the Wahs traveled to San Francisco. Tom died of cancer on August 17 at the age of seventy-one, and his remains were sent back to China for burial. Gue Gim remained in San Francisco with relatives for a few weeks and then returned to Prince to settle her affairs.

Gue Gim was welcomed back by her friends. Leonard Thomas, the mine superintendent, told her about a planned expansion of the Prince Mine and that boarding house and cooking work would soon be available there. He offered her a place to stay and temporary work in the meantime. Her family in San Francisco wanted her to return there, but Gue Gim decided to stay in Prince. She eventually went to work for the Prince Mine, and when the cook at the Caselton mine quit, she worked both jobs.

The mines began to gear up for World War II, but faced a manpower shortage. To solve this problem, the government exempted from military service men who had mining experience or were willing to work in the mines, and at the larger Caselton mine the government built houses and dormitories for the influx of men. Gue Gim rented a building for a restaurant and set about finding help by adveGue Gim image 2rtising that she would pay the fare of anyone interested in coming to the area. Some foods were rationed or in short supply, but Gue Gim found ways to manage. One of Gue Gim’s visitors during the war years was former president Herbert Hoover, who had an interest in several of the mines in the area. The former president greatly enjoyed her company and food whenever he visited the area. Gue Gim would later be invited as an honored guest when the Hoover Memorial Library in Iowa was dedicated in the 1960s.

Most of the miners returned home after the war ended in 1945, leaving only a few to eat at Wah’s. Then production declined sharply during the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the government’s policy of allowing low-cost foreign metals into the country. The Prince area soon had the appearance of a ghost town. Fortunately for Gue Gim, her reputation as an outstanding chef had spread throughout the Southern Nevada area, and people from as far away as Las Vegas made reservation to eat American and Chinese food at her café. In 1971 an article about Wah’s Café appeared in the November 25 issue of the Los Angeles Times, which brought regional recognition for Gue Gim and her café.

Over the years Gue Gim had kept up efforts to bring her adopted son in China to the United States. She appealed to U.S. Senators and other government officials, but without success. Finally in 1971 she gave up and went to visit her son in China instead. Her adopted son was now married and had two sons and two daughters. Eventually Gue Gim was able to bring a granddaughter to the United States.

In 1980 Gue Gim and her restaurant were featured in an article in the May/June issue of Nevada: The Magazine of the Real West. Since help was hard to find, Gue Gim did all the work herself and had decided that advance reservations were required before she would start to cook. The reviewer described Wah’s “not open” establishment as one of Nevada’s “most exclusive cafes.” 3

Also in 1980 Gue Gim was named grand marshal of the Nevada Day parade in Carson City, and newspapers throughout the state carried the story. Reno newspaper columnist Rollan Melton described her as “a little bit of a woman with a great big heart, a heap of courage and a fascinating background.”4 The local Lincoln County Record congratulated Gue Gim on being the second woman in a row (Dr. Mary Fulstone of Smith Valley was honored the previous year) and the first person of Oriental ancestry to be chosen to lead the parade. The paper hailed her as “Nevada’s Queen – Our Missy Wah.”5 On October 31 Gue Gim rode at the head of the parade in an open car, accompanied by her lifelong friend Mary Thomas, her granddaughter, and her granddaughter’s husband.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s further recognition for Gue Gim came in newspaper and magazine articles, oral histories, essays in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, and Asian immigration and pioneer American women studies.

By late 1985 Gue Gim had essentially retired. She died at her home in Prince on June 15, 1988, and is buried in nearby Pioche.

Biographical sketch by Kathleen Thompson

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Endnotes:

From page 46 of Sue Fawn Chung’s essay, “Gue Gim Wah: Pioneering Chinese American Woman of Nevada”

On page 5 of the Lincoln County Town History Project oral interview

Jason Rubinsteen. “Taste of China.” Nevada: The Magazine of the Real West. May/June 1980: 36-37

Rollan Melton. “Meet Mrs. Wah.” Reno Evening Gazette, 29 Oct. 1980

"Nevada’s Queen – Our Missy Wah.” The Lincoln County Record, vol. 109, no. 22, 6 Nov. 1980

Sources of Information:

Loren B. Chan. “The Chinese in Nevada: An Historical Survey, 1856-1970.” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 25, no. 4 (Winter 1982): 288-291

Sue Fawn Chung. “Gue Gim Wah: Pioneering Chinese American Woman of Nevada.” History and Humanities: Essays in Honor of Wilbur S. Shepperson. Francis X. Hartigan ed. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1989: 45-79

--- “Savoring History: The Story of Missy Wah and the Nevada Frontier.” Nevada Readings and Prospectives. Michael S. Green and Gary E. Elliott eds. Reno: Nevada Historical Society, 1997: 252-256

Elizabeth Patrick. “Missy Wah of Prince: American from China.” The Nevadan. Las Vegas Review-Journal. 7 March 1982

---“An Interview with Gue Gim Wah.” Lincoln County Town History Project. Robert D. McCracken ed. Lincoln County, Nevada: Sept. 24-25, 1984. Lincoln County Online: Ethnography. http://www.lincolncountyonline.com/ethnography.htm 8/10/03

Betty Lee Sung. Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967

Photo credit: Nevada: The Magazine of the Real West and Elizabeth Gemmill Frizzell Collection, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Library

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