Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lee, Bing Guin (1908–1987)

by Laurie Critchley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Bing Guin Lee  (1908-1987), retailer, was born on 25 April 1908 at Chefoo (Yantai), Shantung (Shandong) province, China, son of Walter Lee, merchant.  After studying commerce, Bing worked as a wireless operator in the merchant navy.  He married Show Fen Shou on 12 July 1931 at Chefoo.  An early photograph of Lee shows a studious, bespectacled young man with an open, almost dreamy face.  His maritime career came to an abrupt stop in 1938 after the Japanese occupation of China.

Refusing to work for his new masters, Lee took a job with some school friends, who had begun a business exporting Chinese handicrafts to Australia.  He left his wife, son and daughter behind and arrived in Sydney in 1939 for an intended three-year sales tenure.  Stranded in Australia as a result of World War II, Lee took various jobs in support of the Allied war effort.  Back in China, his family struggled to survive the deprivations of war without him.  After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Show Fen joined the exodus of refugees fleeing to Shanghai and then Hong Kong.  In 1949 she and the children gained berths aboard a ship to Australia.

The family settled at Fairfield, Sydney, alongside thousands of other postwar migrants.  Lee opened a fruit-and-vegetable shop.  Following the advent of television in the 1950s, he bought a small electrical repair shop and began selling televisions to his fellow migrants.  These customers, denied credit by other stores because they lacked financial standing, would create a loyal consumer base for generations to come.  Bing Lee’s shrewd trading skills, evidenced in his ability to assess who could make good their loans, saw business flourish.  One employee recalled that, by the 1970s, there were at least twenty-five different languages spoken among the staff and customers of Bing Lee’s burgeoning store.  But the business also played on popular perceptions of the Chinese shopkeeper, cunningly adapting the Monty Python song I Like Chinese to I Like Bing Lee and promoting its willingness to strike a bargain.

Lee was naturalised in 1963.  A Rotarian and a staunch Christian, he was also a keen lawn bowls player, who served as president of the Fairfield bowling club.  He was renowned for calling everyone 'Cuz', an expression that disguised his failure to remember names.  Although an assiduous assimilator—who took care to use a spoon and fork (never chopsticks) at the local Chinese restaurant—he was also president of the Shandong Club.  Within his family, he was respected as a traditional Chinese patriarch.  He was a stern disciplinarian who expected his children to follow his command.  His elder son, Ken, relinquished further education to work beside his father, dedicating himself to transforming the family store into a multi-million-dollar franchise in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.  Bing Lee died on 1 July 1987 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.  His wife and their daughter and two sons survived him; their younger son was born after the family was reunited in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 1984, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1987, p 5
  • SP11/2, item Chinese/Lee Bing Guin (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

Laurie Critchley, 'Lee, Bing Guin (1908–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-bing-guin-14145/text25156, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Birth

25 April 1908
Yantai, Shandong, China

Death

1 July 1987
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

lung disease

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation