Ah Bing and His Cherries
Food in History
Spring Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(1) pages: 25 to 26
In my inbox and in the public domain, is a
story about a Chinese immigrant and a fruit
named for him that we love. Thanks to a
Chinese friend who sent it on to us, coming via
Florence Olson Ledding to my friend. She was
a lawyer and step-daughter of his employer
named Seth Lewelling. This rather unknown
piece of Chinese history always comes to mind
as we enjoy Bing cherries. Ah Bing was the first
to tend them in the US yet his life here was cut
short because of American racism. How did this
Chinese foreman tending his beloved cherries
and then left the country to visit his wife and
children could not or would not
return; we’ll never know which.
He was six feet tall and a
Northern Chinese, the foreman
who worked for the Lewelling
and family who were Quakers
with strong abolitionist
sentiments. The story about
them starts before the Civil
War when their brother,
Henderson came to build a
home in Iowa. He was known
as the “main ticket office for the
underground railroad.” In the
mid-1800s, his family headed
west with seven hundred fruit
trees arriving in Milwaukie,
Oregon establishing the
West Coast’s first nursery.
Seth soon joined him there.
At that time, Oregon’s
population was booming
and some settlers were
looking for post-Gold Rush
opportunities while others
had their eyes on the Pacific
Northwest’s rich farmland.
With these hundreds of trees,
the Lewellings established
a thriving nursery business.
Henderson Lewelling soon
peeled off to Honduras to start an ill-fated utopian
colony, but Seth put down roots with orchards of plums,
apples, and other fruits. He kick-started Oregon’s fruit-growing
industry, and this story is thanks to that effort
because Oregon was flourishing but needed labor.
All across the West, Chinese workers were
building train tracks and working mines,
orchards, and farms, were paid less while
their industriousness was put down because
it hurt Americans wages stealing their jobs. It
was in the American West, writes immigration
historian Erika Lee, that “arguments in support
of Chinese exclusion arose.”
In 1892, the federal government passed the
Chinese Exclusion Act barring immigration
of Chinese laborers for decades to come.
Meanwhile, violence against Chinese immigrants
flourished in the Pacific
Northwest, and in 1885, city
leaders in Tacoma, Washington
became local leaders driving
Chinese populations out of
town. Many of their homes
were burned during this time
and after it. Two years later
in Oregon, thirty-four Chinese
miners were murdered. Called
the Hells Canyon Massacre, the
culprits never punished.
It was then that Ah Bing
worked on Seth Lewelling’s
farm. This man of Manchu
descent, hailed from the north
of China. His height and his
background made him
very unlike the majority
of Chinese immigrants.
They were mainly from the
Guangdong Province and
he did work for Lewelling
for more than thirty years
sending money back to his
wife and Children in China.
Ledding remembered him
singing a popular song of
the day always in a mournful
Seth’s house was where Ah
Bing and others were sheltered for years, it was then
demolished in 1940. As the foreman of Lewelling’s
orchard crew, he supervised more than thirty men, and
worked closely with Seth Lewelling grafting, propagating,
and caring for his trees.
The Bing cherry, Ledding recalls, surfaced one day when
Lewelling and Ah Bing walked through Seth’s rows of
cherry trees. Each of these men did maintain separate
rows, and in Ah Bing’s there was a marvelous new type
of cherry. Someone suggested to Lewelling that he
should name the cherry after himself, but he protested.
He said he already had one named for himself, and
said, “I’ll name this one for Bing,” Ledding recalls, and
continued, “it a big cherry and Bing is big and it is in his
row, so that will be its name.”
Other stories portray Ah Bing as more central to the
development of this particular cherry. In 1992, the
agricultural journal The Oregon Grower, relates that
Lewelling assigned a collection of ‘Black Republican’
cherry seedlings to Ah Bing to care for; and that was
in 1875. Bing’s cultivation resulted in the Bing Cherry; it
did pass his name down in horticultural history.
The Bing cherry went on to win prizes and did sell for
the princely sum of a dollar a pound. Still Ah Bing’s
contribution could not save him from American racism.
During the years of violent ant-Chinese riots, Lewelling
sheltered Ah Bing and many of his Chinese crew in
Lewelling’s home. Perhaps it was the fevered environment
that spurred Ah Bing to return to China to visit his family.
He was longing to go home to visit them; he always talked
about them, Ledding said. So in 1889 he did return to
China for a visit. The Chinese Exclusion Act had already
passed and legislators actively plugged loop holes to make
it more restrictive. Ah Bing never returned to the US, and
years later Ledding did say the Chinese Exclusion Act was
why he did not come back to the US.
The rest of Ah Bing’s story is lost to history. After working
for decades in the US, perhaps he wanted to stay in his
homeland as there he would not be threatened due to
his race. Maybe he did try to return to the US but was
rejected. Americans encounter his legacy every day,
seeing the name ‘Bing’ on their bags of cherries.