Food history is long, complex, and often mysterious. Any chance to share little-known stories is something that I jump on. The story of Ah Bing is exactly one of those stories. Ah Bing left nothing behind; his story is only known through hearsay. But his contributions to horticulture are important to recognize, as you’ve likely tasted the result of his work.
Southwestern China in the mid-18th century was, well, a mess. It was struck by natural disasters and famine, as well as political conflict and the Second Opium War (1856-1860) between the Qing Dynasty and the UK and France (and the US in two battles). As a result, many Chinese men migrated to California to seek work and wages. Many worked as laborers, industrializing the West Coast with railroads and mining operations. By 1880, approximately 5% of Oregon’s population was Chinese. Ah Bing was one of these immigrants.
Ah Bing worked as a foreman at a nursery owned by Seth Lewelling in Milwaukie, Oregon, overseeing about thirty other Chinese laborers. The step-daughter of Lewelling and one of the first female attorneys of Oregon, Florence Olson Ledding, documented her memories of Ah Bing to create much of what we know about him today. She recalled him being over six feet tall. As opposed to many of the other workers that were Cantonese, Ledding believed that Bing was Manchurian. The legend goes that Lewelling and Bing alternated test rows in the nursery, and a particularly good cherry resulted from a plant in one of Bing’s rows. It was a grafted offspring from the Black Republican cherry, now unknown and primarily used as a pollinator. Lewelling gave Bing credit by naming the new variety after him: the Bing cherry.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Arthur on May 6, 1882. While the Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from immigrating to the US, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all Chinese citizens. After working for Lewelling for thirty-five years, Ah Bing returned to China during this period. Ledding believed that he did have a wife and family in China, to whom he had been sending wages. Many rumors circulate around Ah Bing after this period. It is assumed that he left due to anti-Chinese sentiment, but there is speculation that he simply chose that as the time to return home and invest his savings. But it is entirely possible that he tried to return to the US, and could not.
Bing cherries are now the most popular cherries in the United States. Keep Ah Bing in mind the next time you bite into the deep red, sweet flesh of his namesake cherries.
Material sourced from:
– Dave Adamschick for 1859 Magazine https://1859oregonmagazine.com/think-oregon/history/the-bing-cherry/ (This is a much more in-depth read!)
Photos sourced from: