Ask anyone who has lived in Duncan, or the Valley, for more than 50 years about Chinatown and you’ll likely hear warm reminiscences of their having ended Saturday evenings out, at a show or a dance, at the Pekin Restaurant or the Blue Room.
I’m from Victoria so I know little more about Duncan Chinatown than what I’ve read over the years, in the Cowichan Valley Museum Archives and in old newspapers. It was my re-reading The Way It Was, Ian MacInnes’s 2004 saga of growing up in Duncan, that prompts today’s Chronicle, a look at one of our most prominent Chinese-Canadian citizens, Jung Sue Lem Bing.
But, first, a glimpse at a typical Saturday night in Chinatown. (Ian’s books, by the way, are all highly readable, enjoyable and informative, and available in the museum gift shop.) In the late 1940s, and while serving a teenaged apprenticeship as a mechanic in the early 1950s, he and his friends would invariably find themselves after an evening out in Chinatown. Usually it was to Charlie’s pool hall, then to the Pekin, which, he tells us, was better known as Cupcakes for its "excitable" cook who took strenuous exception, reputedly with a meat cleaver, to rumours that his pork dishes really were of feline origin. Ian notes that, while he was intrigued by tales of Cupcake’s legendary temper, he never witnessed anything more exciting than an occasional argument with a mouthy customer, and those were "more in fun than in anger".
More than the good food, it was Cupcake’s reputation (and the hope of seeing some action) that drew customers in droves, he thinks.
Which brings us to Jung Sue Lem Bing. "Born  and raised in the rice fields of Canton, China," he arrived in B.C. with his wife Lung See in 1910 and found work in sawmills in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Chemainus and Duncan. He did return to China briefly, with a Canadian Infantry brigade in 1917. All that was before he grew prosperous as a farmer on five acres of bottomland bordering, what sounds surprising
to us today, Lewis Street. Today it’s the site of a homeless shelter and apartment buildings; back then, it was the site of Bing’s market garden.
He was 70 when he was interviewed by a newspaper reporter. What stands out most is his view of Canada after a lifetime struggle to make a life for his family and to be accepted by mainstream (white) Canadians.
For all of the prejudice that prevailed in those times, Bing flatly declared, in 1962, "The Canadian government has been pretty fair to the Chinese."
He was referring to a government that had granted Chinese-Canadians the right to vote only 15 years before.
He did have a criticism, however: "I think any Chinese-Canadian citizen should have the right to bring his family over here." He said that as a man whose own three sons and a daughter were living in China. That said, he had little sympathy for illegitimate immigrants who, he believed, "should come out in the open and talk things over with the government".
He sold his produce, mostly potatoes and "Chinese vegetables," to the restaurants in Chinatown, downtown stores and to Hillcrest Logging Co., Mesachie Lake. He also raised chickens for their eggs. His favourite pastime was managing his five beehives. The honey wasn’t for sale: "All the honey the five hives produce we [he and his second wife, Chan See] eat at home. We like honey."
Although the Bings had had to work hard to make their way, he said they were happy and that Duncan "is a nice place to live in". A Chinese Free Mason, he said he knew, liked and was liked by everyone in the community. A Canadian citizen since 1926, he declined to comment on communist and nationalist Chinese relations, then much in the news, and concluded the interview with, "I am satisfied with Canada."