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Chinese-Canadian pioneers of West Kootenay: Charlie Bing

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

After writing about Chinese-indigenous births at Rock Creek, I received a message from Nelson’s Mona Smith, who noted that her mother, aunt, and uncles were born to Chinese-Canadian parents in Midway in the 1920s. She put me in touch with her uncle in Ontario, Johnnie Bing, and loaned me several volumes of family history he compiled. Therein lies a fascinating tale.

This old truck from the 1940s or so sits on the Bing property at Willow Point.


Johnnie’s dad, Soo Bing Quan, also known as Charlie Bing, was nicknamed the Chinese Cowboy.


Born in Hong Kong on Oct. 22, 1882, he lived in the village of Chong Kong before coming to Canada, although nothing is known about his family; he never talked about his childhood. He arrived in Victoria on March 13, 1900 and was granted immigration certificate 8999. His name was garbled to Soo Quan Bing and then Charlie Bing.


“All Chinese were called Charlie in those days,” Johnnie said. “There is no shame because Charlie Bing made us proud. He was indeed an upstanding and highly respected citizen.”


How and exactly when he found his way to Midway isn’t clear, but likely he had friends or relatives there. By 1904 he had a small herd of cattle and an 85-acre ranch that straddled the Canada-US border. He also had a garden that won prizes at the Greenwood Fall Fair in 1911, 1912, and 1913 for yellow onions, pumpkins, celery, corn, squash, and tomatoes.

Charlie was known for his astounding riding abilities, as described in a colourful account by W.S. Wilson in the Vancouver Province of Aug. 28, 1948 (and reprinted four days later in the Nelson Daily News with an addendum). Wilson wrote of “Charlie Bing, a Chinese cowboy who’d ride anything with four feet, if he could get a leg over it.”

For a living, Charlie ran a market garden. But for fun he took to riding bucking horses and there wasn’t a man around Midway could top ‘em any better. Man, he stuck on like burrs to a blanket and always rated cheers from the watchers on the corral rails.

Charlie was often called upon to track down stray horses, Wilson wrote. He never failed.

On the way back to Midway he had to drive the bunch straight down the face of a steep hill and you should have seen him awhooping and ahollering and coming down as hard and fast as his horse could put a leg under it. It was no feat for an amateur — or even a semi-pro — I can tell you. A man had to be a centaur to travel like that.

Johnnie says some of the wild horses his father rounded up were sent overseas for use by the military during World War I.


Wilson wrote that Bing had a stake horse — an especially agile animal used to run races around planted stakes — that he acquired in unusual circumstances.


The Armstrong brothers, who lived nearby, visited the ghost town of Camp McKinney and claimed some abandoned items for themselves. But a neighbour reported them to police and they were arrested. Their lawyer succeeded in negotiating a suspended sentence. To pay him, the Armstrongs said he could have his pick of any two of their horses.


The lawyer knew nothing about horses, so asked a cowboy friend to have a look. The cowboy wasn’t impressed with the animals, who were old and sickly. But when he mounted one roan who looked to be on death’s doorstep, suddenly “the old horse came to life and couldn’t have jumped faster if it had electric wires in its tail. The old nag went around a pair of haystacks like chain lightning …”


Word got around that a new stake horse was in town and Charlie Bing soon made a deal to acquire it. Wilson met him as he rode home with a grin “as big as a watermelon.”

At the next big celebration, all the local cowboys lined up for the stake race but nearly fell over laughing when they saw Charlie’s sorry horse.

But it wasn’t many minutes till they were laughing on the other side of their faces, I tell you. When the race started Charlie and the old roan were off like greased lighting and they skidded ‘round the stakes so fast they made the other boys look sick. Charlie was the toast of the town.

There is contemporary evidence of Charlie’s riding feats. The Ledge of July 4, 1912 reported the winners of the Rock Creek “cowboy race” were C. Bing (riding Shorty), and F.M. Bubar (riding Bob).


At the Greenwood Fair that October, where Charlie also won plaudits for his vegetables, he was a top finisher in the stake race, the cigar race, and the saddle and train (although I don’t know what the latter two consisted of).

Charlie Bing was known for singing lustily on his way home from the Spokane Hotel. He also witnessed the aftermath of an infamous incident at a different Midway hotel on Aug. 25, 1908: the murder of Charles Thomet.


Two masked bandits entered the Commercial Hotel (also known as the Midway Hotel, which still stands). They said nothing, but as Thomet reached for his gun, he was shot in the neck and torso.


Charlie’s name was not mentioned in the newspaper accounts of the crime but emerged decades later in an episode of Bill Barlee’s Gold Trails and Ghost Towns. I’ve provided a link to the relevant part below, along with a transcript. (Barlee was in error where he said Thomet followed the bandits outside — in fact he died moments after being struck, without uttering a word.)

Bill Barlee: They retreat out the door, jump on their horses, Thomet follows them outside, and they ride up the street. As they ride up the street, they’re riding first east, then west, then they’re coming to this old hotel which is only about two and a half blocks away.
Sitting on the verandah of this [Spokane] Hotel … [is] Lou Salter. He’s playing poker with five individuals. I don’t know the names of three. I know Lou Salter is there, and there’s a Chinese cowboy called Bing. Bing, the Chinese cowboy. They’re sitting there, playing poker in a high stakes game. They hear the shots, they see the commotion and up the street these two guys. Somebody yells “They shot Thomet!”
Salter reaches behind him on the wall, picks up a 12-gauge shotgun — these guys are coming down the street towards his hotel, heading west. He levels that shotgun on these guys. One of them is kind of listing on his saddle and he starts to squeeze off the shot, and the mask falls down, and he looks and lowers the shotgun momentarily. Then they come down closer, he starts to squeeze off the shot — and he’s got them dead to rights, these guys are dead in the saddle — and he looks at that guy again, shakes his head, reaches around, puts the shotgun back on the wall and resumes their game of poker.
Mike Roberts: He obviously knew these guys. He knew at least that guy.

The Hotel Midway/Kettle River Inn was the site of a fatal shooting in 1908.

Bill: Either that was a guy from his past. Or a relative. Or a close friend. He couldn’t knock him out of the saddle.
Mike: Or wouldn’t knock him out of the saddle.
Bill: Nothing was ever said about this until years and years later, Mike, when Bing the Chinese cowboy is dying. I think it was 1969 in the Nelson hospital. He finally relates this story, that he was there and that’s what happened.
Mike: What a wonderful thing to discover. And you met the guy who Bing related the story to or did he relate it to you?
Bill: I met the guy that got it from Bing, who knew Bing. He was a railroader and had known Bing in the early days. Bing told him that’s the story of Lou Salter and Bing the Chinese Cowboy and what actually happened.

However, Charlie Bing never mentioned the story to his children. Several suspects were arrested, but no one was convicted.

Midway, ca. 1908. (Greg Nesteroff collection)

Around 1913, Charlie moved to Nelson. The late Grace (McCuaig) Poole recalled in her memoirs that he owned property in the 700 and 800 blocks between Innes and Houston streets and Hall and Cedar streets.

Charlie Bing had a small one-room cabin on the Houston Street side of his property. There was a beautiful bubbly spring of fresh water … I remember when our own spring ran dry, we would go over to Charlie’s spring for our water. Even in the winter it didn’t dry up. We would sometimes have to trudge over there to fill ten pound lard pails with water …

He had a small vegetable garden close to his house, while alfalfa was planted on the rest of the property. He told her mother Elsie that it had medicinal properties as a dried herb. When her younger brother Dewitt fell ill with St. Vitus’s dance — a disorder that results in rapid, jerking movements in the face, hands, and feet — Elsie sent Grace to Charlie’s field to pick leaves, which were pulverized, placed in a salt shaker, and sprinkled over Dewitt’s food. Elsie “was convinced that was one of the reasons Det recovered with only a slight heart murmur.”


Grace continued:

Charlie was a very nice man. He was a bachelor. I always wondered if he had a wife and family in China but was too shy to ask. He liked us kids. He would give us firecrackers on every holiday. At Christmas he supplied us with sparklers. We would not have had such happy times if he hadn’t been so generous. He told mother that she was always welcome to have anything she needed out of his vegetable garden.

And yet: “Mother used to scare the living daylights out of me if I was bad by threatening to give me to Charlie Bing.”

Within a few years, Charlie returned to the Boundary and again tried his hand at stake racing, but this time he didn’t win. He was next to a cowboy with a wild horse who turned suddenly and ran into Charlie.


Shorty Perasso took Charlie to hospital with a broken leg. After the cast was removed, it was found the leg was set at an angle and an inch and a half shorter than the other limb. He couldn’t walk or ride.


Although it was feared it would never heal, by Wilson’s account, Charlie was sent to a Vancouver specialist and made a full recovery.


Newspaper reports suggest two separate incidents contributed to Charlie’s problems. On May 29, 1913, The Ledge wrote: “In Midway last Saturday Charles Bing was kicked by a horse and had one of his legs broken in two places.” However, it didn’t elaborate on the circumstances.


From the same paper of Jan. 18, 1917: “Chas. Bing had his left leg broken while at work in a logging camp near Midway.”


Thereafter, Charlie was a regular donor to the Greenwood hospital — in fruit, if not cash.

In 1919, Charlie acquired a Ford truck to deliver vegetables. The following year, he parked it in front of L.E. Brawders’ home and in his absence, the truck rolled backwards, stopping only after one of its hind wheels buried itself into the ground. It narrowly avoided a 25-foot fall.


“The Greenwood Garage crew got busy,” The Ledge of June 24, 1920 reported, “and in a short time Mr. Bing was able to proceed.”


Later, when Charlie acquired another Ford truck from Sam Lee, The Ledge indicated his experience riding broncos would come in handy, for “Sam could not break [the truck] off the bucking habit.”

Late in 1919, it was announced that Charlie was preparing to go to China. This resulted in the only known photo of him, taken for this immigration document and recently rediscovered on the Library and Archives Canada website by Connor Mah, who kindly shared it with me.

There were two purposes for this trip. The dozen or so Chinese residents in the area, including Gee Pong, took up a collection to get his leg fixed. In China, it was re-broken and pulled back into shape with a series of rope tourniquets.

Worried the operation would fail and Charlie would be unable to care for himself, his friends and relatives thought he should marry a younger woman. And indeed, he took a bride 18 years his junior, Yee Shee (Jessie) Coan, at Chong Kong. Jessie was born on June 30, 1900, but nothing is known about her upbringing.


Charlie returned to BC in late April 1920. He appears at Midway on the 1921 census, which lists him as married, although his wife had not yet arrived. His occupation was given as market gardener and he had a hired hand, Soo Cue.


Jessie arrived in Vancouver on March 14, 1922 and was issued immigration certificate 92067, for which she would have paid the head tax. But she was fortunate to come to Canada at all, for the Chinese Immigration Act, which went into effect 16 months later, would have prevented it.

• 

According to Johnnie, Charlie’s leg operation in China was a success.

Charlie was strong willed and recovered very well. The only thing I noticed about his walk was that he limped a little and his left foot was turned slightly inwards. Otherwise his leg was quite normal. For a man whom everyone believed would be a cripple, he did all right. He was able to do hard physical work on the farm, like ploughing fields with a team of horses, falling timber, and cutting it up for fire wood and carrying 100-pound bags of potatoes off the delivery truck.

Charlie and Jessie lived in a log cabin in the middle of the Midway farm. Their first four children were born there: Winnie on March 8, 1923, James Charles (Jimmie) on May 1, 1924, Eva on April 13, 1926, and Johnnie on Sept. 8, 1927.

In 1927, Charlie faced three simultaneous lawsuits from Henry Strauss, Joe Szcesnuk, and S.J. Bender over some poisoned cows. The particulars were not reported, but the cases were tried together, as the evidence was the same, and only the amounts being claimed were different.


The judge awarded Strauss $180 and Bender $60, but dismissed Szcesnuk’s case.

The following year, Shorty Perasso wrote to Charlie and told him Reginald Dawson’s farm at Willow Point, on Kootenay Lake’s North Shore, was for sale. Dawson had been clearing land and growing apples there since 1906.


Charlie bought the property and moved his family there — possibly with the additional encouragement of Gee Pong, an uncle to Jessie, who now co-owned Nelson’s LD Cafe.


“I was told I made the journey from Midway to Willow Point in a cardboard box,” Johnnie says. “I can visualize [my mother] having three screaming kids around her while trying to make me comfortable.”


In 1929, Charlie rented his Midway farm to a Chinese man from Nelson, whose name goes unrecorded.


More Bing children were born in Nelson: George on May 11, 1929, Mary on July 12, 1931, Helen on Jan. 26, 1933, and Nellie on Nov. 16, 1939.


The Willow Point land came with several buildings, one of which Charlie offered to the boy scouts. He also built a log home with a long veranda, facing the lake.


He bought another 25 acres surrounding Dawson’s original 40 acres and developed one of the leading market gardens in the Kootenays. It supplied produce and pork to restaurants in Nelson and mines in Salmo, Ymir, and Sheep Creek. Jimmie, Johnnie, and Eva often accompanied their father on deliveries.

The Bing family farm at Willow Point, as seen in 2019.


All the children worked on the farm, missing school at planting and harvest time. Their one regular employee, Mac Murphy, put in long hours for little pay. When extra help was needed, Doukhobor farm hands were hired.

• 

Eva recalled her father was strict with them:

Dad was adamant that we were on our best behaviour at all times. He made sure that we were always polite, honest and truthful. He did not want people to say that the Chinese people were dangerous and not to be trusted. He had many influential friends in the district, among them Chief Harshaw of the Nelson police, Judge Dawson, and the judge’s many friends … Our father was held in high regard and respected in the community — and that may have been the reason he wanted to bring his children up to be respected citizens.

(Courtesy Ed Mannings)

• 

On the afternoon of July 25, 1943, Jimmie Bing and some of his siblings went swimming at the Willow Point beach. He entered the water from the boom of the Cady Lumber and Pole Company’s log pond and immediately got into trouble.


He bobbed up and down several times before vanishing. He was pulled from the water and Dr. E.S. Hoare of Trail, who happened to be nearby, tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late. He was 19. Mary recalled going back to the farm to find her father and tell him the devastating news.


More tragedy soon followed: on March 13, 1944 fire destroyed the Bing home. Neighbours managed to save most of their belongings. The fire reportedly spread from the roof. It was uninsured. While they rebuilt, Charlie and Jessie stayed in a cabin at the edge of the farm and the children moved into the building that the scouts used.


Charlie hired carpenter Joe Smith to build the new house — who later became Winnie Bing’s husband. Most of the kids also had a hand in the efforts. When they moved in that fall, the family had grown by one: the last of the Bing children, William, was born in Nelson on June 15, 1944.

The Bing children in the 1940s. Top row: Mary, Winnie, Johnnie. Middle row: Nellie, Eva, Helen. Bottom row: George, Bill, Jimmie. (Courtesy Johnnie Bing)


In February 1949, fire destroyed a chicken house and pig pen on the property. Twenty pigs and 150 chickens died — they ran back into the flaming buildings after being saved. Frozen hoses prevented firefighters from saving the buildings.

Charlie earned a mention in Fred Wah’s semi-fictional autobiography Diamond Grill: “The only Chinese farmer in the Koots, Charlie Bing comes in a couple of times a week to get the slop for his pigs.”


Son Johnnie said Charlie used to go to Nelson every night. He loved to stop in Chinatown to play mahjong and chat with the people he knew — which seemed to include just about everyone. He took his sons when he attended Chinese Freemasons meetings.


“I don’t know what his capacity was at these meetings but I was surprised when he got up to read his report,” Johnnie said. “He spoke very clearly and read his report, in Chinese, in a very distinct and professional manner. That impressed me.”


By the 1950s, Charlie’s trips to town became less frequent. Jessie rarely left the farm, although she did receive visitors.


In 1967, Charlie Bing received the BC Canadian Pioneers centennial medal. He died in Kootenay Lake Hospital on Feb. 7, 1969, age 86, and was buried in the Nelson cemetery (headstone pictured below). Any old photos were likely lost in the 1944 house fire — Johnnie remembers a portrait of his parents when they were first married.


Jessie Bing died on Feb. 12, 1986, age 85, at Mount St. Francis and was also buried in the Nelson cemetery.

Of their children, daughter Winnie died in 1992. Bill was killed in a plane crash in 1996 while on a search and rescue mission. Eva died in 2003, George in 2008, and Mary in 2018, and Johnnie in 2020. Helen lives in Kamloops and Nellie in Victoria.


Johnnie, who spent 25 years in the military, also turns up in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill:

Charlie Bing’s son, recently returned from the Korean War, walks in the front door of the Diamond. This is unusual. Old Mr. Walsh, one of the town’s most patriotic Legionnaires, insists that Eddie [sic] Bing sit on the stool next to him so they can talk army. Eddie’s one of the few Chinese kids to grow up in Nelson and if he wasn’t wearing that uniform we all know that he wouldn’t be walking in the front door and getting this kind of attention.

The Bing farm at Willow Point remains in the family, now owned by Bill’s daughter, Kwala and Helen’s granddaughter Amy, who live there with their families. Several old farm vehicles remain on the property, including the one pictured at the top of this page.


Kwala followed in Charlie’s footsteps as a member of the Nelson Riding Club. She won a gymkhana in 1996. “Charlie would have been proud if he had seen it,” Johnnie said. “He would have said ‘It’s a stake horse.’”


By 1996, an easement on the North Shore was named Bing Road — although at some point the sign was removed, only to be reinstalled later.

Bing Road at Willow Point may be one of only two roads in West Kootenay/Boundary named after a Chinese-Canadian family (the other is Dar Lane in Fruitvale).


In July 2000, the Bing family held a family reunion to mark the 100th anniversary of Charlie’s immigration to Canada, and visited the old family farm at Midway, then owned by the Boltz family. The log cabin where several of them were born was still standing.

George Bing, 2006 (Courtesy Mona Smith)


UPDATE: In 2019, Vancouver artist Gu Xiong developed an exhibit for Touchstones Nelson that combined artwork and history, specifically the history of Chinese Canadians in Nelson and West Kootenay. He visited the Bing farm at Willow Point, met Kwala, and was captivated by the old truck with Charlie’s name on the door — so much so that it formed a key part of the exhibit called The Unknown Remains, which ran from Aug. 22 to Nov. 3, 2019. With much effort, the door off the truck was removed and included as an artifact.

Updated on Sept. 10, 2020 to add the details of the Gu Xiong exhibit and the 1919 photo of Charlie Bing provided by Connor Mah. Updated on Jan. 4, 2021 to add the calendar image.

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Traci Saunders-Bos
Traci Saunders-Bos
Apr 06, 2022

Is there any way we could connect via email? I have recently found out my (adopted) mother's connection to Nellie Bing.

Tracilsaunders@gmail.com

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George Bing was prince of a guy who loved fishing and was great at it and hockey. I knew him in the 1960's. We would fish the day at Grohman Narrows then retire for the evening to the Queens Hotel where we told fishing tales until last call one thing about it: George's fishing stories were mostly true!


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Dustin McCombe
Dustin McCombe
May 27, 2021

This is an amazing article. This is my great grandfather, and I never knew any history about him. Thank you!

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Allen Mar
Allen Mar
Jan 01, 2020

Hi Greg, great article on Charlie Bing :-). I used see him come to the Diamond Grill, whenever he'd make rounds (probably all town) to pick up unfinished meals/food left over from diner's plates for his pigs... i.e. pig "slop" And @janklimk & @butchartrj, brothers Fred Jr, Ernie, Donnie & sister Glenda (indirectly as Winderberry Nursery) can be found on Facebook :-)

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To Janklimek: Attended LV Rogers High and Ernie Wah I remember we were in the odd class at same time. I take it he is one of the relatives from the Wah family. Don't know where Ernie is now.

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