Old News: Ah Bing

May 22, 2009

Not much information is available on Ah Bing, but his namesake remains ubiquitous: the Bing cherry, an American fruit favorite.

The Bing cherry was first grown in Oregon in 1875, created as a crossbred graft from the Republican cherry, and is the most produced variety of sweet cherry in the US today.

Ah Bing was reportedly born in China and immigrated to the US in 1855, where he worked as a foreman in the Lewelling family fruit orchards in Milwaukie, Oregon. He stood six-foot-two and supervised fruit trees as well as other Chinese workers. While some sources claim that the Bing cherry was named for him because he cared for the trees that created it, others claim that he had been responsible for cultivating the fruit.

Whether or not Ah Bing invented or was merely immortalized by the Bing cherry, perhaps he is most interesting for simply being a Chinese American farm worker at a time when white Americans felt threatened by the growing presence of Chinese Americans, especially in farming, and implemented both legal and illegal actions against them. The infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for one, halted Chinese immigration and placed other prohibitions on Chinese Americans, such as sanctioned deportations on legal residents. Chinese Americans were already forbidden to own land, and could only work as tenant farmers, handing over a portion of their profits to non-Chinese landowners.

In the 1880s, Chinese Americans were violently expelled from many towns on the west coast, and Ah Bing and his co-workers were forced into hiding. He had been working at the Lewelling family orchards for more than three decades when he returned to visit family in China in 1889. But the Exclusion Act stated that Chinese Americans who left the country had to obtain stringent certification to re-enter. So Ah Bing could not return to the US.

But did he even want to return? That answer remains lost to time. Maybe he came back to China with the intent to stay, one of the lucky ones, his years abroad a financial success. One source claims Ah Bing had a family that had remained in China after he immigrated. Stories of separated families, deportations, and anti-immigrant biases are commonplace today, but they are nothing new. Ah Bing’s century-old story is a predecessor to contemporary policies, reflecting this country's long-standing unease with the immigrants and sojourners that continue to build it.




and you can read more about asian americans in food production in hyphen's issue 2, the food issue!
Would be interesting if someone who could read Chinese could dig around in China for some information on him! Maybe a whole book or something has been written... or a statue of him holding some cherries is somewhere, haha...