The Bing Lee Story
The history of the Chinese trader is well known around the world. For centuries, China has been central in global trade and in recent times has made once inaccessible electronic technologies available to those who previously could not afford it, making items such as televisions the ‘norm’ rather than a luxury. In New South Wales, the Lee family is synonymous with affordable electronics. Many of us are familiar with the Bing Lee TV and radio commercials of the last four decades. The catchy jingle “I like Bing Lee” is a part of the local pop culture and captures the essence of the family’s objective – to be a wide-reaching, low-cost electrical goods retailer bringing affordable technology to the hard-working Aussie family.
Bing Lee was born in 1906, in Yantai, a port city in eastern China's Shandong province. In the 1930's, Bing was a merchant trader in Chinese linen, providing for his wife, young son, and daughter. In 1937, in search of business opportunities, Bing made the difficult decision to leave his family and sail to Australia with the intention of returning with money to support the family.
Bing found employment and lived the Western Suburbs of Sydney, saving money to take back to his family. But in 1939, World War II began. The Japanese occupation of China made it impossible for Bing to leave Australia. He was unable to return home or contact his family. Bing’s wife and children were battling to survive back home. The family faced famine in the area where they lived and had to survive by trading their possessions and living on rations. Due to Australian policy at the time, Bing could not support them financially. There was no way to get the money to them. He would not hear from his family until the end of the war in 1945.
Bing’s family joined a flood of refugees fleeing the devastation of their home caused by Japanese occupation. But the journey was not easy. It took 3 years for them to make it across China to Hong Kong, where they finally boarded a ship headed for Sydney.
The family reunited with Bing at Sydney wharf after 10 years of not having seen each other. It was 1948. His son, Ken, was 17 and did not remember much about his father. Having been through a long, harrowing separation, Bing was keen to settle with his family and create a better life for them with the many opportunities his new home had to offer.
Affordable land on the outskirts of Western Sydney drew many post-war migrants, and the suburb of Fairfield is where the Lee family would call home for over 50 years. Bing put his savings from working for the last 10 years into the purchase of a local fruit market. Ken, not wanting to leave his father to support the family alone, put his study ambitions on an indefinite hold to work in the family business.
Ken worked hard, but he also found the time to enjoy his new life, socialising and making Australian friends. As the only son, Ken wanted to show his parents that he was capable of not only working in the business but taking it over when his father was no longer able to run it.
The Rise of the Bing Lee Brand
In the 1950s, Bing Lee was at the forefront of the new consumer age. He traded his fruit shop for an electrical repair shop, which he and Ken developed into an electrical retail store which also offered installation and repairs, tapping into a brand new market. Bing put faith in his customers by providing credit to fellow migrants, who would usually not have this option due to their lack of financial history. It provided previously out-of-reach technology, such as television, to the working class of Western Sydney. It was the dawn of an iconic brand. The Bing Lee rise to success was just beginning.
The post-war boom and Bing’s determination to give customers a good deal was the perfect recipe for success. In 1963 the family expanded the business by establishing a second store in Cabramatta.
Meanwhile, Ken was at the beginning of something great in his personal life. He met a young woman named Yenda, the daughter of a well-established Chinese merchant. The family was from the same part of China as the Lee family. They began courting and fell in love. Yenda was familiar with Ken’s passion for the family business, as she had seen her father’s business prosper through his hard work and dedication, so she knew what she was getting into when she married Ken on April 25th, 1959.
Ken became the driving force behind the growth of the family business in the late 1960s. It was at this time that Ken and his wife, Yenda, began their own family. In 1966 their first son, Lionel was born followed by Greg in 1972. Yenda was busy raising their sons while Ken worked hard in the business. During this time, Lionel and Greg became close to their grandfather, Bing. As their father spent more time on the business, the boys were spent more time with their grandparents. In 1987, aged 81, Bing passed away.
Lionel Lee was 21 when his grandfather passed away. As the first son, Lionel was in line to be his father’s successor. Having attended Kings School, he was well educated, but Lionel knew from the age of 13 that he would one day be the CEO of his grandfather’s legacy. The day after his final HSC exam, Lionel began working full time for Bing Lee. With big shoes to fill, Lionel took the role seriously and continued to work alongside his father to expand the Bing Lee empire. Ken had successfully passed on his work ethic to his eldest son, just as his father had to him. Bing Lee was now a third generation business.
But Ken wasn’t about to leave his son to run the show. He wanted nothing more than to ensure the business stays true to the company’s humble origins of staying low-cost and down to earth. Ken truly enjoyed spending time in the different stores, chatting to staff and meeting customers, even on the weekends. It was his “relaxation” time. And Yenda was always by his side.
The Next Generation
Ken was dedicated to his business until the end. In 2007, he passed away at age 77, leaving behind Yenda, his sons, and his many grandchildren. Ken would be proud to see how the Bing Lee brand has continued to expand. With numerous stores across New South Wales, Victoria and ACT, the company has stayed true to its promise of offering great deals on the most trusted brands, providing honest advice and making the latest technology accessible to everyone. Embracing the concept of online shopping has allowed them to open up new markets to nationwide customers, delivering to almost anywhere in Australia.
Bing Lee is famous for trading the ‘Chinese’ way and over the years, it has become its biggest selling point. Before Ken passed away, he was able to do what he had been dreaming of for a long time – to take Lionel, Greg and their partners to visit Ken’s hometown of Yantai. Ken wanted his boys to see where he had come from. As they were born in Australia, Lionel and Greg’s upbringing was a stark contrast to Ken’s and he wanted his sons to experience first hand his humble beginnings.
Ken wanted to pass down a work ethic that was passed onto him from his father, the late Bing Lee. Understanding where their father came from and the difficulties growing up during the war and famine was a humbling experience for the Lee boys, particularly Lionel, who felt a great responsibility to continue in his father’s footsteps as the eldest son.
Bing Lee Today
As his late father’s successor, Lionel is proud to see Bing Lee as it is today. After more than half a century, Yenda and Lionel continue the traditions of the company, keeping the Bing Lee philosophy of offering great prices and down-to-earth customer service. You can still hear Lionel and Yenda in radio commercials with their humorous banter and trademark slogan. It is that familiar brand, one that people trust to bring great prices and in-store experience that keeps customers returning.
Now, when you walk through the doors of your local Bing Lee store, you will know the story behind it. Each and every store exemplifies how the hard work and dedication of one man, who set out to create a legacy for his family, became a pioneer in the electronics retail industry. Bing Lee continues to grow as a competitive retailer both in-store and online. It is a substantial employer and throughout the years has contributed to many local causes, charities and events.
Bing Lee – a great the Aussie icon, whose story begins in the Western Suburbs of Sydney, has stood the test of time. Perseverance, dedication and an understanding of what customers need put Bing Lee at the forefront of the industry. So, as Yenda would say, “Come and meet our team!”