Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more

Sydney mourns migrant hero and an old-school gentleman



It may not be the most inventive ditty on television, but for a generation of Sydneysiders, I Like Bing Lee - sung to the tune of Monty Python's I Like Chinese - has been an inescapable part of the retail landscape.

So, too, was the elderly Chinese gentleman, Ken Lee, who fronted the commercials with his benign smile and invitation to 'Come in and meet my team. Everything is negotiable.'

Lee, who died last week aged 75, not only created the Bing Lee chain of electrical goods stores - named after his father - he also personified the dreams of Sydney's post-war immigrants, finding success and acceptance in his adopted country. He became one of the best known ethnic Chinese in the state and introduced the now-common practice of matching competitors' prices.

Apart from building a personal fortune of A$203 million (HK$1.38 billion), the retailer was a respected family man, a pillar of the community and a philanthropist.

'He was a man with a fierce determination for business - a fighter,' said long-time friend Tsung Lee, 82. 'But Ken was also a very caring person.'

Ken Lee's passing was mourned by not only the Chinese community in Sydney, but also the wider community, who respected his appetite for hard work and his impish sense of humour. He once admitted that if forced to choose between his business and his Hong Kong-born wife, work always came first. 'Yenda was my first love, but my love also is for Bing Lee, my business,' he said in a recent interview. 'Yenda knows this well.'

Business rivals this week praised not only his commercial acumen but his thrift, hard work and honesty. 'Ken Lee was a gentleman of the old school,' said Richard Uechtritz, chief executive of JB Hi-Fi. 'Shake his hand and you had a deal.' The Weekend Australian newspaper summed up the mood of many people in Sydney with its simple heading: 'Migrant hero, dead at 75'.

Ken Lee's capacity for hard work was legendary. Indeed, he was planning to return to his desk just 12 hours before he died last Friday of liver cancer.

Such stoicism was a hallmark of his life. Born in Shandong province , in eastern China, Ken Lee was brought up in extreme poverty. His father, Bing Lee, migrated to Australia in the 1930s, searching for a better life, but the family was unable to follow him after the outbreak of war. At the age of seven, Ken became head of the family, supporting his mother, Sho Fan Lee, and sister Kath. 'As the eldest son, I helped my mother earn an income for our family by doing a bit of trading in second-hand clothing and other goods,' he recalled.

The family was finally reunited in 1949 and settled in the working-class western Sydney suburb of Fairfield, where Bing and Ken ran a small grocery store. When a nearby electrical shop came up for sale, Ken saw a great opportunity, but his father was not so sure.

'At first Dad was against it,' Ken Lee told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year. 'He said: 'Ken, we don't know anything about electrical. With the fruit shop, we're doing comfortably. Why bother?' But the younger man's instinct proved correct: colour TV has just arrived in Australia, and the father-and-son team offered their migrant neighbours credit to buy this new-fangled device. Bing Lee Electrics was born. Today the company has 35 stores in Sydney and Canberra, employs 700 people and posts an annual turnover of around A$400 million.

The Bing Lee empire now passes into the hands of Lee's two sons - Lionel, 40, and Greg, 34 - who have plans to expand the company onto the national stage. But the core philosophy of Bing Lee is unlikely to change. As the patriarch often liked to say: 'Everyone loves a bargain and a deal. If we look after our customers, they will come back.'