Kitchener-Waterloo·Asian Heritage Month

One of Cambridge's early Chinese settlers survived the sinking of the Titanic

Lee Bing was the manager of Galt's White Rose Cafe in the 1930s. Bing was also the subject of a documentary film, The Six, which tells the stories of the six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

'A connection to that story from our city? It's pretty incredible,' says Dan Schmalz

Dan Schmalz with City of Cambridge Archives helped documentary film makers Steve Schwankert and Arthur Jones in their researcher when filming The Six, which tells the stories of the six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Archival material for early Chinese settlers in Waterloo region is hard to come by, but records appear to show that the City of Cambridge was once home to a family with an incredible tie to the Titanic.

The Lee family was first recorded in 1894, when Sam Lee is listed as having arrived in Galt, Ont. His nephew, Lee Bing, was manager of Galt's White Rose Cafe in the 1930s and is one of the people profiled in the documentary film The Six — which tells the stories of the six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. 

"You have a whole family that comes here, his uncle Sam, his other uncle — Coon Lee, and then Lee himself. He's listed as 19-years-old in 1921," said Dan Schmalz, an analyst with Cambridge Archives. 

Schmalz said the city archives show that Sam worked at a laundry business and Coon managed the former City Cafe located on 4 Water St.

Lee Bing was the manager of Galt's White Rose Cafe in the 1930s. This is a scan from a glass plate negative from the Collection of Galt Photographer Robert Darragh who’s studio was at 20 Main St., and later Law Photography. (City of Cambridge Archives)

The Vernon's Civic Directory has Bing listed as the manager of the White Rose Cafe on 16 Main St., in 1932. 

"He's somewhere around 30 by the time he takes over the White Rose Cafe," Schmalz said, noting Bing ran the cafe until the early 40s.

The only photographs of Bing are from glass plate negatives from the collection of Galt photographer Robert Darragh. Darragh had a studio was beside the White Rose Cafe, which later became Law Photography. 

Could have been Bing's uncle

The book Eavesdroppings, written by Canadian journalist Bob Green, says Bing was known for telling customers at the White Rose Cafe that he had survived the sinking Titanic.

But Schmalz and the documentary The Six suggest Bing's uncle Coon Lee was the more probable survivor.

"The ages of some of the uncles are more fitting to someone who would have been a sailor in their 20s or 30s around 1912," Schmalz explained. 

"There's just not enough hard evidence to prove anything, unfortunately."

'So little was known about them'

This is a photo from the City of Cambridge Archive collection showing the White Rose Café in 1930. (City of Cambridge Archives)
16 Main St., in Galt., as it stands today. This was once the location of Lee Bing's White Rose Cafe. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Bing's story has become a passion project for Schmalz, who has researched the man's life in Cambridge for some time.

Schmalz helped the film's lead researcher Steve Schwankert and director Arthur Jones in their search for Bing's story when the film crew was in Galt in 2018.

Jones said the more they looked into the identities of these six men, the more they felt compelled to tell their stories.

"At a certain point we were just thinking, 'Maybe this is a story we should do, how has this not been done before?" Jones told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo from China.

"The more we looked the more we realized they were really unique and so little was known about them."

Jones said it's small details in the history of the Titanic that led him to make the documentary. He hopes viewers share in his excitement.

"I'm obsessed with people who are obsessed with detail, and what that means, and what that says about how you should look at history, and look at peoples lives who's stories haven't been told," he said.

As someone who works in archives, Schmalz said sometimes the smallest contributions can lead to something bigger. 

This is an excerpt from the 1921 census showing Lee Bing and his family. (City of Cambridge Archives)

"It's the little stories that make up the fabric of a community," he said.

What happened to Bing?

It's not 100 per cent clear what happened to the Lee family, but it's suspected Bing made his way to Toronto in the mid-40s, Schmalz said.

He suspects Bing left after his uncle Coon Lee died 1943. Lee is buried in Mount View Cemetery in Cambridge.

Records show the White Rose Cafe closed shortly after and evidence of the family in Galt fades away.

"Losing Coon was maybe a tough blow for the family so the working theory is that [Bing] ended up in Toronto and the trail goes cold at that point unfortunately," Schmalz said.

Titanic survivor or not, Schmalz said he's glad Bing's story is preserved in Cambridge — and beyond.

"The Six is such an important documentary, not just for us but for Chinese history in general, to shed a light on them and share their stories," he said. 

"To have a connection to that story from our city? It's pretty incredible."