Engineer lead a full and fascinating life
After a 45-minute interview in which he gave me a brief glimpse into his 96 years on this earth he said, “I don’t think any of that’s really worthy” — worthy of publication is what he meant.
He was worried he was tooting his own horn. I assured him his humility would be noted.
But if anyone has reason to toot their own horn, it’s him. Bing-Wo has lived a life of achievement, including helping to design the Gardiner Dam, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer.
Born in 1921 to Chinese immigrant parents, Bing-Wo overcame racism and discrimination to earn a civil engineering degree from the University of Saskatchewan at age 22, an honorary doctorate in engineering from Dalhousie University at 66 and a social sciences degree from the University of Regina at 67.
“You certainly weren’t accepted … as a young Chinese boy growing up,” said Bing-Wo. “You just kind of accepted the condition, kept quiet.”
Originally living in Lethbridge, Bing-Wo’s family moved to Regina when he was about 10 years old. He said his parents were aware of the discrimination he would face, and prepared him for what it would be like. Despite being shunned by schoolmates and the general community, Bing-Wo found a place to excel.
“The only place you could make a mark for yourself was to achieve academic recognition,” said Bing-Wo. “That was one place where you competed on an equal basis with everyone else.”
When he entered high school he expressed his desire to go to university. But a career counsellor discouraged it, urging him to take up a trade instead because it offered more financial stability. And financial stability is what he would need. As the eldest son, his culture obliged him to take care of his parents, and soon. He wanted to be a doctor, but said the training would take too long, so he pursued engineering instead, against the counsellor’s advice.
Bing-Wo worked in a restaurant kitchen to pay for his room and board during university. He said the only jobs he could get were in the Chinese community.
“There was just general bias against those who were not Caucasian. It just existed throughout the whole society,” said Bing-Wo.
But that changed during the Second World War — as eligible men flooded to enlist, the demand for university-educated men in the workforce grew. Bing-Wo tried to join the army, but a medical officer said he didn’t qualify. He turned to the navy and air force, but was turned away by both because of a policy that wouldn’t allow Chinese people to serve.
When Bing-Wo graduated in 1943, he got a job with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) as a civil engineer. Eventually, the restrictions in the air force and navy were lifted, and Bing-Wo accepted a commission in the Canadian Naval Reserves. For the next 17 years any time not working for the PFRA was spent in naval service, where he applied his civil engineering background to designing ships. He retired as a lieutenant commander.
During his time with the PFRA he worked on numerous irrigation projects across the three prairie provinces, was general manager and registrar for the Association of Professional Engineers & Geoscientists of Saskatchewan and was one of the engineers who designed the Gardiner Dam.
When immigration to Canada became more relaxed, Bing-Wo helped new Chinese immigrants fill out the paperwork they needed to become Canadian citizens. He considers it his greatest non-engineering accomplishment. He credits his father for showing him how important hard work and education is, and his mother for spoiling him with her delicious cooking. He had one son with his wife Hayven of 61 years. She passed away in 2012.
“Of course I miss my wife, but other than that I feel satisfied with what has happened in my life,” said Bing-Wo.