Wea Lee: Challenges come with opportunity BIO
At this year’s Texas Lunar New Year Festival, while presenting a congressional recognition certificate to Southern News Group CEO Wea Lee, Congressman Al Green summarized Lee’s life in America as follows:
“He is the epitome of what the American success story is all about. He did not come to America rich, he is now rich; he did not come to this country with a command of the English language, he now has a command of English. He came to this country with the understanding that America embraces all who work hard and are willing to put whatever resources they have into their dreams. Now his dream has become reality.”
Wea Lee, born in Yunnan province in Southwest China in 1948, grew up in Myanmar after his family moved there in 1949. In 1965, Lee went to Taiwan for college and upon graduating in 1974 with a degree in political science, came to the US with roughly $500 in his pocket on a student visa.
“I attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas because they wanted to attract international students and did not charge me any tuition,” Lee said.
While at Lamar, Lee fell in love with Catherine Chu, a fellow student from Taiwan, and soon they got married.
After graduating from Lamar, Lee visited the nearby big city of Houston and asked a lawyer what he had to do to stay in the US. The lawyer said that if he was willing to start a Chinese newspaper, he could help Lee get a Green Card.
Lee took the advice, found five investors who put in $500 each, and started to put out a weekly newspaper with his wife in downtown Houston in 1979.
And 35 years later, Lee’s ticket to a Green Card has blossomed into a chain of businesses housed in two large office buildings in Bellaire right outside of Beltway 8 — the Southern News Media Center and the International Trade Center.
Under the umbrella of Southern News Group, Lee operates Chinese community newspapers in 10 cities around the US — weeklies in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, St Louis, Atlanta, Boston and Cleveland; and dailies in Houston, Washington and Dallas.
He also runs International Television which airs programs 24 hours a day; Dsign International, a portable, free-standing and interactive digital sign; and the Houston Chinese Yellow Pages.
Beyond the media sector, Lee partnered up with other investors and started Southwestern National Bank 14 years ago. He established ITC more than 10 years ago to promote International business opportunities for US-based businesses.
Seven years ago, Lee and other community activists successfully pushed the Texas State Legislature to establish the International District (ID) — a 12-square-mile zone bordered by Beltway 8, Highway 6, Bellaire Blvd and Bissonnet Street.
As chairman of the ID, Lee said: “We have three goals for this zone: improve the security of our community; promote our businesses; and beautify the area. We have done a lot over the last five years, and I am hoping to make it into a free trade zone to attract enterprises from China and Latin America.”
Lee attributed his success to his ability to turn crises into business opportunities. “We started the newspaper out of the necessity of survival,” he said. “When we published our first newspaper in 1979, it was weekly.”
Lee said at that time the Texas economy was booming and there was increasing demand for news and advertising. A weekly was not enough and they increased to two issues a week, but the printer refused to print the paper because they could not handle the workload.
So in 1981 Lee bought his first printer at the hefty price of more than $700,000 and the payment was daunting. “I only needed to use it twice a week to print my own paper, so I went out to get other printing business, and now I am printing more than 100 publications in different languages such as Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese,” he said. “It was hard work. I was basically competing with the Houston Chronicle and other big players.”
Looking back, Lee considers the purchase of the first printer his big turning point. “If I did not buy the printer, my business would have ended up like many small operation newspapers — very limited,” he said.
Another turning point came 14 years ago when a businessman blocked Lee’s way to a two-story building on Cook Street and tried to negotiate him down.
“I thought to myself, I can’t go on like this, so I started to look for another piece of land and finally I found these 6.2 acres right on Bellaire Blvd. If he had not blocked me, I might have stayed there forever without expanding. Then I might not have developed ITC and other branch businesses.
“Over the years, I have overcome many similar obstacles. Crisis brings opportunity,” Lee said.
Now 35 years later, Lee is still on a fast track to expand his business. He is planning a sixstory international tower on the remaining lots of his 6.2 acres “to provide both residential and commercial space for international business people who come to Houston for opportunities”.
Lee also plans to further develop the International District and his ITC. “The recent boom in the energy industry has made Texas the future of the America, the Houston economy will soar in the next five to 10 years. We’ll have incoming immigrants looking for opportunity, Houston and our ID will have a bright future. The timing is just right,” he said.
“We call on Chinese enterprise to come to Texas because we are also a gateway to Mexico and the Caribbean, where there are a lot of business opportunities,” Lee said.
ITC houses numerous international organizations such as local offices for the Henan Tourism Bureau, Yueyang City, Guangdong private sectors, the United Nation Association and the Ethiopian Consulate General.
“Over the years, we have received countless Chinese delegations and connected them with US enterprises,” Lee said. “It’s important for the US and China to have more private exchanges.”
Diversification is the key to Lee’s business growth and success and his operation has gone beyond the media sector, yet media remain the core of his business. “It’s not easy to make money with media outlets now, but we are still doing it after 35 years because I love it,” Lee said. “Media have social impact that
Publisher, Southern News Group
• National Cheng-Chi University, Taipei, Taiwan, BL in diplomacy (1965-1969) Lamar University, MA in Government – Beaumont, Texas (19721969) Ex. Ed, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass (1997) Founder, International Television, Houston (since 2009) Founder/president, International Trade Center, Houston (since 2008) Chairman of Board, International District, Houston (since 2007) Founder/executive board member, Southwestern National Bank, Houston (since 1998) Publisher, Southern News Group (since 1979) money alone can’t buy. This is why at election time we have mayoral candidates including mayor herself waiting outside of our TV station for air time. Media are social tools.”
Lee is not ignoring the new trend of smartphones and tablets either. “We are prepared to enter the new media. I am talking to some potential partners about how to use this new platform. My motto is win-win for all involved.”
Wea Lee stands by his first printer which set him on the path of building his own media group outside of the Southern China News Group office building.