Chi­na­town and ties that bind one fam­ily BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By JACK FREIFELDER in New York jack­freifelder@chi­nadai­

Life in the in­sur­ance busi­ness may not seem glam­orous to some, but for San­dra K. Lee it’s a chance to give back to a neigh­bor­hood whose his­tory is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to her own.

Lee, the CEO and chair­per­son of Harold L Lee & Sons Inc In­sur­ance Ser­vices in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town, is part of a fam­ily with US ori­gins that date to the late 19th century.

Lee is a fourth-gen­er­a­tion fam­ily mem­ber work­ing in the in­sur­ance field, but busi­ness acu­men is some­thing that has been brew­ing in Lee fam­ily mem­bers for more than a century.

“The com­pany has a great foun­da­tion be­cause we’ve had a pres­ence in the com­mu­nity since 1888, so that means we’ve been a fix­ture here,” Lee said. “Over the years, people from the com­mu­nity have come to trust us and see us not only as their busi­ness part­ner, but also as an ad­viser or some­body they could con­fide in about per­sonal is­sues and busi­ness prob­lems.”

In the late 1860s, Lee’s great­great-grand­fa­ther, who was born in Tais­han, Guang­dong prov­ince, be­came the first Lee fam­ily mem­ber to em­i­grate from China to the United States.

Af­ter set­tling down and open­ing a small store­front in San Fran­cisco’s Chi­na­town, he be­gan to raise his fam­ily of three boys. The mid­dle son, Lee’s great-grand­fa­ther, was born in the US in 1874, the fam­ily’s first Amer­i­can cit­i­zen.

In 1888, the Lee fam­ily story in New York started to take shape.

While ex­plor­ing busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in New York’s Chi­na­town, the fam­ily came across a four- story brick build­ing. They soon formed a com­pany called Tai Lung — mean­ing “Great Pros­per­ity” — which they op­er­ated out of the build­ing at 31 Pell St.

More than 125 years later, the Lee fam­ily still op­er­ates out of that same build­ing.

Over the decades, the fam­ily businesses in­cluded a gro­cery store, a trad­ing com­pany, a for­eign ex­change, a fi­nan­cial ser­vices firm and a travel agency. Ul­ti­mately, the fam­ily found its bear­ings in in­sur­ance of­fer­ings dur­ing the 1930s.

“We’ve ex­pe­ri­enced the jour­ney that an im­mi­grant fam­ily has ex­pe­ri­enced, even though we had gen­er­a­tions of my grand­par­ents and great grand­par­ents that have come from China,” Lee said in an in­ter­view with China Daily. “We’ve rein­vented our­selves in that way to ac­com­mo­date all these changes in people’s lives, but also to not for­get our roots and how we orig­i­nally got here and be­came suc­cess­ful.”

“We were al­ways ac­tive with China … but even when we started these businesses people still thought of China as a des­ti­na­tion — ei­ther a place to go back to or bring their fam­ily over from,” she said. “We had so many new im­mi­grants com­ing as our cus­tomers, and they al­ways had a link back to the home­land.”

The Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882 — a US law that sus­pended Chi­nese im­mi­gra­tion and de­clared Chi­nese as in­el­i­gi­ble for nat­u­ral­iza­tion — kept the Lee fam­ily from buy­ing the build­ing on Pell Street un­til 1960, more than 70 years af­ter find­ing the lo­ca­tion.

Lee said her fam­ily’s pres­ence and con­stant in­volve­ment with the com­mu­nity has “been our an­chor” in the neigh­bor­hood.

“We’ve been ac­tive in try­ing to bring new businesses into the com­mu­nity … and have them not just stay as a Chi­na­town en­tity, but to be a player in the greater New York com­mu­nity as well,” Lee said. “We did go through the same it­er­a­tion of busi­ness that a typ­i­cal im­mi­grant does: open a store — whether it be a gro­cery store or mar­ket — and then add to that prod­ucts that the com­mu­nity needs.”

“It’s a great time to be a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can,” she said. “Our com­mu­nity has yet to ex­press it­self openly be­cause we just haven’t had the op­por­tu­nity, at least not many fam­i­lies like mine.”

Part of the at­tempt to tell the fam­ily’s story has been spon­sored and bol­stered by an ex­hibit at the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica (MOCA) in Down­town Man­hat­tan, where Lee sits on the board of trustees.

MOCA, a non­profit in­sti­tu­tion, is ded­i­cated to pre­sent­ing the liv­ing his­tory, her­itage and cul­ture of Chi­nese Amer­i­cans. Through pub­lic pro­grams and ex­hi­bi­tions, the mu­seum tells about the ex­pe­ri­ences of new im­mi­grants and es­tab­lished multi-gen­er­a­tional fam­i­lies.

One of the ex­hibits high­lights the Lee fam­ily.

The Lee Fam­ily of New York Chi­na­town Since 1888 show­cases Harold L Lee and Sons Inc as a cor­ner­stone of New York’s Chi­na­town. With a recre­ated gen­eral store serv­ing as the back­drop — com­plete with tin ceil­ings, built-in wood cab­i­nets and brick walls — vis­i­tors can get a taste of yes­ter­year as they trace the Lee fam­ily’s his­tory from a small for­eign ex­change busi­ness to a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized in­sur­ance bro­ker­age.

Vis­i­tors from around the US and the world have viewed the ex­hibit, in­clud­ing Chi­nese Con­sul Gen­eral Sun Guox­i­ang and var­i­ous other mem­bers of the Con­sulate Gen­eral of China in New York.

At MOCA’s Third An­nual Cel­e­bra­tion of Com­mu­nity He­roes ban­quet in April, it was an­nounced that the in­stal­la­tion will be ex­tended un­til July 6.

Lee said as­sem­bling the ex­hi­bi­tion was an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to see “how rare it was” for a fam­ily to be able to col­lect and re­flect on its per­sonal his­tory.

“There are just not a lot of items to doc­u­ment the way New York Chi­na­town was in the late 1880s,” Lee said. “New York Chi­na­town her­itage cer­tainly was due to a lot of found­ing fam­i­lies in the area, but to fea­ture just one would be rep­re­sen­ta­tive. That’s why we felt like an am­bas­sador of that gen­er­a­tion be­cause many people have left the area and they’re not here to tell it.”

“People didn’t have the amount of ar­ti­facts that our fam­ily had or the archival doc­u­men­ta­tion, maybe be­cause they moved and we stayed in this build­ing, but it all has a story,” she said. “Ev­ery ar­ti­cle opens up a story, and by hav­ing this ex­hibit MOCA gave us the re­spect and val­i­da­tion for stay­ing in the com­mu­nity and work­ing to get our com­mu­nity a place at the ta­ble.”

Lee also said it’s im­por­tant for lo­cal businesses to help the com­mu­nity be more as­sertive and ag­gres­sive in or­der “to show an in­ter­est in the greater pic­ture”.

“Chi­na­town is a lit­tle like a vil­lage, and it still has that com­po­nent,” Lee said. “The changes have been tremen­dous and there’s gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, but there’s some­thing about New York’s Chi­na­town that’s un­like other Chi­na­towns. It has a cer­tain re­silience be­cause people still live and work there.”

“We may not be the largest com­pany, but we’ve al­ways been in­volved with other groups to share ideas, con­cerns and thoughts on com­mu­nity is­sues,” she said. “Our longevity shows that, and we cer­tainly have the stick-to-itive­ness of a com­pany that per­se­veres to do good things with and for the com­mu­nity.”


San­dra K. Lee, chair­per­son and CEO of Harold L Lee & Sons Inc In­sur­ance Ser­vices, is a fourth­gen­er­a­tion fam­ily mem­ber in the in­sur­ance field.

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