A family's history brought to life

Updated: 2014-01-22 07:18

By Jack Freifelder in New York (China Daily)

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A Chinese family in New York learns more about its ancestral history in the process of preparing a museum exhibition.

The show, The Lee Family of New York Chinatown, which details the Lee family's history of immigration and entrepreneurship, has been on display at the New York Museum of Chinese in America since October.

Sandra K. Lee, CEO and chairperson of Harold L Lee & Sons Inc Insurance Services, played an integral part in the coordination of the exhibit but said the opportunity to put together this project was really a group effort.

"When somebody sees an exhibit like this, they have to start to value their family's history and legacy," Sandra Lee says. The (MOCA) hosted a panel discussion on Jan 16 to promote the exhibits. "It was a challenge to put this together, but it was really a team effort. It was a labor of love."

Founded in 1888, Harold L Lee & Sons Inc still operates its day-to-day business from the original building at 31 Pell St. Though the focus of the family business changed to insurance in the 1930s, the Lee family celebrated the 125th anniversary of the company in 2013.

The MOCA exhibition attempts to detail the Lee family's diverse business interests, from a foreign exchange business providing pawnbroker and financial services to an insurance company and travel agency focused on the development and organization of the community in New York's Chinatown.

"There's a commonality, people really find a common denominator and they say 'you know, my family went through the same thing'," says Douglas Lee, another Lee family member.

"I thought this was going to be an easy project, but little did I know we were going to be working on it for months."

Douglas Lee, a senior media executive and Sandra Lee's brother, also had an essential role with the research and preparation for this collection.

"Almost everyone in the family contributed something, and it gave us a chance to research and learn about our family," he adds.

MOCA has set up the family gallery in a replica of an old New York general store, complete with tin ceilings, built-in wooden cabinets and brick walls.

Melissa Lee, the host of CNBC's Fast Money, served as the moderator for last Thursday's discussion, which brought together friends of the Lee family, Chinatown residents and MOCA members.

Melissa Lee has reported extensively on China for CNBC, including documentary work and reporting on issues such as Chinese growth challenges and US business opportunities in China. Though she is not a blood relative of the Lee family featured in the exhibition, she said the display does have a certain mystique to its appeal.

"When I first walked into the exhibit, I was amazed with how entrepreneurial the Lee family was, with an array of businesses that it started and how disparate those businesses were," she says. "There's a real interest in the Chinese people in Chinatown in that era, and it seems like there's a fascination with that experience."

Sandra Lee, who was appointed to the US Small Business Administration by then President Bill Clinton, said New York's Chinatown has a special aura about it.

"New York's Chinatown has a certain resilience because people still live and work there," Sandra Lee says.

"It's great people can share the story. Everyone here has a story and you really have to talk to your relatives while they're still around. It's amazing what you'll learn."


(China Daily 01/22/2014 page19)