Chinatown and ties that bind one family

Updated: 2014-05-23 11:52

By Jack Freifelder in New York (China Daily USA)

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Chinatown and ties that bind one family

Chinatown and ties that bind one family

Sandra K. Lee, chairperson and CEO of Harold L Lee & Sons Inc Insurance Services, is a fourth-generation family member in the insurance field. Jack Freifelder / China Daily

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 great-great-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."

Chinatown and ties that bind one family

"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."

(China Daily USA 05/23/2014 page11)