Founded in 1888, Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. is a cornerstone of Chinatown. The business is named after Lee Lun (who took the American name Harold), the son of Lee Kee Lo who came to the United States as a merchant in 1888 when Chinatown consisted of three streets: Mott, Pell and Doyers. Lee Kee Lo founded his company, Tai Lung (or Great Prosperity), with his two brothers on 31 Pell Street where today the family operates an insurance company.
The year 2013 will mark its 125th anniversary. MOCA, which honored CEO Sandra Lee, Harold’s granddaughter, in its Festival of Community heroes, will present a selection of photographs and artifacts from the business, tracing its rise from a small foreign exchange business to national insurance brokerage. The exhibition will take place in MOCA’s recreated general store, a space fashioned to represent an old New York storefront with tin ceilings, built-in wooden cabinets, and brick walls.
Through vintage photographs, original artifacts, and other ephemera from the family’s primary businesses in its 125 year history (curio shop, foreign currency exchange, travel agency, movie theater and insurance agency), the exhibition will describe the unique journeys of the Lee family, their businesses and New York’s Chinatown. And by seeing Chinatown through the Lee family history, it hopes to tell the story of how small businesses are part of an essential social and economic ecosystem that sustain communities like Chinatown.
Check out fun facts from The Lee Family of New York Chinatown Since 1888 by hovering over or tapping the floating circles within this page. Come visit us at MOCA to check out the exhibition!
Lee Kee Lo emigrated from China and settled in New York’s Chinatown. His status as a merchant allowed him to come into the U.S. despite the recent passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. He established the Tai Lung Company at 31 Pell Street, a grocery store. This location also served as their business headquarters and home to their multi-generational family.
Tai Lung Company opened a foreign exchange business on the second floor of the building that replaced the grocery store. This business, which also included a pawn shop, provided crucial financial services for Chinese immigrants who wanted to send money back to their families in China.
Tai Lung is founder of the New York Film Exchange. It became one of the earliest distributors of motion pictures in Chinatown, importing films from China.
Harold’s oldest son Andrew P. Lee introduced the concept of insurance to many Chinatown businesses after realizing that it was largely unheard of in the community. Recognizing the opportunity to provide a new and essential service, Harold and Andrew started Lee Insurance, Chinatown’s first full-service insurance agency.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was only repealed in 1943. Harold’s second son, Henry Lee started the Harold L. Lee & Sons Travel Agency, the first of its kind in the community. The agency assisted immigrants with arranged overseas visits so families could reunite. Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. were the first in New York to offer cinematic screenings of Chinese films through their Silver Star movie theatre.
In 1956, the Lee family was featured in the CBS television broadcast of Let’s Take a Trip, hosted by Sonny Fox in Chinatown, during Lunar New Year celebrations. Fox went on to be a media legend in New York as the first host of Wonderama, a long-running children’s television program.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eased restrictions for Asian immigration, and this created an influx of business for both travel and foreign exchange companies. The Hong Kong branch of Lee Travel opens and is managed by Eva Lee Lo, Henry’s sister.
Andrew P. Lee served on the board of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and supported the construction of Confucius Plaza, the largest middle-income housing complex ever built in Chinatown. He represented a new generation who commanded respect from the Chinese community.
Sandra K. Lee, great-granddaughter of Harold L. Lee assumed the role of Chair at the Chinatown Health Clinic Board.
Sandra K. Lee became the first female CEO of Lee Insurance and is named as one of the “most influential business leaders in New York” by Crain’s NY Business. She is also appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve in the U.S. Small Business Administration, and is named a David Rockefeller fellow, a program for senior executives with a strong civic commitment to New York City.
The Lee family celebrates 125 years of continuous business at 31 Pell Street.