Founded in 1888, Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. is a cornerstone of New York’s Chinatown and a window into one family’s four-generation journey. In 1874, Lee Kee Lo (also known as Lee On) was born in San Francisco, making him the first American citizen of the Lee Family. In 1888, his two brothers founded Tai Lung (meaning “Great Prosperity”), which sold Chinese vegetables and meats in a four-story building at 31 Pell Street, back when the burgeoning Chinatown consisted of only three streets: Mott, Pell, and Doyers. After the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lee On used his mobility as a U.S. citizen and merchant to join his brothers at the growing trading company as its traveling head salesman and buyer.
After incorporating Tai Lung in 1892, the brothers brought their family to the U.S. Lee On’s eleven-year-old son, Harold, eventually became the patriarch of the next generation of Lee’s and expanded the family business into new ventures. These included the New York Chinese Film Exchange and most notably a foreign exchange and remittance business on the second floor, which became the first Chinese-owned business to offer financial services to the Chinese-speaking community. Eventually, the Foreign Exchange would expand into separate businesses run by Lee men and women of multiple generations: Harold’s son Andrew spearheaded Harold L. Lee and Son’s Insurance, the first Chinese-American insurance agency, while his son Henry began a successful travel agency. From Tai Lung’s modest beginnings as a grocery store, Lee Insurance is now a robust, national recognized company run 125 years later by the third and fourth generations of Lees from its original headquarters at 31 Pell Street.