Merchant Prince: the life and many pursuits of real estate pioneer Lee Sai-wah (李世華, 1916-1975)
York Lo: Merchant Prince: the life and many pursuits of real estate pioneer Lee Sai-wah (李世華, 1916-1975)
Left: S. W. Lee (Source: liuhan.org.hk); Right: S.W. Lee’s Waldorf Hotel at 2-6 Causeway Road in the 1950s
From the 1930s to 1970s, Lee Sai-wah (hereafter refer to as “S. W. Lee”) was a colorful figure active in Hong Kong’s business world and high society. The grandson of Li Sing, the richest man and one of the biggest landlords in Hong Kong in 1900 (for more about Li Sing and other branches of the family, please refer to the three related articles posted in this group), S.W. not only owned a long list of properties ranging from the Ko Shing Theatre (高陞戲院) in Sheung Wan (closed in 1972 and redeveloped into a residential building) to the Waldorf Hotel (華都酒店) in Causeway Bay (redeveloped into Waldorf Mansion in 1964) and large part of Ma Wan (site of Park Island) but also helped pioneered the sale of apartments in Hong Kong after the War and developed several streets in North Point through his S.W. Lee & Co Ltd (興華有限公司, incorporated in 1946). Married to a Shanghainese actress, his many thrill-seeking pursuits covered sky (he flew his own private planes), land (he was a jockey who raced his own horses and owned the first Rolls Royce in HK) and sea (he sailed his own luxury yachts). He mastered riflery as a senior officer of the Auxiliary Police yet he was also a Buddhist leader who introduced yoga to Hong Kong and frequently hosted artists and other cultural figures at his home at the Mid-Levels as a patron of arts.
S.W.’s father Lee Yu-lung (李雨農, 1862-1922), aka Li Po-kwong (李寶光), was the eldest son of Li Sing and because of that inherited a significant share of Li Sing’s fortune. Yu-lung was noted for his philanthropy and had the reputation of being a generous landlord. He had one principal wife (last name Cheung) and seven concubines (last names: Chiu, Chung, Lo, Cheung, Chan, Koo and Leung) who bore him many children but only 2 sons and 2 daughters survived to adulthood. The two sons – S.W. and K.B. Lee (李劍斌, 1920-1965) – were both children of Madam Leung and they were only six and two when their father passed away in 1922 at the age of 60. Yu-lung’s second wife Chiu Yu-yee (趙如意) inherited a good portion of his money and since her own son died early, she took in S.W. and K.B. as her own. The two daughters both married key figures of the old HK Stock Exchange (which K.B. was a member of also) – Katherine Lee Kam-sheung (李錦裳) married Benjamin Kwai-lau Lui (呂桂旒,1917-), a committee member of the Exchange and son of Lui Wai-chau (呂維周,d. 1976), a prominent figure in the legal circles and manager of a number of theaters including Ko Shing for S.W.’s family; Stella Lee Kam-lung (李錦綸, 1911-1968) was married to Frank Grose (1906-88), the son of prominent Eurasian stockbroker John Francis Grose (Ko Po-sham, 高寳森, 1886-1960).
Left: Lee Yu-lung, S.W.’s father (Source: the Li family tree, 1962); Middle: Headline of S.W.’s airplane incident in 1937 (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1937-9-13) Right: S.W. Lee leading his winning horse at the race in Happy Valley in 1941 (HK Sunday Herald, 1941-3-30)
Born in HK in December 12, 1916, S.W. was taught by Chinese tutors in his early years before studying English at Queen’s College. Upon graduation, he joined the law office of Sir Kwan Cho-yiu (關祖堯, 1907-71), who was then just starting out in the legal field with assistance from Sir Robert Hotung. Outside of work, S.W. was already very adventurous at a young age – he was one of the early students of the Far East Flying Training School (which was formed in late 1933) and made headlines in 1937 at the age of 21 when the private plane he piloted disappeared. He turned up in the fields of Huiyang in Guandong province where his plane was forced to land and after this, his mother forbade him to fly. (His younger brother K.B. was also a pilot and owned a Republic Sea Bee plane in the 1940s) He acquired the first Rolls Royce in Hong Kong and drove it up and down the winding roads of HK island. He also became a member of the Jockey Club and aside from being a horse owner, he also became an amateur jockey (owner-rider was common back then before the sports became more professional after the War) and in 1947, he won his tenth race, advancing his status from a red label jockey to a black label jockey. He also bought his own luxury yachts which he sailed often in the Harbor with friends and during the 1950 cross harbor swim contest, he jumped from his yacht to join the hundreds of participants.
S.W.’s activities was not all about pleasure. He joined the HK Police Reserve before the War and allegedly participated in the defense of Hong Kong in 1941. During the Japanese occupation, he helped many of his colleagues escaped to the mainland and for also took care of those who had relatives left behind. After the War, he continued to serve in the police reserve in his spare time for many years and when the Auxiliary Police was formally established in 1957, he was named deputy chief with longtime friend Mok Hing-wing (莫慶榮, scion of the Swire comprador family) as chief.
S.W. Lee (left) and Mok Hing-wing (right) receiving a shield of excellence as Auxiliary Police chiefs. (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1957-1-16); Right: Article about S.W. entertaining artists and cultural figures at his Mid Levels mansion (WKYP, 1961-9-24)
Apartment layout of S.W. Lee’s residential development in North Point in 1948 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1948-11-29)
After the War, S.W. sensed great opportunities in HK real estate with the massive influx of refugees from the mainland and formed S.W. Lee & Co to capitalize on this boom. At the time, property ownership was typically in the form of entire house or building and S.W. with the help of his legal mentor C.Y. Kwan worked with the Land Office (precursor of the Land Registry) to allow for sales of apartments. An area which particularly captured S.W.’s interest was North Point where large number of Shanghainese refugees were settling and in 1948, S.W. unveiled a grand plan to build a mini-city in North Point with new streets, 10 story residential buildings, theaters, shopping malls, hotels and schools. The North Point project not only caught the attention of the public but Sir Robert Hotung, the richest man in Hong Kong and one of its biggest landlords at the time, who personally visited the site in 1948 with a private tour led by S.W.
Article about S.W. Lee’s North Point development in 1948 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1948-11-29)
The Mini City project did not go as plan but S.W. did develop Kin Wah Street, Ching Wah Street and Fort Street in North Point and built a number of residential buildings on them. In November 1952, he acquired the struggling Luna Park amusement complex in North Point from the family of Kwik Djoen-eng for HK$2.5 million and renamed it Great World Amusement Park (大世界遊樂場) before closing it down in 1954 and developed a number of residential buildings on the site.
S.W.’s projects were not limited to HK island. In 1954, he successful bid for a 10000 sq ft plot of land on Beacon Hill (煙墩山) at the government auction for $80100, which was a high price for what was considered to a remote area back then. He also acquired large tracts of land in Ma Wan.
In 1963, SW Lee & Co developed the 15 story Hing Wah Mansion (興華大廈) at 1 Babington Path in the Mid-Levels.
In 1967, his bio listed his office address as 623-627 Central Building and listed him as director of the following companies: Ko Shing Theatre, Mee Chun Tea Co Ltd (美珍茶莊), T.H. Lee & Co Ltd, Premier Development Co Ltd (大業建設, incorporated in 1954, dissolved in 1980, in partnership with Sir Kenneth Fung Ping-fan, Chan Nam-cheong and Dr Douglas Laing), HK Settlers Housing Corporation Ltd (香港平民屋宇有限公司, developer of Tai Hang Sai Estate to settle folks displaced by the 1955 Shek Kip Mei fire, directors included members of the Li family of Bank of East Asia), Cheung On Land Investment Co Ltd (祥安置業, incorporated in 1949), Cheung Hing Realty Co Ltd (祥興置業, incorporated in 1958, dissolved in 1994 – I believe it is this entity which acquired the former Mok family residence/FCC clubhouse at 41 Conduit Road in 1960 instead of “Cheng Hing Realty” mentioned in Dan Waters’ article on Realty Gardens website), Cheung Hing Realty Co (Management & Agency) Ltd and Cheung On Enterprises Ltd.
Left: Lee Sai-wah (center) and family with radiologist Dr. Ernest To (first from the right) and his wife Nina (second from right; daughter of magician Long Tack-sam) cruising in his yacht in 1955. Right: S.W. Lee’s daughter Lee Yan-yan participating in a charity fashion show in 1962 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1962-10-21)
In May 1951, S.W. married Shanghainese actress Nancie Shen (沈敏) in London during his visit to the UK as part of a trade delegation which included U Tat-chee (the “King of Preserved Ginger”) and a number of British colonial officials. The wedding was followed by honeymoon in Paris and tour of Monte Carlo, Switzerland and West Germany. Together they had four daughters – Anita Lee Ching-ching (李徵徵), Caroline, Marianne and Liza and from old articles, they traveled around the globe frequently. Through Nancie, S.W. became connected with tycoons such as the shipping magnate C.Y. Tung and textile industrialist C.S. Loh and actresses such as Li Lihua (S.W. lent his “7777” Rolls Royce for her wedding in 1957) and Chou Manhua from Shanghai. Another interesting friend of S.W. was Poon Ching-on (潘靜安, 1916-1999), whom he hired as director of S.W. Lee & Co and Waldorf Hotel. Poon was CCP’s representative in Hong Kong with direct line to premier Zhou En-lai. During the 1967 riots, S.W. moved to Canada like many wealthy HK businessmen at the time but eventually returned when things settled down.
Left to right: S.W. Lee, Nancie Shen, film producer Tung Yueh-chuan (widow of Chang Shan-kun), Mrs. C.S. Loh, C.S. Loh of Wyler Textiles, actress Chau Manhua, actress Li Lihua and her husband actor Yen Chun, Mrs Chan. The article referred to S.W., Li and Chau as “Three Wahs” as they all have Wah in their names (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1959-2-14)
A disciple of Ming Sheung (明常, 1898-1977), the Buddhist priest from Nanking who came to HK, S.W. was a devout Buddhist who generously supported many Buddhist groups such as the HK Vajrayana Esoteric Society (which he lent his family property on Caine Road as meeting space in 1953 and served as its president) and Liu Han Society and invited many Tibetan lamas to visit HK. In the 1960s, he and a group of Buddhist friends such as Fung Kung-ha (馮公夏), the distributor of Sunkist oranges in HK, introduced yoga to HK by bringing yoga master such as Swami Sivananda to town. On December 16, 1975, S.W. died at the Queen Mary Hospital after a short illness. His funeral was presided over by Ming Sheung and his pallbearers included Tso Tsun-on (son of Tso Seen-wan and active with the Auxiliary Police), Lam Chik-suen (son of Lam Woo), Ko Fook-chuen (son of Ko Ho-neng and husband of actress Grace Chang), C.S. Loh, his brother in law Benjamin Lui and newspaper editor Kar Na-fu.
After his death, S.W.’s family redeveloped their residence at 5-7 Magazine Gap Road into the 12 story Magazine Court (澄碧閣) in 1989 and retained five units. His holdings in Ma Wan was acquired by Sun Hung Kai Properties and developed into Park Island.
- Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1948-12-1, 1954-08-04 ,1954-9-14, 1957-07-02, 1957-12-02, 1964-10-2,
- Hong Kong Daily Press, 1941-04-01
- Kung Sheung Evening News, 1947-11-23, 1950-10-16, 1951-5-31
This article was first posted on 15th December 2017.
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