Sang Lee & Co (生利建築) – leading contractor from the 1900s to 1950s

York Lo: Sang Lee & Co (生利建築) – leading contractor from the 1900s to 1950s

From the 1900s to the 1950s, Sang Lee was one of the leading building contractors in HK responsible for many notable public projects such as the old GPO Building and the Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir which were completed in the 1910s and the massive Wanchai reclamation project in the 1920s. 

Sang Lee under its founder Lam Lau (1900s-1920s) 

Sang Lee Contractor Image 1 York Lo Left: Sang Lee founder Lam Lau (aka Lam Yam-chuen) (HKBCA, 1960); Right: Mountain Lodge on the Peak – one of Sang Lee’s first major projects 

Based on the profile of the firm in Seaports of the Far East published in 1907, Sang Lee was founded in around 1892. The founder of Sang Lee was Lam Lau (林柳), also known as Lam Yam-chuen (林蔭泉), who allegedly worked in the Public Works department for years before starting Sang Lee with his colleagues and hence very familiar with the bidding process and helped Sang Lee secured many government contracts.  

The first important contract landed by the firm was Mountain Lodge, the summer residence of the Governor on the Peak ordered by Governor Henry Blake in 1900 and designed by Palmer & Turner. The Lodge was completed in 1902 at the cost of $97000 and was regarded as the most magnificent building in the Peak at the time but sadly was demolished in 1946 due to high maintenance costs. 

The success of the Mountain Lodge project was followed by other government contracts such as the Western markets, No. 7 Police Station and the cattle depot in Kennedy Town and the Sharp Memorial Hospital (Matilda Hospital) on the Peak. In 1907, Sang Lee was operating out of 59 Des Voeux Road Central and employed over 60 skilled foremen and at times hired over 2000 workmen for its various projects. (Seaports of the Far East, 1907) 

In August 1905, Sang Lee outbid Lam Woo (which did the foundation work for the project) and won its largest project up to that point – the construction of the General Post Office Building in Central, which was completed in 1911 at the cost of $800,000. Stones used for the construction came from a quarry in Ngau Tau Kok. (Far Eastern Review, 1906) The building, which was regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in HK history stood for six decades and was sadly demolished in 1976 to make way for the construction of the Central MTR station and World-Wide House. Today, four stone pillars of the original building can be found at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. 

Sang Lee Tai Tam Tuk

Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir foundation stone with Sang Lee’s name in the lower right corner (Courtesy of Kitty Lam) 

In October 1912, Sang Lee won the contract to build the Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir which was completed in 1918 and its name as contractors is still visible in the foundation stone laid by then Governor Sir Henry May. In the 1910s, Sang Lee was also responsible for the construction of two markets in Sheung Wan – the one near the Tram Road in 1914 and the one near Queen’s Road Central in 1920. In December 1914, Sang Lee completed Block E of the Victoria Prison on Arbuthnot Road, which was the first building in HK to use reinforced concrete. 

Sang Lee Contractor Image 2 York Lo

Left: the old GPO Building built by Sang Lee in 1911; Right: Sang Lee’s workers at the excavation site of Morrison Hill in the 1920s. The Chinese characters for “Sang Lee” are visible on each of the trucks which transported soil and stones on a track along Bowrington Canal to the Wanchai reclamation site. (Gwulo) 

In 1920, Sang Lee founder Lam Lau led a group of 17 contractors including Tam Shiu-hong (who worked for Sang Lee from 1907 to 1911 when he started his own firm Wing Lee & Co), Tsoi Po-tin and Wong Cheuk-hing who were covered earlier in the formation of the HK Building Contractors Association (HKBCA) and was elected its founding chairman, highlighting his status in the industry. As a result, Sang Lee’s HKBCA membership number was no. 1. 

In October 1921, Sang Lee won its largest contract – $2.7 million for the removal of Morrison Hill for reclamation in Wanchai. To prepare for the project, Sang Lee which operated out of 24 Gage Street at the time, ordered 5 miles of 35 lb and 28 lb rails, 5 small locomotives and an 8-ton barge crane. (Iron Age, 1921-11-24) The project was originally expected to be completed within 6 years but the Canton-HK strike of 1925-26 caused delays, as did the harder than expected rock formations in Morrison Hill. The project was finally completed in May 1929 at the cost of $5.4 million, 2 years longer than expected and over $2 million over budget. 

Aside from cost overruns and delays, Sang Lee also got fined by the government twice in 1923 for blasting at the wrong hour – first time in June and second time in August for $25 for blasting at 1130am opposite the London Mission building in Bonham Road, half an hour before the stipulated time. (HK Daily Press, 1923-8-23) In 1925, Lam Lau was still manager of Sang Lee and its head office was listed as Praya West opposite No. 2 Police Station. (Comacrib Directory

For whatever reason (perhaps related to the Wanchai project), the old Sang Lee firm dissolved in 1928 and its business and goodwill were assigned by the old partners to three firms which all continued to carry the “Sang Lee” name – the first and second one operated out of 2 and 8 Tin Lok Lane (known as Sang Lee No 1 and No 2 branch) respectively and shared some common shareholders while the third one which operated out of Thomson Road in Wanchai had different shareholders. Lam Lau’s son Lam Yet-kuen (林日權) was a partner of the No 2 branch while Lam Lau himself started the rival firm of Tung Shan & Co (東山建築, which has the Chinese meaning of “comeback”) and was elected principal director of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (1932-33) and director of Po Leung Kuk (1930-32) in the early 1930s. When the third firm went out of business in 1934 after its contract on the Government Civil Hospital (opened as Queen Mary Hospital in 1937) failed, one of its creditors – Lee Yan Wo of 278 Hennessy Road in Wanchai filed a lawsuit against Sang Lee No 1 and No 2 branch. (KSDN, 1935-5-30; HK Telegraph, 1935-5-29). In January 1935, Lam Yet-kuen was thrown into the Victoria Prison after losing a lawsuit filed by the Chinese banking firm of Shun Loong over $8800 in debt. (KSDN, 1935-1-11). Despite the setbacks, Lam Lau’s Tung Shan remained a major player in the 1930s, winning a $324,601 contract to build the foundation of the new Government House in August 1939. Tung Shan operated of 7 Wood Road after the War and was run by Lam Tsui-kui (林翠) in the 1950s and 1960s.   

Sang Lee Kitty Lam

Memorial plaque of Sang Lee & Co at the Po Leung Kuk building in Leighton Road for its $1000 donation towards the construction of the building in the early 1930s (Courtesy of Kitty Lam and Tere Wong) 


Sang Lee under Yu Yok-kwai (1930s-1950s) 

Sang Lee Contractor Image 3 York Lo Left: Ad for Sang Lee in 1950 (HKBCA); Center: Yu Yok-kwai, Sang Lee leader from the 1930s to the 1950s (HKBCA yearbook, 1954); article about the death of Szeto Woon in 1949 (TKP) 

By the 1930s, Yu Yok-kwai (余若夔, also U Yak-kwai) had emerged as the leader of Sang Lee, supported by Szeto Yuen (司徒浣). The shareholder situation at Sang Lee remained complicated after the 1935 lawsuit and according to testimony given by Yu Yok-kwai during the ARP inquiry in 1941, there were over 40 partners in Sang Lee at the time, of which he only remembered four names and most of them belonging to the same clan from Toishan as himself and some of them resided in the mainland. 

Despite the challenges with shareholder disputes and the woes associated with the Wanchai reclamation and Queen Mary’s Hospital project, Sang Lee remained a leading contractor for public works in the 1930s. In May 1934, Sang Lee completed the HK Stock Exchange building on Ice House Street designed by the architectural design firm of Little Adams & Wood. (China Mail, 1934-5-11)  

In 1936, Sang Lee branched out into the entertainment business and secured the operating rights of the World Theatre (新世界) in Sheung Wan (built in 1921 by the Lai brothers) for $5500. The contract was renewed in 1939 but the theater was operated by others after the War before its closure in 1981.In 1937, Sang Lee won the contract for construction of nullah and road improvement work in the Kai Tak Airport which were completed in December after delays caused by the massive typhoon in September. 

In 1939, Sang Lee obtained contract from the government for the construction of the Wanchai Gap Police Station and Shingmun Catchwater valued at $237,853 and medical observation building for $9425. From September to December that year, Sang Lee completed hospital huts for refugee camps in King’s Park, Ma Tau Chung and North Point. in 1940 was awarded the contract for Yaumatei Police Chamber for $55,154. (1939 Public Works Department report)

The firm reported profits of only $1000 in 1939 but earnings soared to $50,000 in 1940 with the war related construction contracts. In 1941, Sang Lee won the contract for extending the seawall in North Point worth $229,655 and another water work maintenance contract worth between $30,000-40,000. The firm and Tung Shan were involved in construction of air raid shelters for the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) department and as a result both firms were sucked into the sensational ARP scandal in late 1941 surrounding corruption at the department headed by Wing Commander A.H.S. Steele-Perkins with Yu Yok-kwai being asked to testify during the trials in September 1941. Three months later the Japanese occupied HK and the whole affair which captivated the colony faded into history. (China Mail, 1941-9-3) 

During the Japanese occupation, Sang Lee allegedly was responsible for the construction of the hybrid Japanese/neoclassical tower in the Government House commissioned by the Japanese military commander which are still standing today. After the War, Yu Yok-kwai, Szeto Yuen and others reorganized Sang Lee as Sang Lee & Co (1945). 

In September 1949, tragedy struck when the 74 years old Szeto Yuen was fatally injured when his KCR train got into an accident in Po Kut near the border on his way back from a business trip in Canton and died the next day at the St Teresa Hospital in Kowloon. He survived by 8 children including his second son Szeto Wai (司徒惠, 1913-1991) who at the time was the chief engineer of the Wong Kiang River hydro-electric project in Yingtak, Kwangtung. (TKP, 1948-9-9) A graduate of St John’s University in Shanghai, Szeto Wai studied in the UK and built a successful career as an architect in HK, having designed So Uk Estate, Choi Hung Estate, Kwun Lung Lau, Kowloon Methodist Church, No 1. Hysan Avenue and many buildings on the campus of Chinese University in Shatin. He was also an unofficial member of the Legislative Council from 1964 to 1974 and the Executive Council from 1972 to 1976 and was awarded CBE and appointed Justice of the Peace. Sang Lee’s address at 2 Tin Lok Lane was listed as Szeto Wai’s correspondence address in the yearbook for the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

In the 1950s, Yu Yok-kwai was still in charge of Sang Lee and continued to serve on the board of the HKBCA. In 1954, Sang Lee won the tender for the construction of a new 80 feet by 50 feet public pier (identical to the Queen’s Pier in Central) in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon for HK$163,819. (KSDN, 1954-7-4) 

The Next Generation (1950s and Beyond) 

Sang Lee Contractor Image 4 York Lo

Left: U Wang, the third generation leader of Sang Lee (HKBCA yearbook, 1960); Right: Chu Kuang and Yu Sau in Yenan in 1938. The witness to their wedding was Mao Tse-tung 

By 1962 when Yu Yeok-kwai’s third son Yu Choi-kee (余采基) married Au Yeung Suk-hing (歐陽淑卿), Yu Yok-kwai was listed as former chairman of Sang Lee so it can be assumed that he had stepped down by then. By this time, Sang Lee was represented on the Council of HKBCA by U Wang (余宏) and he and U Fook-hang and U Fook-tang (presumably his sons) were listed as managers of Sang Lee in 1969 which was still operating out of 2 and 8 Tin Lok Lane.

Sang Lee Contractor Image 5 York Lo

Left: Article and picture of the wedding of Yu Yeok-kwai’s third son Choi-kee in 1962 (WKYP, 1962-4-2); Right: legislator and architect Szeto Wai, son of Sang Lee’s Szeto Yuen  

In 1985, Sang Lee was awarded a HK$49.5 million contract from the Public Works Department for road construction and improvement program for a new town in New Territories supervised by Maunsell Consultants Asia which included a bridge over the KCR line. (Financial Times)

As a firm, Sang Lee Construction Co Ltd was incorporated in 1966 but dissolved in 2006. 

Aside from Szeto Wai, other famous descendants of the partners of Sang Lee include Mary Yee Lai-ching (余麗清1908-1999), who married Frank Fat (鄧世發Dong Sai-fat, 1904-1997) in 1924 and started the famous Chinese restaurant Frank Fat’s in Sacramento, California in 1939 which is still in business today; Yue Man-hing, another descendant was a student at Columbia University in 1931 and married Kenneth Kuan-sheng Chen, a Buddhist scholar who was later professor at Yenching, Harvard and Princeton. The most interesting however was Yu Sau (余修), who married the Communist revolutionary Chu Kuang (朱光, 1906-1969) who became the deputy mayor of Guangzhou after the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949. To rebuild Guangzhou, Chu allegedly enlisted the help of his father in law to obtain construction materials from HK. In 1954, Chu Kuang became the mayor of Guangzhou and his wife was appointed deputy chief of the city’s Overseas Chinese bureau (廣州僑務局副局長). The couple were later purged during the Anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. 

Sources (other than those cited above)被隱藏的日治建築-48692

香港工程考 II: 三十一條以工程師命名的街

林護: 孫中山背後的香港建築

This article was first posted on 6th July 2020.

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