Real-estate mogul Robert H. Lee’s influence on Vancouver is apparent to anyone who’s paid attention to the local business community over the past five decades. His name graces the building housing the YMCA on Burrard Street. The graduate school at UBC’s Sauder School of Business was also named in his honour after he made a $5-million donation. As a founder of UBC Properties Trust, he played a pivotal role in the development of housing on the Point Grey campus, which has generated windfall revenues for the university. And as a former chancellor of UBC, Lee can easily be thought of as a member of Vancouver’s power elite.
But it wasn’t always this way. A historical project, which is funded by the federal government, presents a humble picture of Lee’s childhood. Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past, which is led by UBC historian Henry Yu, recently released a CD of videos of various local luminaries of Chinese descent, including Lee, who was born in Vancouver. He spent his first years in Chinatown before moving to the neighbourhood near Cambie Street and West 7th Avenue. And on-screen, he tells how his father worked days in a greenhouse and nights at a restaurant before owning a store. “We saw our dad for two hours a week for 12 years,” Lee says. “I never went for a haircut until I was 18 because he cut our hair with a rice bowl.”
Around the age of 13 or 14, Lee became interested in real estate, a subject that also intrigued his father. But the teenager’s marks weren’t very good, and a counsellor recommended that he just proceed through high school and not continue to university. “My dad never saw my report card or didn’t know anything about education because he was so busy at work,” he states.
In the video, Lee says he worked hard enough to get into UBC, and his marks improved when he studied business, which interested him. After graduating in 1956, Lee opened a real-estate business and immediately started networking with his father’s friends, including Tong Louie, whose descendants own the IGA and London Drugs chains.
Lee’s big break came in the late 1960s when there was widespread fear in Hong Kong that Communist China was going to try to take over the British colony. That led to an exodus of wealthy residents, many of whom moved to Vancouver. When these newcomers visited local banks, they were advised to visit Lee because he could speak their language. One of Lee’s business associates for many years was philanthropist David Lam, later B.C.’s lieutenant governor, who came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1967.
“I thanked my father for making me go to Chinese school for 12 years,” Lee quips in the video.
Lee also describes how a “short fellow”—who wasn’t identified by name—showed up and said that he wanted to buy apartments. As they drove through the West End near English Bay, the man spotted Imperial Towers, then the city’s largest apartment block with 263 suites. Lee says the owner at the time was Tom Campbell, who later became mayor.
They haggled for a while and Lee reveals that on one weekend, he shot a dismal 120 on the golf course because he was so preoccupied about the potential real-estate commission. Eventually, Campbell consented to sell the building, and Lee reports that he made 10 times his annual salary on that one transaction. In 1979, Lee founded the Prospero Group, which has an extensive portfolio of residential, office, retail, and industrial properties.
In the video, Lee discloses that his father donated to many causes in Chinatown, including the Chinese school, and sent money back to his ancestral village in China throughout his life. Lee also reveals that his father was active in the Kuomintang political party and knew its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang and his nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to the Mao Zedong–led Communists. Lee’s kindest words are for his wife Lily, who held the family together during the lean years by scrupulously managing the household budget. All four of their kids and their spouses went on to graduate from UBC.
Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past is available online at chinesecanadian.ubc.ca/.