Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hong Kong's Opium Prince, Lee Hysan

Gong hei fat choy! Happy New Year to the readership. Thank you for coming to visit us here; apologies for those that have hit the refresh button on our blog in vain over the past week. We've been on holiday. We hope you've had a nice week, and we look forward as always to your comments!

We have been remiss in our blog entries on colonial Hong Kong in usually blogging on colonial personalities. We will attempt to address this imbalance by talking about one of the most successful pre-war Chinese entrepreneurs of Hong Kong. Now when most people today think of Superman Li, they think of Li Ka-Shing. But in the 1920s, the name on the lips of Hong Kong Chinese was Lee Hysan. Allow me to quote a write-up done on his life by Berta Manson in the South China Morning Post on October 26, 1975:
The newspapers of the day headlined the murder of Lee Hysan in 1928 as the death of the "Opium Prince." He was a man of "rugged exterior" who wore "Chinese clothes and Chinese velvet shoes," was frequently unpunctual but always "generous" and "exceedingly popular." (How often those two adjectives go together!). Hi business daring captured the public imagination. Twice he went to court and won. The "million dollar opium case" of 1914 lasted a total of 151 days but won Lee and a partner possession of 98 chests of raw opium, then a perfectly legal commodity. Opium was only banned in 1946. His second legal victory came in March 1928, a month before he was killed. A Macau Government official, the Opium Administrator, angered by a petition Lee Hysan had sent the Macau Government, sued him for libel and lost. On May 25, nearly a month after his death, Lee Hysan was buried with pomp and circumstance at the Chinese cemetery. His estate was valued then at $4.4 million. Yet, Lee Hysan seldom carried any money. On the day he died he had only $2.80 in his pocket.
Lee was quite the empire builder. He was the son of a Cantonese peasant that had struck it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1849, and had returned to enjoy his fortune in the new colony of Hong Kong. He studied at Queen's College, worked as a bank clerk at HSBC, and then worked variously in Malaya as a journalist and as a sawmill owner. When he returned to Hong Kong, he became manager of a shipping company, and had even bought a ship on his own account.

Now while Jardines had built their headquarters at East Point (today's Causeway Bay) in the 1840s, by the 1860s most of their headquarter operations were in Central. By the 1920s, it had become essentially a Chinese district, and few traces beyond the street names of Jardine Matheson taipans remained. However, Jardines still owned the property of much of Causeway Bay. In 1923, they sold it to Lee Hysan for HK$3.8 million (at the time a symbolic passing of the torch from Hong Kong's opium taipans of the past to the present, perhaps). This property was the genesis of the Lee Hysan family empire; pictured above is the Lee Gardens, later a famous hotel and now the site for a chic mall. Although he was best known at the time for his opium dealings, the ownership of this important piece of property has enriched this family incredibly over the generations, creating Hong Kong's first modern property tycoons. This proved once again that property has always been the most important asset class of this city: the Causeway Bay property portfolio was valued in 2005 at HK$30.8 billion.

Sadly, the Opium Prince proved vulnerable to mortal threats. To quote the SCMP again:
"But fate intervened. On April 30, 1928 as...Lee Hysan was going into the Yue Kee Club [the establishment the current Kee Club above Yung Kee was named after - Ed.] on Wellington Strewet for lucnh he was shot three times at close range and killed. A succession of firecrackers used to cover the sound, allowed the murderer to escape. The murder weapon, a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson was found at the scene. Lee Hysan's stricken relatives offered a $10,000 rewarded but the killer was never caught. "


Anonymous said...

Thank you - most interesting. I lived for five years in Lee Garden Rd, C.B., and often wondered about Hysan Lee. I remember reading somewhere that to construct the site for the original hotel and the road a small hill had to be levelled. It must have been a very different site before it was developed for the hotel, followed by the office/ shopping complex there today.

Anonymous said...

Is there supposedly a picture?

Dave and Stefan said...

Glad you enjoyed it Paul! Much of the area has changed beyond all recognition, both in form and function (While the Central landscape has changed dramatically, the role it plays in Hong Kong life has not).

I did try to add a picture, but it didn't seem to work. Please ignore any vestigial links to a photo!

Anonymous said...

Whats the conection of Lee Hysan and Lee Gardens Hotel?

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