Kin Ping Lee, boutique entrepreneur and inspiration to her family, dies at 92
Standing at a ship’s railing, Kin Ping Lee and her husband waved farewell on July 15, 1948, as they left Shanghai for the United States, an immigrant journey that took them to San Francisco and Schenectady, N.Y., to Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and finally to Boston and Beacon Hill.
“The greatest part of America, and I don’t think some Americans realize it, is that you can be yourself,” she told the Globe in 2002. “Just be yourself.”
Even before that family photograph was taken 71 years ago, Mrs. Lee knew she would decide who she would be.
Mrs. Lee, who was 92 when she died in her Beacon Hill home June 14, had spurned her affluent family’s wishes before leaving home to seek a new life.
Turning down an arranged marriage to the son of a wealthy shipping tycoon, she married a young engineer with whom she had fallen in love — someone whose prospects at the time were more tenuous.
“Love brought them together and brought to them to the United States,” said their youngest son, Rich.
Mr. Lee had worked for General Electric in China, and a job awaited him in Schenectady, so the couple set off for America three days after marrying. En route to the mainland, the ship stopped in Hawaii. “My mother remembered asking my father, ‘Is this heaven?’ ” their son Tom said. Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lees arrived with little more than the bus tickets that would take them across the country.
A savvy merchant like her father back in China, Mrs. Lee opened a series of women’s clothing boutiques wherever her husband’s engineering work brought them, catering to an expanding list of customers who included Bette Davis and Joanne Woodward. So successful were her shops that Mrs. Lee earned enough to put each of the couple’s three sons through college and graduate school.
“Dad was the cerebral presence,” their oldest son, Bill, said in the 2002 Globe interview with the Lee family. “Mother was the heart and ambition of the family.”
That conversation took place a year after the death of Mrs. Lee’s husband, Thomas H. Lee, who had been the Philip Sporn Professor of Energy Processing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a founder of the Center for Quality Management. He had previously worked for some 30 years at GE, and had helped pioneer approaches to modern management, along with holding patents for technical innovations.
After the family moved to Pennsylvania, Mrs. Lee attended what was then the Philadelphia College of Art, and initially was an illustrator, creating drawings of women’s clothes for publications, before opening her first boutique in Media, Pa.
As the family moved to Connecticut and Massachusetts, she launched shops along the way, selling fashions by designers such as Norma Kamali and Perry Ellis, and cultivating clientele in places such as Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard — another boutique location.
“She was just an incredible business person,” Bill said. “She had an instinct for fashion. She had an instinct for how to engage with people and to know what they needed.”
Her work also served as example to her three sons. “She really emphasized for us responsibility and trying to achieve things even when they were difficult, because she had spent her life doing that,” said Rich.
Mrs. Lee’s oldest son, William Lee of Wellesley, is a former managing partner of the WilmerHale law firm and is a senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation. Her middle son, Dr. Thomas Lee Jr. of Milton, is a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and chief medical officer at the health care company Press Ganey. The youngest brother, Dr. Richard Lee of Weston, is a professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University and a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s.
And yet, for all of Mrs. Lee’s accomplishments and the ambitions she passed along to her children, “at the end of the day, her greatest joy, her greatest achievement was her family,” Bill said.
In Mrs. Lee’s last days, three succeeding generations were with her, and in earlier years she even accompanied grandchildren on their honeymoon trips.
“She was in many ways really the heart and soul of the family,” Bill said. “My son and his wife, and my daughter and her husband – they went with her to China. How many grandmothers go on two honeymoons with their grandchildren? She loved doing that.”
Mrs. Lee was born in 1926 in Suzhou, China, a city key in the silk trade, and she grew up in a mansion in Shanghai. As a girl, she would hide with her family under the dining room table when Japan’s military bombed Shanghai in 1937.
Her father was Ting-Tong Lee, a successful silk trader known as “the iron abacus” because of his agility calculating equations to ensure profits while discussing business deals. Her mother was Sue-Tseng Lin.
Mrs. Lee was the fifth of seven children. “We were not the richest family, but we were very well off,” she said in a StoryCorps interview with Tom, in which she noted that she and her siblings each had separate maids.
That changed when she and her husband became immigrants in America. While he was in graduate school, she worked in a laundry, then as an accountant for a bus station. At one point, the Lees narrowly dodged being deported and remained in the United States only because diplomatic relations with China abruptly soured.
In Media, the Lees became the first non-Caucasians in their neighborhood. Mrs. Lee had gone door to door, introducing herself and seeking approval for the family to move in. “I literally remember sitting with my mom when the neighbors took a vote on whether they wanted a Chinese family in the neighborhood,” Bill said.
Her good nature probably helped. “My mom made everybody smile,” Rich said. “I think that was true through my entire life. She made us smile, too.”
That’s not to suggest she was meek in the face of the bigotry she encountered. She knew how to react, and taught her sons how to do so as well. “She really did tell us to never back down if someone called us ethnic slurs,” Tom said.
When Mrs. Lee and her husband became US citizens, he changed his name from Tien Ho Lee to Thomas Henry Lee, and she planned to follow suit. “When my mother tried to change her name to Mary, the judge said, ‘Your name’s too pretty. You need to keep your name,’ ” Rich said. “And that’s why her name stayed Kin Ping Lee.”
In addition to her three sons, Mrs. Lee leaves two brothers, Ying Zen Lee of San Mateo, Calif., and Ying Kao Lee of Philadelphia; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A service has been held and a celebration of her life will be announced.
“As I reflect on her life, I feel like one of the big messages is that she lived through incredible change and adapted incredibly well, but never changed her basic values,” Tom said. “I told my family that she showed how to change without changing.”
Mrs. Lee also kept appreciating all that had happened, and all the good that continued to come her way.
“Right before she lost consciousness,” Rich recalled, “she said to me, ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world.’ ”