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PIRELLI.COM / WORLD

American Dreamer

“I saw a man selling avocados on the street,” he recalls. “I knew we had a big avocado tree and the avocados just fell on the ground. So I thought, why don’t I pick them and sell them?” Lee began selling the avocados at a busy intersection, making $30 a day. Then, to speed things up, he enlisted three friends to work other locations as well, offering them 50 per cent of the takings. Before long, and thanks entirely to his own efforts, Lee was the proud owner of his dream bike.

It’s a long journey from those roadside avocados to where Lee sits today, as he tells his story, in the basement garage of one of his vast luxury jewellery outlets in the San Gabriel Valley, some 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Around him are parked some of the world’s most valuable Ferraris as well as two mint-condition Rolls-Royces. The vehicles make up roughly half of a collection worth an estimated $50 million, although it could be more, Lee confides; the value of these cars is constantly increasing. 

Start small, aim high
It was Lee’s youthful flair for spotting an opportunity and applying himself, coupled with his father’s work ethic, meticulous research habits and what appears to be impeccable judgment, that enabled him to achieve the ultimate American Dream.

Today the Hong Kong-born 50-year-old sits at the helm of a business empire that spans retail, real estate in both the US and Asia, and investments. Via his two Hing Wa Lee jewellery stores, named after his father who founded the business, Lee is the biggest independent retailer in the US for many of the luxury brands he carries, including Rolex, and offers the largest selection of watches, jewellery and accessories in the country. 

He’s interested in other luxury products, too, and is a self-styled “brand ambassador” for numerous prestige brands including Rolls-Royce, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferrari and most recently, Pirelli. He dates his love for Pirelli back to the F40, one of the most iconic Ferraris ever built, for which Pirelli created the P Zero tyre. Now, he says, he uses nothing else on his cars.

Lee’s sprawling, elegant stores (one of which is built like a vault so valuables do not have to be put away at night) attract customers from both the local area, many of whom are Asian-American, and abroad. Often clients arriving from Asia will bypass the boutiques of Beverly Hills and head straight for Lee’s stores, he says, where 40 luxury brands are available under one roof and staff are fluent in 10 dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese. “It’s not only speaking the language,” Lee says. “We understand the culture, so when they come here they feel at home.” 

Inspiration close to home
Lee credits much of his American Dream to the values, influence and inspirational life of his father, who grew up as one of five children in an impoverished farming family in Tai Shan, southern China. Hing Wa Lee’s own father was taken off to a ‘retraining camp’ by government forces never to return. So in 1960, aged 13, Lee senior and his 15-year-old brother decided to try to find work in Hong Kong to help feed the family. They travelled to Macau and boarded a passing boat. Then, under cover of night, the boys dropped into the ocean and swam five terrifying miles to the Hong Kong shore.

“They had the insides of two volleyballs for floats,” Lee explains. “They faced big waves, hypothermia, sharks and police patrols, but they made it.” Once in Hong Kong, Hing Wa Lee found work as an apprentice to a gemstone carver, earning 17 cents a week, which he sent back to his family. Over the next five years he became highly skilled and in 1965, left as a master jade carver to set up his own factory, the Hing Wa Lee Shan Wu Jade Workshop, which began exporting gemstone carvings worldwide.

He met his future wife in an English class, they married and David was born in 1966, followed by a daughter and another son. Lee senior was by now one of the world’s finest craftsmen and his skills attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, which needed an expert to restore its collection of antique Chinese jade carvings. Hing Wa Lee was brought to DC to do the work and saw an opportunity to expand his business into America. When David was seven, the family emigrated to the US, settling in Bethesda, Maryland, where Hing Wa Lee established a wholesale business importing imperial jade and other gemstone jewellery to sell to retailers and galleries across the nation.

Love in a cold climate
Lee says moving to the US as a child had its challenges; he couldn’t speak English and people in Bethesda hadn’t had much exposure to Asian families. But he says his parents made him feel secure and it didn’t take him long to learn English and understand the culture.

In 1980, the family moved to California because Maryland was “too cold”. In Los Angeles, Lee senior opened a new arm of his wholesale jewellery business. He did well and began buying apartments as investments. “It gave us a good life, and certainly we weren’t struggling,” Lee says. “But I wouldn’t consider us wealthy by any means.”

In fact, Lee’s father, wary of the fickle ways of business, wanted his son to become a dentist. “I remember when I went to tell him I wanted to be a business major, I was afraid he would be upset,” Lee says. “Most businesses fail, so why go into a career that is so risky? But I was not built to be a dentist or on the medical side. I was always an entrepreneur and a salesman.”

In 1992, Lee graduated from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business (where he is now on the board, advising both faculty and students) and joined his father’s firm. It was a depressed time economically and “whatever we were doing was not making money”.

Spotting the opportunity
Lee persuaded his father to switch to the luxury retail market, offering Swiss-made watches alongside their existing fine jewellery to the rapidly growing Chinese population in both the San Gabriel Valley and across Southern California. It was a daunting prospect, not least because they had no experience of getting the authorisation needed to sell European-made luxury brands. But Lee, fuelled by youthful optimism, set off on a mission, making numerous – sometimes fruitless – trips to Europe. His dogged perseverance paid off and in 1993, he opened his first store in San Gabriel. Two years later, after several trips to Geneva, Lee became the official Rolex retailer for the area and things really took off. “I expanded to more stores and became more successful, bringing more income to the family,” he says.

Lee worked closely with his father until his death five years ago, describing the experience as a “privilege” and a constant learning process. “With many things I encounter now, I hear what he would say to me,” Lee says. “I hear it in my head, it’s almost like he’s here telling me, because for so many years we were talking to each other, working with each other as partners. I dedicate my store to him as a legacy.” 

Lee sees his family’s story as emblematic of the American Dream in the way that his father, “the poorest person you can imagine”, worked his way out of deprivation to prosper in the US, where he was able to offer his children a better life.

“And then we were able to apply what we had learnt and take the business to the next level, which is what I did,” he says. “And that’s part of the American Dream, too. I hope that I can provide for my son and he can take the business to the next level, too.”

Three golden rules
All of this success was achieved, Lee says, thanks to Hing Wa Lee’s three “golden rules”: always work hard, always work with perseverance and always work with integrity. “That was what my dad applied to his life and his career. That’s what I have applied and it’s what I teach to everyone as the ethics or pillars of what someone needs to succeed.”

Unlike his son, Lee senior never bought much for himself. “I think maybe he had a fear of being poor again,” Lee says. He tells the story of how, ever since he was a young man, his father had longed for a Rolls-Royce; he would pass The Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong every day on his way to work and see its fleet of Rolls-Royces. But even after he became successful, he never bought one. 

“Then, in 2005, I decided he really should have one,” Lee says. “It was the time when the seventh generation Rolls-Royce Phantom came out. I bought it for him so he had no choice but to take it. And of course he was very happy to tell his friends that not only did he now have a Rolls-Royce Phantom but his son was successful enough to buy it for him.” Next to his father’s Rolls in David’s garage sits one David commissioned for himself – a blue Dawn convertible with a mandarin-orange interior. 

Fruits of success
As well as his cars (including a complete set of Ferrari Supercars), Lee is an avid collector of fine wines (he has a 3,000-bottle collection), rare guitars, watches and art. He is also a devoted foodie: in 2012 he founded acclaimed restaurant Ootoro Sushi in the Hing Wa Lee shopping plaza he owns in Walnut, California, which has been ranked one of the five best sushi/sashimi restaurants in Los Angeles. 

Lee has also developed an extensive knowledge of, and passion for, luxury brands. Today he sports a grey three-piece Dolce & Gabbana suit and a Rolex watch. “I only wear Dolce & Gabbana and Hermès,” he says, “I’m very loyal when I love the product.” However, he’s quick to add that when it comes to watches he is also a big fan of Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet, Cartier and Vacheron Constantin. 

Despite his wealth and connections – friends include the comedian, television host and fellow car enthusiast Jay Leno – Lee is open and straightforward about his rise to wealth and success. There’s no attempt to evoke any kind of mystique to it. “I worked hard with my dad to slowly build our business and I think I’m quite a down-to-earth and humble person because of that. For some people who come to wealth very quickly, it can be hard for them to transition. For me it was a gradual process. I’m really one of the most normal guys you could think of.”

Feet firmly on the ground
Followers of Lee’s Instagram feed, which mainly features pictures of his cars, agree. His profile states that he enjoys sharing his “hobbies, experiences and Christian faith“. And his fans have responded with equal warmth. “A man who has not let possessions, power or privilege cause him to forget those who helped him get there,” writes one person. 

Another comments: “Your story and life is inspiring. You bring me energy and inspiration to make myself better, and improve my life… thank you and stay awesome.”

Lee has been married to his wife Katherine for 23 years and has a daughter who is studying business at the University of Southern California and a son at high school. He believes his family’s journey to success is still very achievable in America, so long as people follow their passion and apply his (and his father’s) three “golden rules”.

“If opportunity and timing align and you follow the three golden rules, then I believe there is business to be made,” he says.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes open for opportunity and then the US certainly has the rules and the environment that allow for the best chance to make money and achieve the American Dream.”

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