The story of Sammy Yukuan Lee and the Foundation that bears his name


[The following biography is based upon the comments of the Hon. David Funderburk, made in the U.S. House of Representatives, in September 1996, with additional material to bring the story of Sammy Yukuan Lee up to date.]

Sammy Yukuan Lee, a renowned scholar of Chinese antiquities, was born 1902 in Dalaowa village in Zhaoyuan county of Shandong province, China. Sammy was the youngest of five sons in a rural farming family. Village life offered little chance of obtaining a higher education and few prospects for earning a good livelihood. Armed with a sixth-grade education, Sammy Lee, who was then in his teens, was sent by his father to Beijing to learn a trade from the owner of Ji Zhen Xiang, an antique shop. There, Sammy Lee met a fellow apprentice, David Techun Wang, with whom he developed a life-long partnership and close friendship.

Sammy Lee and David Wang, fortunate enough to have a basic education, looked beyond their immediate environment. In Beijing, they saw the need for communicating with the many foreign residents to expand their business. Therefore, besides their daily work, they also taught themselves English, German, and Japanese from whatever books or methods they could obtain.

In the early 1930s, through his knowledge of Chinese antiques, Sammy Lee met Dr. Hans Bidder, the first secretary of the German embassy; Dr. Grand, chief of staff of Peking Union Medical College Hospital; and Drs. Ecket and Huwer, who were on the staff of the German Hospital. They were all very much interested in Chinese antiques including carpets, bronzes, ceramics, and furniture. Despite his limited command of foreign languages, Sammy Lee was able to interact well with his customers. He established an enduring friendship with each of them. His relationships with Europeans and Americans exposed him to Western culture and opened his eyes to new opportunities.

Sammy Lee's quest for knowledge and his desire to satisfy his customers prompted him to travel throughout China in search of sources of antique carpets. Mr. Lee found his travels into adjacent provinces to be rewarding.

The most difficult time for Mr. Lee was probably the years between 1935 and 1938, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Before the development of the miracle drug for this infectious disease, most of its victims had little hope of recovery. Sammy Lee, true to his character, was determined to overcome this dreadful obstacle. Under the personal care of Dr. and Mrs. Grand in their home, he followed Dr. Grand's professional advice to the letter--total rest and inactivity. For an energetic and ambitious young man, the treatment was drastic. Fortunately, he completely recovered and was able to return to work in the antique shop.

After World War II, Sammy Lee and David Wang decided to expand the business to Nanjing and Shanghai. However, because of the political turmoil in China, Mr. Tenberg, a close friend, strongly advised him to leave China. In 1947, the Lees and the Wangs moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong along with several friends and a few of their employees.

Relying upon their own resilience and determination, Sammy Lee and David Wang capitalized on their knowledge of Chinese art and became partners in a new enterprise, the Sammy Y. Lee and Wang's Company Limited, specializing in Chinese antiques and the manufacture of furniture.

Foreseeing an opportunity for expansion, Sammy Lee ventured to Tokyo, Japan, and established the Oriental House Limited, providing Chinese carpets, furniture, tablecloths, and artifacts to American armed forces stationed in Japan. Mr. Lee moved his family to Tokyo, while Mr. Wang and his family remained in Hong Kong to manage Sammy Y. Lee and Wang's Co.|

During the mid-1950s, leaving his eldest son, King Tsi, in control of his interests in Tokyo, Sammy Lee explored new markets in Germany and America. With his wife and sons managing the household in Tokyo, Sammy Lee was free to travel throughout the world expanding his business contacts and searching for art objects. In 1957, he organized an exhibition and sale in Lempetz Gallery in Koln. And in 1964, he held his first lacquer collection exhibition at the Royal Scottish Museum.  By this time, the Japanese economy was well on its way to recovery, enabling many Japanese to rekindle their love of collecting Chinese works of art. Oriental House thrived by meeting the demand of the Japanese for art objects.

Sammy Lee's knowledge of and experience with Chinese lacquer, blue and white porcelain, and carpets have been incorporated into one catalog, four books, and three articles and monographs.

Sammy Lee has always emphasized the importance of education because he felt the inadequacy of his own formal training and because he felt it is the obligation of those who have benefited during their lives to promote the nuturing and education of the the youth of the world. A forward thinker, he insisted that his children attend American schools. In 1984, Mr. Lee became in United States citizen. In the late 1980s, his five sons established and endowed the Sammy Yukuan Lee Foundation for the purposes of promoting the study of Chinese culture and providing financial assistance to students of outstanding accomplishment and promise.

Mr. Sammy Yukuan Lee, a beloved friend of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, passed away on Sept. 9, 2011, at the age of 109.The foundation that bears his name established the Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture series in Chinese Art and Archaeology 1982, in celebration of Mr. Lee's eightieth birthday. This series brings to UCLA outstanding speakers from all over the world and provides important enrichment for the students and faculty of UCLA as well as for the public.

The Sammy Yukuan Lee Foundation has also supported many other programs and projects at UCLA -- including the New Approaches to Chinese Studies lecture series of the Center for Chinese Studies -- in some cases providing the spark that has set into motion important new projects, and in other cases providing timely and generous support that has sustained worthy programs.

Finally, the Foundation is also a benefactor of local art and cultural institutions, and in particular has made a substantial contribution to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Thanks in large measure to the Foundation's gifts, LACMA's holdings of Chinese lacquers are now among the very best in the Western world.

Published: Sunday, October 01, 2006