“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.