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Lee Hysan: a tale of poetry, murder and the moving of mountains

Today, Hong Kong’s small but crowded Causeway Bay district is famous as being among the most expensive retail spaces in the world to rent. But few people remember the extraordinary story of the family behind the miracle. Nury Vittachi and Emily Zhou report.

IMAGINE HONG KONG’S Victoria Park underwater. In the 1920s, there was no park there: the waters came right up to the road where the Central Library stands now. The waterfront road was called Causeway Road and would eventually give the district its name.

Jutting out into the ocean was a cape known as East Point. If you walked inland, with the harbor at your back, you would reach some slopes: East Point Hill and Caroline Hill. Behind those hills were the high mountains of the Tai Hang area, leading up the Peak, Hong Kong’s central mountain.

In 1924, a businessman named Lee Hysan (利希慎) bought East Point Hill, one of the slopes inland from the waters of Causeway Bay. It had been owned by the Jardine Matheson company, and contained several old “taipan” houses up on the slope. (Westerners always chose to live on slopes, appreciating the slight difference in temperature.)

Lee wanted to create a housing development there, but the project had to be delayed. So the land was used temporarily as an open amusement area, and was re-named Lee Garden. His friend Mok Hon suggested that one of the old taipan houses there could be used as a club for people who appreciated Chinese culture. The club was founded and given the name Bei Shan Tang (literally “Hall of the North Mountain”).

Lee Garden in the 1920s. Image: Wikimedia Commons


The businessman came from a family with an extraordinary story.

His father had left China and worked in the California gold rush of the late 1800s. His son Hysan had been born and raised in Hawaii, part of the Chinese diaspora, before the family moved back to Guangdong, and then settled in Hong Kong.

Panning for gold in California, about 1850. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The partly-westernized family had worked in textiles and also the opium trade with the British. Opium refining and distribution was legal (and profitable) until 1917, when it was banned through the efforts of Christian anti-drug campaigners. Archetypal Hongkongers, the Lees invested their money in property and education. They bought chunks of land where they could, and sent their Second Son, Hysan, to the UK for a western education.

A clever, culture-spanning family, the Lees got on well with the British, but also loved Chinese culture – which is why Hysan Lee was happy to start Bei Shan Tang as a club for poets and scholars.

The name of the club, Hall of the Northern Mountain, sounded rather dull to English ears, but to those in the know, it was actually a reference to a wonderful old tale, more than 2,000 years old, from China. This story is sometimes called:

The Foolish Old Man Moves the Mountains.

A famous painting by celebrated artist Xu Beihong depicts the attempt to move the mountain.

Once there was a village which existed in a valley blocked from the other urban areas by a pair of mountains. A simple man named Yu Gong (愚公), aged 90, decided that it was no use complaining about them. One had to move the mountains away. He started the job, digging out small amounts of earth and rock and carrying them away to the north.

Some people helped him, but most people thought the idea was ridiculous. It would take years to move two entire mountains – and certainly much longer than Yu Gong or even most of the villagers would live.

But Yu Gong and his friends ignored the skeptics and pressed on with his job.

Unbeknown to him or the villagers, the gods had been looking down on the debate. They decided to help him. Using their powers, they flattened the area in front of the village, and moved the soil to create a pair of great hills called the North Mountains.

Yu Gong and the villagers woke up to find the impossible job had been successfully completed in record time.


It was a great story, especially for a property developer: a man who moved mountains as part of his work. Lee Hysan was no longer nicknamed the Opium King, but was successful as ever in business.

He and Mok chose the name of the club to pay tribute to the persistence and faith of Yu Gong and to make clear his own faith in the success of the club itself.


But those were troubled times in Hong Kong. In June 1925, a huge strike caused tens of thousands of people to flee the city, and business to collapse. The Hong Kong administration had to be bailed out by the British government in London. Club members stopped meeting.

Queens Pier in Hong Kong, 1925. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong gradually recovered over the next few years, but Lee himself lost his life in 1928, at the age of 48 or 49, gunned down on Wellington Street. His killer was never caught but the belief at the time was that the murder was related to opium connections in Macau.

Hysan Lee was gone, yet the club restarted, and peace returned to Hong Kong. The club had begun by focusing on meetings of poets, but moved to feature the works of Chinese artists, and evolved into a collection of original art, including paintings, calligraphy and books.

Enter Lee Jung Sen (利榮森), known as J.S. to his friends. J.S. was Hysan’s fourth son, and the only one who chose not to have a western education. Instead, he travelled into China to study and became a great lover of Chinese culture.

In the collection was a rare copy of the Shi Ji from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).

He carefully preserved the previous collections, and also expanded them through his personal relationships. The collection of artefacts at Bei Shan Tang became very valuable, filled with extraordinary treasures. J.S. fought for the development of Chinese education, and became a major figure in the founding of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Meanwhile, the original hills of the area were flattened and the district was eventually covered with buildings.

The area thrived. Today East Point and Caroline Hill are part of Causeway Bay, regularly declared the most expensive retail space to rent in the world. The original East Point Hill was the area now known as Percival Street, Hennessy Road and Leighton Road.

The slopes behind Causeway Bay are still detectable. Photo by Jeanne Rose Gomez/ Unsplash

The foundation has also grown. Its administrators have donated thousands of historical collections to the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other local museums. Among the 15,000 pieces in CUHK, 8,500 were from Bei Shan Tang, including calligraphy, paintings and porcelain. Mr. Lee also provided funds to help students’ research art and museum management.

Today, the opium connection and the murder are long forgotten. The Lee family are the height of respectability, and stalwarts of the “old families” of Hong Kong. J.S. Lee died in 2007 at the age of 91. Hysan Lee’s granddaughter Vivienne Poy became a member of the Senate of Canada from 1998 until her retirement in 2012.

One of the artworks that the Lee family collected (above) has gone under the spotlight. A work of calligraphy by Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫), one of the four most outstanding masters of that art in ancient China, is now on show in the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

The foundation was inspired by a tale about a man who levels a hill for the benefit of the community.

And the family behind the foundation also levelled a hill and created something remarkable for the community. Causeway Bay, which has drawn countless shoppers over the decades, has been a huge contributor to the success of Hong Kong.

Hysan Place: Image from Hysan Development

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people pour into the buildings such as Hysan Place and Lee Garden in Causeway Bay with no knowledge of the dramatic life of Hysan Lee and his family.

This article was written by Nury Vittachi and Emily Zhou. Image at the top by Cheung Yin on Unsplash

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