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Ms LEE Yun-lien Irene

91st Congregation (2022)

Ms LEE Yun-lien Irene

Doctor of Social Science


In 2018 Causeway Bay became the most valuable shopping region in the world, relegating New York’s older Fifth Avenue to second, and the Crown Estate’s much older Regent Street in London to third place. It arose from East Point Hill at the edge of the early City of Victoria which was purchased from Jardine Matheson in the 1920s by Lee Hysan— with a plan to level it and use the gravel to reclaim land nearby for development. That plan stalled and instead the land was used for the local community, for entertainment and recreation—including, a theatre, gardens and a skating rink. A former taipan’s house became a venue for art and literary gatherings, called Bei Shan Tang, which later gave its name to a Foundation that promotes Chinese art and culture, and supports education too.

After World War II, the original plans were revitalized. What was now known as Lee Garden Hill was levelled, and a succession of building developments under the guidance of the Lee family and the Hysan Development Company led to that 2018 triumph. You might suppose that a programme on such a scale would leave no time for any other activities. For most people, at most times, you would be right. But in this case, you would be wrong. In parallel with these extraordinary developments in the property world, the Lee family and their foundation were also finding time to follow other interests, and these included CUHK.

CUHK had its own levelled hill. Our University Mall was built on the resulting plateau and from the start, and ever since, our development involved the Lee family. Amongst the buildings along the edges of the Mall at the heart of our central campus are the Institute of Chinese Studies and the Art Museum—both made possible through the generosity of the Bei Shan Tang Foundation—with the East Wing of the Art Museum further benefiting from the munificence of the Lee Hysan Foundation. In 2001 they provided funding for the beautifully designed Lee Hysan Concert Hall where, in 2019, I had the enormous privilege of jointly hosting the extraordinary soprano, Renee Fleming when she presented Music and the Mind to a packed audience of people who had been lucky enough to “win” one of the hugely over-subscribed tickets. And the Lee family connection is still very much with us, as exemplified today by today’s honorand, Ms Irene Lee.

She is a Hong Kong native, the eldest of three surviving children. Her education took her overseas, to a girl’s convent boarding school in Sussex, England. I don’t know that that must have been like, but if I generalize from my own experience at boarding school (I first went when I was seven) it may well have been educational but it would also have been pretty tough (and my home was only twenty miles away, so I could spend a couple of halfterm nights there and go there for lunch on two or three Sundays each term). At least Ms Lee could get home during the long holidays. She clearly didn’t just sit about. Indeed, her days sound no less full than they will have during term time. She still studied—albeit with a very different curriculum: Classical Chinese; Classical Chinese painting; Chinese calligraphy; Classical Chinese Dance; piano and ballet; and the Chinese dulcimer—the Yangqin. Despite her overseas education she was intimately connected to China’s rich cultural heritage. This motif will recur.

Her formal education took a further twist. She moved to the United States, where she made new, lasting friends and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Smith College. It was then, as now, one of the country’s outstanding liberal arts colleges; their general mission is to provide a broad education that opens minds and keeps options open too, rather than providing narrow training. Smith is an all-women college whose watchwords are Audacity, Agency, and Authenticity; this motif will also recur.

From there it was back to Britain where Ms Lee became a member of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. She was called to the Bar in England and Wales, and from which she duly became a Barrister-at-Law. Qualifications in law, like liberal arts degrees, have more potential applications than might at first meet the eye. Their ability to cut to the chase gives the most able lawyers an invaluable tool. Ms Lee deployed it in finance. She joined the highly sought-after Citibank international management programme in New York, which not only enhanced her formidable skill set but added some core friendships and set the course for her career. 

She spent 30 plus years working in banking and finance in New York, London and then Sydney, where she brought up her two children. Notably, among their languages, they are native Cantonese speakers—that recurring motif of valuing and maintaining the link to Chinese culture. That is an extraordinary outcome for children growing up within an English- (or I might say Australian-) speaking society. It speaks volumes for them. It must also have depended on an extraordinary degree of determination and devotion of resources. She finally returned to Hong Kong ten years ago, bringing with her decades-worth of distilled experience—and put it to still better use.

Some women thriving in what are typically men’s worlds become honorary men, like Margaret Thatcher. Others, having demonstrated what’s possible, try to enable other women to do what they have done. Ms Lee’s personal achievements are extraordinary. The Hang Seng Bank made its 88th anniversary truly memorable by appointing her as its first woman chairman—a true milestone in corporate Hong Kong where all-male boards were still prevalent. The data tell us that Boards with women on them do better, and as the Chairman of the 30% Club she is a leading voice pushing Hong Kong companies to raise their game. Ms Lee is the executive chairman of the Hysan Development company as well as a board member of HSBC and a member of the Exchange Fund Advisory Committee of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. She recently joined the board of the Alibaba Group. This is already a truly demanding life, but it is by no means all she does.

She devotes time to painting; to organic farming (which must be particularly hard in mould- and insect-rich Hong Kong); to Taichi; to hosting dinner parties (like her parents) and to cooking; and to being a grandmother. Ms Lee is also an avid supporter of the arts. You will find her at most concerts and at most art events. Her passion for travelling and her ability to cover vast distances across multiple countries, at lightning speed, is legendary. She is known to return home with, at least 100 kilos of food shopping, after a mere 36 hours on the ground. If you conclude she must work 24 hours a day to do all this, you would be wrong. She manages it all in a mere 22. And beyond even all of this, she has kept her family’s link to CUHK. There is a daring new design for the Art Museum to project out over the edge of the University Mall plateau— a new, space, which will be its largest gallery ready for CUHK’s 60th anniversary year. It will be named the Harold and Christina Lee Gallery, and is in the true spirit of Smith. That cantilevered design—Audacity; the will and the means to do it—Action; the expression of a lifelong commitment to Hong Kong, and the Art and arts of China—Authenticity. Mr Chairman, it is my honour and my pleasure to present Ms Irene Lee Yun-lien, for the degree of Social Science, honoris causa.


This citation is written by Professor Nick Rawlins