Irene Lee

Chairman of Hysan Development


There are very few people who know the origin of a suburb, let alone one as integral to Hong Kong as Causeway Bay. But for Irene Lee, granddaughter of Lee Hysan and current chairman of Hysan Development, she can look back on the neighbourhood’s inception. “My grandfather bought Lee Garden Hill in 1923. They had always wanted to level the hill and develop the area at some point, but Grandfather, first and foremost, wanted to create an area where Hong Kong people could have their own space, to relax and be entertained. Maybe he had the vision that Hong Kong would one day be a tourist hub and his area would play a part in making Hong Kong a tourist destination,” she muses.

Ninety-five years later, Irene and her family continue to work towards the development and evolution of Causeway Bay, making it the bustling, vibrant neighbourhood it is today. “Causeway Bay is to Hong Kong what Bondi Beach is to Sydney, or what Covent Garden is to London,” says Irene. “It is a destination.”

Irene’s childhood is very much entwined with Causeway Bay. Though she grew up in her family home on Kennedy Road, she attended St. Paul’s Convent in Causeway Bay for kindergarten and she spent a lot of time in the family office after school. “I used to drop into the office and help myself to the stationery,” she remembers, with a laugh.

Irene was sent to boarding school in the UK, but one memory stands out the most for her as a child: watching a film, cartoon or live performance at Lee Theatre: “Seeing a movie was the biggest treat. We would sit in the back so we didn’t take up the good seats. If the cinema was full, we would sit in the aisle. I remember the snack stall to the right of the entrance sold all sorts of exotic but yummy goodies!”

“Everyone remembers the Rainbow Room, it was such a special place. I remember the beautiful decor — they had these amazing lotus-styled lights – and the food was exceptional.”

Despite living overseas from such a young age, Irene retained her passion for Chinese culture every time she came back for the holidays. “In my earlier years, I was lucky to come home three times a year – Easter, Christmas and summer. But they weren’t really holidays! It was packed with Classical Chinese lessons, classic Chinese dance, yangqin (or Chinese dulcimer), Chinese painting and calligraphy – and on top of that, I’d have piano and ballet lessons too.” Those lessons served her well. Her passion for music continues and she still practises calligraphy and paints to this day.

In between all the lessons, Irene did look forward to one thing – her birthday which luckily fell in the summer holidays. It was the perfect occasion to get together with friends and family. Her parents celebrated her 21st at The Pavilion Restaurant in the Lee Gardens Hotel. It was a glamorous party with the famous Tony Carpio and his band and everyone danced the night away. But her best memories will always be of the Rainbow Room. “It was my favourite restaurant in Hong Kong, and my father’s too,” she explains. “I think everyone remembers the Rainbow Room, it was such a special place. I remember the beautiful decor — they had these amazing lotus-styled lights – and the food was exceptional. They were famous for their Peking Duck and BBQ chicken livers.”

After her schooling, she went into the finance industry, where she held a host of senior positions in international financial institutions around the world in New York, London and Sydney.

After living in Australia for over 30 years, she returned to Hong Kong to lead Hysan Development. “Coming back six years ago triggered many memories for me. Having been away for so long, naturally Causeway Bay had changed so much. What is interesting however, is that Causeway Bay has managed to change right before my eyes even in the past six years. I think we have completely transformed it.”

“We promote sustainability because Lee Gardens is a community where people come to work, live and play, now and for generations to come.”

From the beginning, her grandfather’s vision for Causeway Bay was to build a place of entertainment and relaxation for both locals as well as visitors. Irene feels that the Hysan Group has worked towards this vision by focusing on community and lifestyle as a holistic offering. “People of all ages can come and spend the whole day here,” says Irene. Lee Gardens is a lifestyle destination with a strong family element, encompassing well-being and sustainability.

“We promote sustainability because Lee Gardens is a community where people come to work, live and play, now and for generations to come,” she explains. “We have an urban farm on the rooftop of Hysan Place where fruit and veg are grown, as well as a running track and dedicated exercise area in the brand new Lee Garden Three area.”

“Property developers, in particular residential developers touch on people’s daily lives. Hysan is not just a developer,” explains Irene. “We are a long-term landlord investor in commercial real estate, concentrated on Causeway Bay. This is our home, we started here nearly 100 years ago. That is the difference: we do everything for the long term. We are part of the community and want our neighbours to live, work, and enjoy life together.”

Causeway Bay holds a plethora of fond memories to look back on for Irene, something she would like to pass on to future generations too. “We have long served local families and visitors from outside of Hong Kong. We want youngsters to remember Lee Gardens so that they can bring their kids and grandkids back to the area in the years to come,” she says.

Preserving those memories and documenting the stories of the people, places and culture that have helped build Hong Kong is even more important to Irene. “Hong Kong needs a strong context of history. People need to remember and know that we have come a long way — it wasn’t that long ago that we were a fishing village, and that Causeway Bay was all low-rise,” she reflects. “That’s why Hysan95 is very special to us – it would have been my grandfather’s dream for his family and their families in perpetuity. It’s a wonderful way of talking about Hong Kong and gives us a sense of context about how much we’ve done in Hong Kong and how far we’ve come.”