By Christal Lee
For Northwest Asian Weekly
If you have dined at a variety of restaurants in the Puget Sound area, it is likely you have been indirectly affected by my father’s work (chances are higher if you frequent restaurants featuring Asian cuisines). Since 1983, King T. Lee has been supplying, remodeling, designing, and constructing restaurants and food service establishments in our community and beyond. Our family is heartbroken to announce that he can no longer continue the work he loved so much, as he passed suddenly at age 68 in late 2020.
King’s passing is a great loss to our community. Not only did he have a commitment to helping his customers and vendors, he was also active in supporting the Seattle Chinese community through philanthropic efforts and volunteer work. If you ever listened to Chinese language programming on KRAB-FM 107.7 in the 1970s, you heard my father’s voice. If you were involved early on at the inception of the Chinese Information and Services Center, you knew him as a volunteer. If you have picked up a free copy of the Chinese Christian Herald Monthly Chinese language newspaper, my father may have been the one who delivered it and you may have read articles he wrote. If you were a member of or attended any events organized by the Seattle Chapter of the National Association of Chinese Americans, you knew my father. If you have been involved with the Board of Directors at Kin On Healthcare Center, you may have worked with him to build the new Assisted Living facilities. King’s volunteer efforts over the decades stemmed from an interest in advancing the Chinese American community, as well as from a deep love for Christ. He had started thinking that after retiring, he might study theology so that he could serve in another capacity.
King Lee was the quintessential immigrant entrepreneur. I will never lose the immense respect that I have developed for him as I have become an adult, learning about his journey through the big leap that immigrants take in leaving everything they know behind to pursue their American dream. As a university student, he worked multiple jobs, washing dishes in restaurants and as a janitor to put himself through school. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After working for the City of Seattle, he started multiple business ventures over the years. I still don’t understand how he set off from Hong Kong in 1971 with $1,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $1,093 USD in 2021) sewn into a secret pocket in his pants and managed to build a successful life including Monarch Trading Corporation which, with a partner and investment from his family, he worked to build from a single paper product company into a full-service restaurant design and construction company, which operated for 36 years. He dedicated his life to his work, helping many others grow their businesses along the way. Anyone who has worked with a parent understands it can be challenging, but I know how lucky I am that I was able to spend the last two and a half years helping him work to wind up the company he loved. Despite being criticized by some for working so hard, King’s work ethic was a major source of the great respect my family and I have for him. My admiration for my father grew even more as I got to see how highly respected he was by his customers, the machine shop fabricators that stayed with him for almost 20 years, the vendors that he worked with, and the inspectors who knew the quality of his work. Those that I met over the past couple years had only praise to share with me and so many told me how funny he was and what a good guy he was. One vendor salesman, who my dad had known for over 20 years, recently told him that my dad’s extra efforts helped him to put food on his family’s table. A Thai restaurant owner told me that he specifically sent all the other Thai restaurant owners he knew to King Lee.
All his hard work was invested with the goal of benefiting the company as it provided livelihoods for others, helping others if he could, and providing for his family, building a life for us that was better than his own. Witnessing so many people in the community approach him for a friendly chat when he was out and about and knowing how proud of his kids he was, I would say he succeeded. He taught my brothers and I more than he realized. With his quiet manner, he led by example. Sometimes he did try to teach us various lessons when we were young, but to his great frustration, we often didn’t take those efforts seriously, even going so far as to hide the books he wanted to share. My father wanted to supplement the teachings we learned in Sunday school, but I don’t think he fully realized how much we absorbed just from being around him and observing how well he treated others. He almost always took the short end of the stick and even though he had been burned many times, he always maintained a generous spirit. He was endlessly good-natured. What other Chinese father would allow his children to address him by his first and last names? Deeply disrespectful to probably any other father out there, our exclamations of “King Lee!” were always met with a smile, as this had become a term of endearment in our family.
I regret that he couldn’t enjoy his retirement in the last year since we shut down the physical company location. King loved to travel and he planned to see so many more places, even discussing just days before his passing the cruises he planned to take with my mom. I am so glad that despite spending most of his time working long hours at the company, he did occasionally take time to vacation with his family, taking us to karate tournaments around the country, and to travel around the world with my mom and their friends.
The greatest honor was having King Lee for a father and the greatest gifts are the positive qualities of altruism, integrity, dedication, generosity, and the multitude of others he cultivated and inspired in his surviving relatives. King Lee’s gentle, helpful, and unassuming ways touched the lives of countless people and his legacy of working hard with a good heart lives on through the rest of us who were lucky enough to be enriched by his influence.
We look forward to celebrating his life at a future date when it is safe and sensible to do so.
Christal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.