Doris Shoong Lee passed away on August 26, 2018 at home in Las Vegas in the presence of family members after a short illness. Her life was well lived, and she left a remarkable legacy of philanthropy and achievement.
Born in San Francisco on December 20, 1919, she spent her early years in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When she was five, Doris moved with her family into a house in Oakland designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, whose other works included the Hearst Castle.
Joe Shoong, Doris’ father, emigrated from a small village in Guangdong China to the United States at the turn of the century when he was eighteen years old. As Doris explained “he came over here with no language, no money, no relatives” during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Within a few years, Mr. Shoong founded the National Dollar Stores, a chain of dry goods stores which he ultimately expanded to include properties throughout the Western United States and Hawaii.
Their shared Chinese heritage was very important to the members of the Shoong family, and throughout her school years Doris was required to study Cantonese for several hours every day in addition to her schooling at Our Lady of Lourdes and Holy Names High School.
Doris recalled her childhood in Oakland with fondness and recognized her family’s legacy there by supporting the endowment of Oakland’s Shoong Family Chinese Cultural Center and sponsoring the construction and recent renovation of the delightful Dragon Slide and Treetop Tea House at Children’s Fairyland.
Although she enrolled at the University of California Berkeley in 1936 when she was only sixteen years, her time at Cal was interrupted when her parents decided she and her sister should attend Lingnan University (now Sun Yat-sen University) near her father’s former village in China.
Both young girls soon found themselves stranded when the Japanese invaded in 1937. They were able to escape when the steamship the President Coolidge aided in the emergency evacuation of Americans. Doris recalled standing on the deck of the ship and watching the Japanese bombs explode during the Battle of Shanghai.
Doris returned to attend Stanford University. She married a fellow student when she was nineteen years old and had three children, Richard, Judy and Lisa. During their early years, the family lived in Oakland and Doris raised their children. Her youngest daughter, Lisa, was disabled and Doris was steadfast in her care.
In 1960, Doris became a member of the executive committee of the National Dollar Stores. Her involvement with the family business intensified upon her father’s death in 1961. In her words, her duties were “management of books, advertising, accounting. And I took to accounting like a duck to water.”
As her first marriage ended and her children grew older, Doris spent more time stewarding the National Dollar Stores and thus met Theodore B. Lee, whose father had also emigrated alone at a young age from China to California. After Theodore Lee had graduated from Harvard University, he returned to California and obtained both a J.D. and a M.B.A. from UC Berkeley and worked as a prominent real estate attorney.
Doris married Ted in 1969. Theirs was a loving, productive and devoted partnership which lasted almost fifty years. Aided by Ted’s deep knowledge of redevelopment and land use planning, and Doris’ acute business acumen, they formed the Urban Land Company in 1972. The privately-held real estate investment firm includes their sons, Gregory Lee and Ernest Lee, as active members.
Urban Land Company owns a wide range of properties in California and Nevada, including the Eureka Casino properties in Mesquite and Las Vegas Nevada. Doris remained deeply involved with both of her sons in the management of the family company until her brief, final illness.
Doris Lee and her family have been generous and loyal community benefactors to numerous institutions supporting education and the arts. Doris served as trustee of the UC Berkeley Foundation, endowed the Theodore B. and Doris Soong Lee Distinguished Professorship in Real Estate Law and Urban Planning, and made other substantial financial contributions to UC Berkeley, including the Founders of Berkeley.
Ted and Doris have been active at Harvard University, where they have been donors to athletics and the Fairbanks Center in East Asian Studies.
Visitors to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco over the years have seen numerous exhibitions that were made possible by the financial support of Theodore and Doris Lee. Doris was a member of the Asian Art Commission from 2001-2012 and served as its Chair in 2004-2006.
She also served on the board of the Asian Art Museum Foundation for ten years, including as its Chair from 2004-2006. As she explained, “I think we have one of the most valuable collections outside of Asia. We are one of three, only three, all-Asian museums in the Western world. We are positioned to be a very important institution, not just in San Francisco, but really for the world.”
Her community involvement in Las Vegas included being a founding member of the Las Vegas Philharmonic and serving on its board for eight years. She was also a Founder of the Smith Center and sponsored live music for performances by the Nevada Ballet Theatre. To honor her father, Doris donated the land and funds to create and maintain the Joe Shoong Park in Las Vegas.
When UNLV’s Boyd School of Law was created, Doris and her husband established its first endowed professorship. In In 2012, the UNLV Lee Business School was renamed to recognize her generous support. Doris loved being a member of Nevada Women’s Philanthropy, and in working with others to make Las Vegas a stronger community.
Doris is survived by many beloved family members. Family members that live in Las Vegas are her husband Theodore Lee, and their two sons, Gregory and Ernest Lee. Gregory Lee is married to Dana Su Lee and they have two children Graham and Katherine Lee. Ernest Lee is married to Tatiana Lee and they have three sons, Luke, Harrison and Dylan Lee.
Doris Lee’s daughter, Judith Tam Sargent, her grandchildren, Judy Mata, Bobby Sargent, and Anne Howard, and great grandchildren, Addison and Ari Schmidt, live in Michigan. Two of Doris’ children, Lisa Tam and Richard Tam Jr., a noted fashion designer, predeceased her.
A private burial has been held in Las Vegas and a celebration of her life ceremony will be held in Las Vegas August 30, 2018 at the Las Vegas Country Club. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to the Nevada Ballet Theatre.