Former resident of King Yin Lei separates fact from fiction

Circumstances surrounding the origin of the landmark are quite different from what many people think, a nephew of its first owner says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 2:51am

Hongkongers have been mulling the future use of the King Yin Lei mansion in a public consultation process that ended yesterday. But in all the discussions, little has emerged about the history of the Stubbs Road landmark.

Some of what is "known" about the 1930s structure in the Mid-Levels turns out to be wrong, according to the builder's nephew, Lee Siu-hei, 63, who gave a rare interview to the South China Morning Post recently.

Lee filled in many of the blanks in the history of the mansion, which has been declared a monument. It is generally known that King Yin Lei was used to shoot a Hollywood film - Soldier of Fortune starring Clark Gable - and a local TV drama.

But, contrary to many reports, the mansion was not a wedding gift from a tycoon. The original owner, Li Po-lun - Lee's aunt - had the home built after winning a fortune in the stock and foreign currency markets in the 1930s, he said.

His aunt was not a daughter of the late tycoon Li Po-chun, as some publicity literature says. "It's not true the mansion was a wedding gift from the tycoon to my aunt. They are not related at all," he said. "My aunt earned money in the stock and foreign currency markets, and she told me she spent HK$600,000 to build it."

The family was based in Guangzhou until 1949, when the Communist Party took over the mainland. Before that, Lee's grandfather - his aunt's father - made a fortune building casinos in Guangzhou and Macau in the early 1920s.

Lee's aunt was the second wife of Shum Yat-chor, a herbal doctor who became wealthy in Australia by running a chain of herbal tea shops during the 1919 flu pandemic. Shum came to Hong Kong in the 1920s and started a real estate business.

Lee lived in the mansion for the first four years of his life, then revisited it in the 1970s and lived there for two years with his cousins. In the early years, the family often hosted banquets and parties in the garden and at the poolside, with Cantonese opera singers giving private shows, he said.

Lee's aunt sold the home to merchant Stephen Yow Mok-shing in the 1970s. "The sale wasn't a happy memory for my aunt," Lee said, referring to the family's declining financial fortunes.

Five years ago the government rescued the mansion from demolition, after a public outcry, and took more than two years to restore it. Now two rival organisations are competing to revitalise it, one planning a museum of Chinese ink art, the other a wedding museum and venue.

Lee supports the Ink Society's proposal for an ink art museum. "It can accommodate a range of uses. The place has good fung shui," he said. "I hope it can help spread traditional Chinese culture."

The society says it has assembled a collection of 5,500 pieces for display. Its proposal involves building a gallery by digging beneath the swimming pool, and using the mansion to display artworks.

The exhibition of the two schemes ended yesterday. A final decision is due next year.