Kin Ping Lee died peacefully in her beloved Beacon Hill home on June 14, 2019, surrounded by her family. She was 92 years old.
Mrs. Lee was a longtime resident of West Tisbury, and for many years the proprietor of a popular women’s clothing store on Main Street in Edgartown, Kin Ping’s Boutique. She and her husband bought land in West Tisbury in 1965, after Kin Ping climbed up a tree, ascertaining that there was an ocean view. She later designed and built a home on the site, with a wall of windows facing the ocean.
She also bought an old captain’s house at 44 Main St. in Edgartown in the spring of 1974, at a bank auction. At the time, the playwright Garson Kanin used the top floor as his retreat for writing. She ran her business in this house for nearly three decades after that, and was a familiar face and friend to many on the Island. One of her earliest tenants was Gery Conover, who opened an antique store there before later buying the Charlotte Inn.
Mrs. Lee came to the U.S. from Shanghai in 1948, two days after her wedding, and died in Boston on 2019, after a vibrant life in which she was a witness to history and a fashion entrepreneur, having started a series of stylish boutiques bearing her name.
Mrs. Lee was born in Suzhou, the heart of silk industry in China. She was the daughter of a textile merchant, whose success led the family to relocate to a stately mansion in the French Concession of Shanghai. Mrs. Lee came of age in the thick of WWII, and one of her earlier memories was huddling under the family dining table while Japanese bombers attacked Shanghai in 1937 — a sound that would come back to her in 2013 when she stood a block from the Boston Marathon bombing on Boylston Street.
She had a privileged childhood, and recalls playing with I.M. Pei, one of her neighbors and a family friend. But she remembered seeing the bodies of people who had frozen to death after every cold night as she was driven to school. Seeing that kind of inequity instilled in her a lifelong passion for politics in China and the U.S. She canvassed door-to-door for Barack Obama while in her 80s, and kept his portrait and a framed newspaper front page from his 2008 election on her dining room wall.
While she was a teenager in Shanghai, her father arranged a marriage between her and the son of a wealthy shipping tycoon. But when she met Thomas H. Lee, an engineering student who she thought was smart and exciting, she broke off her engagement. She married Lee, and they came to the U.S. for a planned two years of education and training. He went on to develop the vacuum circuit breaker while working at General Electric, earn the Philip Sporn Professorship of Energy Processing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and become a pioneer in the development of modern management techniques.
Because of turmoil after the 1949 revolution in China, the couple decided to remain in the U.S. They raised their three sons in the U.S., William, an intellectual property lawyer at WilmerHale and the Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation; Thomas Jr., a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and chief medical officer at Press Ganey); and Richard (professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute).
William, who is the first Asian American to be managing partner of a major law firm, said that his mother told the three brothers to never walk away when someone called them an ethnic slur. He added, “She was a force.”
In the 1960s, Mrs. Lee went to Philadelphia College of Art before accepting a job as a fashion illustrator, drawing women’s clothing ads for newspapers and magazines. Ultimately, her talents led her to start her own stores. She had an eye for promising young designers, and forged relationships before they were famous. Her stores were among the first to carry the work of designers such as Betsy Johnson, Norma Kamali, and Perry Ellis. She opened the first of her stores, Kin Ping’s Boutique, in Media, Pa., and then others in Westport, Conn., and at Faneuil Hall in Boston, as well as on the Island. Her Edgartown store was the go-to place for women to buy white dresses for Carly Simon’s legendary full-moon party. Her business was a major success. The earnings paid the tuition bills for her sons.
After her husband’s death in 2001, she closed her business, and devoted her time and energy to her family. She is survived by her three sons, her three daughters-in-law, Leslie Lee, Dr. Soheyla Gharib, and Dr. Susan Powers-Lee; her eight grandchildren, Christopher Lee, Catherine Lee, Margaret Lee, Dr. Jessica Lee, Dr. Kathleen Lee-Sarwar, Dr. Simin Lee, Sabrina Lee, and Ariana Lee; and five great-grandchildren, Belen, Thomas, and Morgan Lee, and Alexandra and Julia Smith. She loved walking Lambert’s Cove beach with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and gardening in her West Tisbury home. She believed that the best two things in the world were flowers and children. She enjoyed both at Lambert’s Cove.