Since her arrival in the US at 12 years of age, Janice Lee has been bridging cultures and connecting people.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
Photo: Fernando Cerda
Janice Lee greets me outside her California Street office and ushers me to a seat inside. Regal is the word that first comes to mind. While there is not a trace of royal imperiousness, her baring projects a formidable, straight-backed, self-assurance, while her manner is at once direct and welcoming. She is one of the most warmly imposing people I’ve ever met.
The many emblems of achievement that grace the walls of Lee’s office testify to her achievements as one of Pasadena’s most successful realtors, and to her consistent performance in the far upper percentiles of area sale producers. Now Luxury Properties Director, Lee was consistently in the top ½ of 1 percent for Prudential Realty before that company was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway in 2012. Impressively, of 55,000 eligible international agents in the Prudential International Real Estate Network, Lee is one of just 8 to have been awarded the company’s 20 Year Legend Award.
Janice Lee believes that while her success, like most successes, has been much dependent on simple effort, the hard work required of any successful business, her background and life experience positioned her almost perfectly to become a premier realtor in this particular time and place. Her journey to this point began at age 12, when her mother moved with Lee and her younger brother from Taiwan to San Francisco, leaving their physician father behind.
Lee’s father was the personal doctor to the Governor of Taiwan, and her mother was a nurse. She grew up in a high-status environment, the child of educated professionals, in a home that opened itself to the West and Western ideals. One of Lee’s fondest memories of her childhood is the monthly dinner out their father indulged them with. It was a dinner out at what Lee describes as a “very famous restaurant” that specialized in Western food. These exotic excursions were not only the first steps on her way to becoming a confirmed “foodie,” but fired her imagination about the West generally as well.
Despite her relatively privileged existence, there was a belief on Taiwan, shared by Lee’s parents, that the Chinese teaching methodology employed in Taiwanese schools was too regimented, lacking in creativity, and good only for rote learning and test taking. To be successful in a world economy, many Taiwanese elite felt compelled to send their children to America and a chance at the American university system. So, not yet a teenager, Lee found herself separated from her father, and her upper class existence and thrust into the immigrant world of San Francisco.
Her mother, as a nurse, had been granted a permanent visa due to America’s shortage of nurses at that time. Circumstances intervened however, and Lee’s mother never worked at the profession for which she trained. Instead she opened a restaurant and a dry cleaning business. As Lee says, her mother had no particular business experience, but “she was very capable and she hired good people.” Perhaps most significantly for young Janice personally, it was also when she learned her first real estate lesson. The power of that most fundamental of real estate axioms “location, location, location” was revealed to her in the providential placement of her mother’s business.
A result of fate as much as any plan, her mother was able to locate her dry cleaning business on California Street in Pacific Heights, an area with income demographics similar to San Marino. Despite her education and professional past, Lee’s mother, like many women of that generation, was an excellent seamstress. She was also a very clever woman who understood how to recognize and exploit a niche. She used her needle to attract a high-end alteration business, tailoring suits for the well-heeled in the neighborhood, which allowed her to extend her brand and use her acumen to position the laundry itself as comfortably upscale as the neighborhood required. It wasn’t entirely evident to Lee at the time but this was her second invaluable real estate lesson. As she says now, “At the time I didn’t necessarily know the implications for me later, but I could see it told me then that you have to create a niche for whatever you do. Later on, I applied that to real estate.”
After growing up in San Francisco, Lee attended Cal, but with a major in music teaching she did all her concentration at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
By this time Lee was on her own, as her mother had returned to Taiwan when Lee was 18. When Lee was 22, and involved with another Taiwanese immigrant, she visited her parents in Taiwan. In traditional fashion, Lee’s parents had looked into her paramour’s family background and did not at all like what they found. They made their feelings known and, in a romantic flanking maneuver, set their daughter up on a whirlwind succession of dates. As Lee says, “I was kind of sad and upset (about the breakup) and I was just dating and dating.” Then, in what was clearly a rebound situation, Lee says, “ I met a young man through my parents connections and we got married within a month,” in a service performed by the Governor of Taiwan.
Now hitched, they returned to the States so Lee’s new husband could pursue a engineering Masters degree. In retrospect Lee now understands she was largely reacting to her parents old world concerns about their daughter being alone in America with an unsupervised romantic life. The marriage failed in 12 years but Lee is philosophical. “I have three wonderful kids,” she says. “I believe in karma, and I feel like this was karma. My first husband came into my life to give me my three kids.” She doesn’t say so, but it was this karma that also launched her real estate career.
Once settled in San Marino, Lee began teaching piano and Chinese, while her engineer husband began specializing in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). Sharing her mother’s business acumen, Lee began exploring ways to help her husband’s business and logically thought ‘Okay, if I do real estate my clients will need HVAC. That would be a good way to help him.’” Lee herself appeared born for real estate, and within a year was Rookie Of The Year. She soon took a year off, for the birth of her son, but returned to the market in the late ‘80s. A time when, Lee says “there was a tremendous influx of Taiwanese coming to San Marino.” While Lee had originally hoped to live in South Pasadena, she appreciated the quality of the San Marino schools and found the area more affordable. “I originally wanted to live in South Pasadena but my karma was with San Marino from the beginning,” she says.
Whatever the impetus, Lee’s timing was impeccable. As she notes, “I remember when my oldest daughter was in elementary school there was one Chinese family from Taiwan. By the time my second daughter was in school it was perhaps 15 percent. By the time of my son, five years later, we’re talking about 30 percent.” Lee laughs when I ask if that made her the “go to” realtor for incoming Taiwanese. “Not the go-to realtor”, she says, “the go-to volunteer. There was just this huge influx, and I did a lot, really a whole lot of volunteer work at the school. There were a lot of issues. When there is a lack of understanding and education that’s where prejudice and all the resulting conflicts will start. As a mother I wasn’t thinking about real estate, I was thinking, ‘How can I help?’”
What the community needed was someone who understood both sides to facilitate the conversation. And Lee fit the bill perfectly. As she says “ I pictured myself as a bridge between two cultures, and I was uniquely positioned because I really was totally bi-lingual and bi-cultural. But it wasn’t about real estate. My kids are part of this community. I was thinking about how can I make things a little bit more harmonious. My goal was a harmonious community for everybody.”
Her commitment and deft skills with all manner of people garnered tremendous trust and respect from the community, and eventually real estate questions began flowing her way as a natural result. Karma in other words. When I share my suspicion that it was perhaps her sincerity and lack of premeditation that made it work, Lee is direct, “Indeed,” she says, “that’s why I tell new agents ‘don’t go to church just because you want new clients!’”
Janice Lee is now 19 years on into her happy second marriage and continues to rule the local real estate market from her perch at Berkshire Hathaway . She recently served as the first female president in the history of the influential San Marino City Club, a former bastion of white male power and she serves on the Board of Directors for the innovative addiction treatment centers of Pacific Health Clinics. Now as mostly a seller’s agent, the majority of her clients are Caucasian but regardless of race or culture, it’s Janice Lee’s ability to understand such differences, and create a bridge between them, that remains her greatest success.