Sammy Lee: Home is a BA first-class lounge for the man who links 'Monster' and Trump

The property tycoon, whose latest project is a luxury building near Harrods, tells Abigail Townsend why hell is a public parking space
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The Independent Online

Sammy Lee is, clichéd as it may sound, a bona fide citizen of the world. Born in the Far East, he was educated in England and now has homes in London, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. He travels almost continuously for his job; ask where his home is and the question draws a blank. Not even his family put a marker in the sand: his two teenage children are at boarding school in the US, while his wife travels with him.

Home, he eventually decides, "is the British Airways first-class lounge".

But that's life for an international jetsetter, even if his rootless existence contrasts sharply with a job that involves fixing things in the ground. Working for and beside the Chengs, one of Hong Kong's wealthiest clans (the family head, Cheng Yu-tung, is worth around £1.3bn), the bulk of his interests are in property.

There's the project with Donald Trump in New York, Trump Place; a 640-acre residential development just outside Las Vegas; and The Knightsbridge, a new building just over the road from Harrods in London.

Then there are the hotels: the Chengs own the high-end Renaissance chain (including the Chancery Court in Holborn) and the Regent Beverly Wiltshire in Beverly Hills. They have casinos in Las Vegas, and in Hong Kong and China, more property and infrastructure interests.

And two years ago, this rich man's playground was completed with an independent film company, which soon after landed a hit with the Oscar-winning Monster.

At the moment, though, it is The Knightsbridge, and therefore London, that is taking up much of Lee's time.

The development is due to be completed in June 2005 and consists of 205 apartments and seven "Crown Jewels" (two penthouses and five duplexes). Lee says "well over half" have been sold, including one of the penthouses. For £18m, the owner - an overseas buyer - got seven bedrooms and 7,500 square feet. The other penthouse is still available, but if that's just too tight on the budget, there are smaller apartments and studios, though a one-bed 800 sq ft flat will still set you back a million.

The annual service charge is likely to be between £4 and £7 per sq ft. So the penthouse could cost an extra £52,500 a year and the one-bed place a more modest £5,600.

For this, however, you get general maintenance and also a concierge service similar to that found in the top hotels (Hyatt International will manage the block). So whatever you might need - chauffeur-driven car, a couple of tickets to a show, a Lear Jet - can be arranged.

Much effort has been expended marketing The Knightsbridge, with these built-in services, to overseas buyers. But as these are the sort of people who visit London only a few times a year - and have several homes already - wouldn't a hotel suite make just as much sense?

The location also has some drawbacks: it is sandwiched between two traffic-clogged roads, and Harrods, the proximity of which is a selling point, is hardly the be-all and end-all of London shopping.

Lee, however, is more than happy: "You have the designer shops, Underground access and the tranquillity of Hyde Park. If you live in an environment like that, in a building where you have your privacy, car parking and garden, then you've got something very different.

"If you live in the Savoy, you get the service and pay the price for it, but where is your money going - where's your equity? You will get the money back if you want to sell, and London, over the long term, won't go wrong," he asserts, perhaps somewhat optimistically.

His London home is in South Kensington yet his take on the capital is not a local's. He cannot understand, for example, why people spend millions on homes that are hundreds of years old - but don't have a garage. "Look at these houses in Cadogan Square [in Knightsbridge]," he says. "They are very expensive but they don't have parking, so you have to park in the residents' parking and walk to your home. And when it's raining you can imagine the inconvenience."

He appears nonplussed at the thought of anyone having to walk anywhere, out in the barbaric elements. For him, buildings and houses should be modern, efficient and luxurious. Individuality or history are simply not relevant.

He has set ideas about Hollywood too, seeing the movies not just as an investment but a chance to flex his muscles as a mogul. He got into the film industry when, along with the Cheng family and singer Michael Jackson, he paid around £20m for a majority stake in Media 8 Entertainment, based in Canada but part of the Tinseltown industry. "I have always been fascinated about how people make movies," he says. Most people would buy a book.

"I'm very hands on," he adds. "I have to approve the script and budgeting, and decide what type of movies to make."

Monster was the first script he saw and, suspecting it could be Oscar-winning material, sped it through so it would fall within the nominations deadline (Charlize Theron won the best actress award).

Lee's next two films are Running Scared, starring The Fast and The Furious actor Paul Walker, and teenage comedy Love Rat. And about to go into production is Man About Town, a satire on Hollywood starring Ben Affleck and Rebecca Ramos ("the blue lady from X-Men", as Lee describes her).

"I'm going to go for a Chinese background movie next," he says. "We have got to cover the worldwide audience. This is why I want to go into China."

Long term, and the plan is to build up the film arm and develop a broad media business. Because Lee never wants to stop. He admits he's thought about it, but something always comes up. He originally trained as a lawyer, and he got involved with the Chengs after they became clients. As to how he switched from lawyer to real estate tycoon, his explanation is simple: "I practised law for a while and then decided to become an entrepreneur." As you do.

Trying to separate how much of the business is the Chengs' and how much his own is trickier. Asked how he accumulated enough cash in the early years to start playing with the big boys, he replies: "I worked hard and made a lot of savings. Is that a good enough answer? I have vision."

Even he concedes, though, that the line between Sammy Lee the entrepreneur and Sammy Lee, the man who represents the Cheng family interests, is a blurred one. "It's very hard to say. We do a lot of investment together, and I also get paid as an executive of the company."

Regardless, the 46-year-old has become a wealthy man and could pack it all in tomorrow should he choose to call a house, rather than an airline lounge, his home. It's just that he doesn't want to. "I always say when I finish this, when I finish that, I will take it easy, but then there's something new."

As to what his wife thinks about his lack of desire to settle down, he deadpans that, no, she's not impressed. "She complains all the time," he sighs. A husband sighing over a nagging wife? Some things, it would appear, truly are universal.


Born: 20 July 1958, Hong Kong.

Education: studied law at Liverpool University and Chester College of Law.

Career (1980-90): returned to Hong Kong and set up his own legal practice.

1990 to now: quit the law to work for the Cheng family, as well as starting a series of his own projects and investments, mainly in property.