“When a tiger dies, they leave their skin behind. When a human dies, they leave their name behind.” I’m not dying tomorrow, but I want to leave my name behind. This is who I am. I’m trying to do my best and build a reputation in good faith.
Sitting down with HoSang Lee was a reminder of how nourishing and refreshing honesty can be in a world starved of authenticity.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is HoSang Lee. I’m originally from Korea but have been in the United States for 13 and a half years now.
I’m here accidentally.
You’re here accidentally? What does that mean?
Well, I moved to the United States on purpose, but not New York. I originally moved to California, with only $300 from my sister, but three months after arriving I got a phone call from my brother in New Jersey. He said, “HoSang I need a babysitter.” He just had a second baby and he was a Ph.D. student and my sister-in-law was working. So, I came here to be a babysitter. They’re in Texas now, but I’m still here in New York. New York is the second longest place I’ve ever lived. New York isn’t easy—but I feel like New York is now my home.
You’re responsible for the redesign and renovation of this beautiful space that we’re in right now. Tell me about your business.
My business name is HoSang Lee Corp., but we also go by Downtown Construct. I wanted to use my name as a company name. My sister-in-law was extremely against that. “Don’t use your name as the company name,” she said, because not that many Asians like using their names as corporations, but many Americans do. I think she was scared about me losing business but, I want to leave my name somewhere. That’s why I use my own name. I’ve gotten a lot of pressure to change the name, but I’m not going to. Older Koreans say, “When a tiger dies, they leave their skin behind. When a human dies, they leave their name behind.” I’m not dying tomorrow, but I want to leave my name behind. This is who I am. I’m trying to do my best and build a reputation in good faith.
I’m told Town spoke to more than 20 different companies to spec out the conversion from a restaurant to a multi-use performance and event space. You won the bid.
I think the timing was perfect. It came at a time where I was at the very edge of my business succeeding or not. I had two guys working for me and I cannot let them down. They really care about me. I cannot let them down.
Not many people know this, that Robin has a construction background. She knows what a job like this takes, and can tell when things aren’t adding up. So she looked at my numbers and knew I was being both generous, and straight forward with her where others were not. I know that one job always brings another. If I’m doing it honest and open and do my best, it will lead to more jobs. I saw they are working to do good things at Town, that one day many people would come through the doors. So I built a relationship with Robin while putting in motion the unique vision she had for the space —not just what I want to see from my perspective. Sometimes the only way you can achieve something great is to set aside your ego a little, work with the budget you are given, and see where it leads.
Town Stages began with one small job in one room at first, and Robin and I collaborated very well – leading to close to a full year’s worth of work together on all 10,000 square feet of space over two stories. So you never know where any particular opportunity will take you. Big budget or small, you have to do your best work always.
Anyway, in the beginning, I told her this is how long it will take and how much it will cost. I kept the promise. The time was right on. The money was only $700 over budget, in the end. After the first room was complete, and they saw how special the work my guys do is and that was that. Robin never looked at my numbers again. That kind of trust from a client is only earned through good work.
I know—or have an idea of how rare that actually is. But I do know how hard it is to find honesty anywhere in this city, especially when money is in the picture. Where do you think your honesty comes from?
Probably my mom. She still says the same thing. My dad still says the same thing. If I call right now, they’ll say, “How is the business? Don’t lie to the people. Don’t lie. Just let them what you know you can do.” My parents were fishermen, so they know they’d have to depend on nature every day and nature doesn’t lie. You just have to depend on what’s there and what you can do. And that’s pretty much instilled in me that nature’s way is to not lie. Every day I talk to my father he says, “Don’t lie to the people. Just tell them what you can do. Just do your best.” It’s like they’re brainwashing me. Ha!
My brother and I make a joke—we cannot be politicians because we have nothing to hide behind. We are too honest.
Was Town an unusual job for Downtown Construct?
Well, I used to work in restaurants for seven years. I was very well paid as the maintenance guy at Danji, the first Korean restaurant to get Michelin Two Stars. I’ve grew to work on a lot of high-end restaurants as the General Contractor. I also designed and built Katz Deli’s Brooklyn location. I worked on a lot of Korean restaurants in the city. I’ve done bars, restaurants—but, currently, I would say 80% of my business is residential and the other 20% is commercial.
I think you did an incredible job.
Thank you. But, like I always tell my clients, I’m not the one doing the job. I’m the one designing and making sure that it gets done and gets done on schedule. My guys are the one doing the job. The captain, of course, is important, but my guys work so hard.
What are your dreams for Downtown Construct?
I guess it’s still very early. It’s been five years. Also, I’m inventing a new construction tool. I’m working with a company who is looking for a manufacturer. Less than 2% of patents see the light of day. I have a patent attorney who is trying to get the patent.
I just enjoy my work. Hanging out with my guys. Taking care of them. I know all of their families. I don’t have a big goal. I don’t need to make millions of dollars in a few years and then retire. No. I don’t know what my ultimate goal is yet, but I guess to be able to support my family more and to be a little more comfortable. And I just have to enjoy it. That’s the best way. If I set the goal, I think I’ll get old really quickly. Then if I reach my goal, it’s like “Okay, That’s it. I’m done.” I don’t know, that seems like a life without meaning. If I have extra money than I would invest in something else? I love Korean restaurants. Maybe I open a Korean restaurant. Maybe I share it with my guys. They trust me like my brothers. I’m already past the point that this is not my company anymore. It’s our company. They care about the company almost more than I do—what more can I ask for? The goal is to keep feeding our families.
I started everything from scratch. I didn’t know English. I didn’t even know construction. I’m completely self-taught. I figured it all out because it was more than survival for me.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and for everything you’ve done for Town Stages. It’s been a true pleasure.
Thank you for having me.
Hosang Lee Corp, Design and Construction: http://downtownconstruct.com/