His parents divorced, and he stayed with his father, who moved his business to British-ruled Hong Kong with the rise of Communism in China. In 1949 Mr. Lee went to the United States for college, and stayed.
“I essentially became a refugee because I had no place to go back to,” he told The Washington Post in 2001. “Hong Kong at that time was not an easy place to get back in.”
He enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, but his English was still imperfect, giving him trouble in lecture classes. So, having been painting since he was a young teenager, he enrolled in “every drawing class I could get my hands on,” he told The Times in 2014.
“I would get A’s,” he said, “which balanced the D’s I got in freshman English. They saved my life.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953 at Occidental and a brief stay in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, he moved to New York in 1954 and became an assistant to Jo Mielziner, one of the most prolific set designers in Broadway history. Many of Mr. Lee’s early Broadway credits were as Mr. Mielziner’s assistant. He also worked with Boris Aronson, another top stage designer.
Mr. Lee was principal designer for Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival from 1962 to 1973. His early work was done before body microphones replaced stationary ones, which meant that, as innovative as his designs for Papp sometimes were, they started with a very mundane consideration.
“In designing for Shakespeare in the Park,” he once said, “the first thing you do is figure out where to put the microphones. It was all very primitive. All the staging was controlled by where you are in relation to the mikes.”
A particularly striking effort from that period was his set for the 1964 production of Sophocles’ “Electra” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park: three stone sculptural walls on a metal framework. It was, he told The Times in 2014, his first set with “a completely nonliteral abstract design, though at the same time it was real, an emblem, an icon.”