BUSINESS WATCH

A watchdog for the Asian connection

Peter C. Newman April 24 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

A watchdog for the Asian connection

Peter C. Newman April 24 1989

Most provincial lieutenant-governors spend their languid tenures mouthing benign governor-generalities, careful never to express a controversial opinion or quotable thought. British Columbia’s David See-Chai Lam, 65, the first Chinese-Canadian to occupy the viceregal office, is different. He has jumped headlong into the increasingly serious racial strife triggered by Oriental funds and families taking over the province’s prize real estate.

Lam has seldom experienced racism because he made his fortune in Vancouver real estate (through Canadian International Properties) before reaction to the mass influx of property-flippers from Hong Kong turned nasty. “To Canadians,” he recently lectured a group of Asian investors, “a house is a home. It is sacred. When a person is displaced, the pain is real, and no amount of goodwill you and I can put together can ease that hurt. Neither offshore nor local investors should buy more than the house they will live in.”

Lam went on to warn the newcomers not to bulldoze trees, pave over lawns or erect skyscrapers that block previous residents’ views. He also criticized some of the Asian investors’ business practices. In his private and public pronouncements, he is not so much preaching tolerance (“I hate that word. It’s like saying, ‘You smell bad—but I’ll hold my breath’ ”) as advocating mutual respect. “The majority in a country has a very serious responsibility to minorities because they’ve placed their trust in the dominant group and expect protection,” he told me during a recent interview. “Canadians are known for their gentleness, and that is a sign of strength, not weakness. Take a little Pekingese. It barks all the time, even when a leaf falls from a tree. But a big boxer doesn’t bark back; he doesn’t need to—he just gently sits there, watching the Pekingese running around in circles. When you’re strong, you can afford to be gentle.”

According to a widely held and probably accurate notion, there is a vital difference between the tidal wave of immigrants currently inundating Vancouver and the postwar influx into Toronto. The theory runs that most Europeans who arrived in Canada were anxious to be integrated into the Canadian way of life, while Orientals tend to prefer one another’s company. Lam has a simple answer: “I integrated. I have an equal number of friends in the mainstream of Canadian society and in the Chinese community. Integration is what we’re all striving for in this country; that’s what multiculturalism is all about. The Chinese who come here should not give up their language or culture, but they must try hard to become more and more Canadian.”

Lam described his own children as “somewhere between assimilation and integration. My youngest daughter, Doreen, for example, was making good money selling real estate until she came to me a year ago and asked for my blessing to go back to university and study Chinese history and philosophy.” (Lam tells a moving story about Doreen’s first day in a Canadian public school, when the family first arrived in 1967. Because she didn’t know a word of English, her teacher asked Doreen to stay behind after her class was dismissed. The youngster thought it was a form of punishment and burst into tears. “Her teacher,” Lam recalls, “hugged her, and when Doreen couldn’t stop crying, she started to cry too. As soon as the teacher did that, my daughter no longer felt rejected and stopped. She came home and told my wife, Dorothy, what had happened, who immediately started to cry, and when my wife told me, then I cried.”)

Being sentimental doesn’t stop Lam from acting like a realist. “Because I’m probably the only one who can speak to them this way without being called a racist,” said Lam, “I recently told a gathering of 800 leaders of the B.C. Chinese community that coming here is like being invited to a potluck dinner. If everyone who comes brings his favorite dish using the best of recipes, we have a feast. But even if somebody is new and doesn’t know how to cope, he shouldn’t bring leftovers. You can always come without a gift—but wash the dishes afterwards, offering your skills and services. It’s most important not to come and just say, ‘I’m here because I can make more money.’ You have to ask, ‘What can I do for the country I’m a guest in?’ You can say, ‘I don’t know how to cook but I can serve.’ ”

Lam himself certainly has followed that enlightened dictum, donating roughly $5 million a year to various philanthropic causes. His latest contributions were funding for an Asian Garden on University of British Columbia grounds and helping raise $10 million for its current fund drive. Said Lam: “I tend to judge people by what they do with their money. What I try to do is not just duplicate or substitute what governments should be doing, but contribute in ways that will modernize our thinking, because once the mind changes, everything changes. I carry this burden: I want Canadians to recognize that the Chinese in this country are not a liability.” Lam’s hidden agenda is to make Chinese-Canadians as conscious of community responsibility as most Jewish-Canadians are, and Joseph Cohen, a Vancouver businessman, keeps asking Lam to join some local Jewish associations. Lam has agreed—provided that Cohen becomes a member of the Chinese Cultural Centre. “When Joe told me that he regards me as a member of his family,” joked Lam, “I said, ‘Does that make me a Jew or does that make you Chinese?’ He said, ‘Fifty-fifty.’ So I replied, ‘That’s a beautiful combination.’ ”

Before becoming lieutenant-governor, Lam was one of Vancouver’s leading businessmen, with his privately owned real estate company accounting for annual turnovers of more than $100 million. Yet he was precluded from joining the exclusive Vancouver Club. In his viceregal post, he became an honorary member and at last New Year’s Day’s levee he had a bit of fun. One of his Chinese friends’ fathers had worked as a cook in the club most of his life, but was not once allowed to come out of the service quarters and actually see the place. So Lam invited the friend and his father to the holiday levee, when members came in to shake his hand and drink a bit of eggnog. “The father is now 90 years old,” Lam recalled. “He just stood there, tears streaming down his face, seeing this ‘Chinaman’ at the head of the receiving line. It was quite a moment.”