Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am

Bing Wing Thom was one year and 10 days old when Japanese soldiers marched over the border into Hong Kong. Today, he is a celebrated architect whose designs are known from London to Dalian to Washington.

Vancouver-based Thom, head of the prestigious firm bearing his name, first set foot in his homeland as a child. His father had had to leave Canada as an adult in order to find work. Tam Sze-lai (anglicised to Wesley Cunningham Thom) was born in British Columbia - a child of the railway workers generation - but was not recognised as a Canadian citizen. With war breaking out in Asia, Wesley Thom went where his skills as a pharmacist were needed - to Hong Kong, where he worked for the Red Cross.

Thom remembers his father taking him to a restaurant in Hong Kong called the Canadian Cafe, where they ate hamburgers. When he was seven, his mother took Thom to Vancouver while his father stayed here. He could read Chinese but knew not a word of English. The family settled in the suburb of Kerrisdale, where Chinese faces were rare in the 1950s, and Thom was forced to learn not only English but how to be quick with his fists and feet. 'I got into fights. The other kids called me 'Chinky Chinky Chinaman'. It was tough for six months and after that it became easier. I learned English. It was traumatic but I was tough.'

When he returned to Asia, in his 20s, after getting an architectural degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Thom had to make a transition in the opposite direction. Thoroughly Canadian at that point, he had to re-learn Chinese while teaching in Singapore. He did so by listening to tapes in a library. In Japan, he worked with Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki before returning to Canada in 1972 to oversee major projects for former professor and mentor Arthur Erickson.

Thom also returned to Hong Kong in the early 1970s. 'I hadn't been back in 27 years. I remember getting asked by tourists in Hong Kong about how to find Chinatown and just having to laugh at that question,' says Thom. 'I saw that as being part of the constant movement to break down misconceptions.'

In 1981, Thom started his own firm and his reputation grew steadily. His Chan Centre, at UBC, is considered one of the top concert venues on Canada's west coast due to its flawless acoustics, while his Aberdeen Mall has become one of Vancouver's top retail spaces. Elsewhere, Thom is helping to create a major metropolis in Dalian, Liaoning province.

Thom remembers visiting the mainland in the early 70s and being asked what he was. He could have said he was Chinese, a foreigner or an overseas Chinese. He didn't know how to answer. He is no longer so confounded.

'I'm a Canadian. Now I'm quite at ease wherever I go. When I was younger, there was always this conflict. Now I don't see it as a conflict. It's a reality of who I am, based on where I came from and what I do.'