DAVID Lam See-chai took a breath. His voice became husky. I had told him what a political science professor had said a few hours earlier. 'He is clearly one of if not the most successful lieutenant-governors in the history of British Columbia,' Norman Ruff of the University of Victoria had said. Lieutenant-Governor Lam 'epitomises the ideals' that Canadian society espouses - family values, hard work, decency, making it on your own, and giving back to the community. 'I think that is why he has been so successful as lieutenant-governor, why he is so well-liked - and a model,' Dr Ruff said. Lam, 71, leaned across the long table in the family's private penthouse. The window to his right overlooks Stanley Park, English Bay with bulk carriers at anchor, and the snowy North Shore mountains. 'My gosh,' he said. 'Well, we gave everything we had to the job.' Two days earlier, he had wept at the Legislature building after delivering his final Throne Speech before his term ends April 21. The tears came when The University of Victoria Chamber Singers sang Amazing Grace in his honour. 'It's my favourite hymn,' Lam said. 'I just became so choked up with emotion.' But it would be a mistake to see him as sentimental or dotty. He can be hard-headed when he needs to be. At the same time, he is not embarrassed to talk about love and the benefits of combining Christian and Confucian values. Hong Kong-born Lam See-chai's 1988 appointment as lieutenant-governor was a surprise. He was virtually unknown to the public. The choice of a foreign-born Chinese as the Queen's Representative in British Columbia was news around the world. He did not live in the Wasp and nouveau-riche strongholds in Vancouver's Shaughnessey neighbourhood or in West Vancouver which had hitherto provided lieutenant-governors from the ranks of local captains of industry and distinguished soldiers. When he accepted the position, he 'had absolutely no idea what the job of the lieutenant-governor was,' he said. It is not the same as in Hong Kong, where the governor is both the Queen's Representative and head of the executive government. While most of his work is ceremonial, he still has major reserve powers. For instance, to sack a minister or a government, dissolve Parliament . . . 'Here, as the Queen's Representative, there is the royal prerogative, so that if I need to protect the Constitution [from abuse by the Executive], I can act to prevent it. The power is so awesome.' Lam has not used those powers during his term. However, he told the South China Morning Post that he had been ready to sack then-premier Bill Vander Zalm in 1991. Vander Zalm and his wife owned a theme park property, Fantasy Gardens, which was sold to Taiwan-based billionaire Tan Yu in 1990. An official provincial watchdog subsequently found Vander Zalm broke several of his own conflict-of-interest guidelines. Lam said he had taken advice and was ready for any eventuality. He had been ready to step in only if the premier refused to resign or when the premier collectively with Cabinet and caucus refused to resign. But Vander Zalm did resign, ending the crisis. The current premier, Michael Harcourt, is currently under official investigation for conflict-of-interest, but Lam would not discuss the matter. He is fascinated by constitutional principles but is happiest when mixing with different people from all walks of life. While he has weighty official duties, he says they take up 'only 10 per cent of my time'. He has devoted much energy to de-pompifying Government House, opening it to the public and spending time with communities in the geographically huge B. C. which is about 10 per cent the area of China but has only 0.3 per cent of the population (or about 60 per cent of Hong Kong's). 'David Lam's popularity is phenomenal. He generates an outpouring of genuine affection wherever he goes in the province,' said Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughan Palmer. 'He's been a remarkable inspiration.' Lam wanted the people of British Columbia to love and trust the institution as well as the individual - and each other. But he is not an over-aged flower child, although gardens are one of his great passions. He left his home and his established career with Ka Wah Bank in his mid-40s with his wife Dorothy and three young daughters - Debbie, Daphne and Doreen - for British Columbia in 1967. He had been shaken by the riots that year in Hong Kong and was apprehensive about 1997. After reaching Vancouver they stayed for four months in a cheap hotel. Today the Lams' private home, and retreat from official life, is the two storey-penthouse of an apartment tower they own. It is about 500 metres from the old hotel. But for almost a decade, as their three daughters grew up, the Lams lived in a bungalow with a large basement and a big backyard. When Daphne married, the parents and the two others moved into the apartment tower penthouse. But as the family prospered, the parents made sure the children got their time and devotion. 'We were always going camping and roughing it,' Daphne said. The Lams were not hard-up. Far from it. But they were modest. They had not been broke when they arrived in Canada. Lam went to night school at the University of British Columbia to learn about real estate. He already had a BA in economics from Lingnan University, Guangzhou, and an MBA from Temple University, Philadelphia. He bought real estate in Canada and the United States for Hong Kong investors and asked them to lend him money so he could be brought into the deal. His Canadian International Properties Ltd funnelled more than C$500 million (HK$2.8 billion) of Hong Kong money into North America, according to writer Peter Newman. In the year before he became lieutenant-governor he bought and/or sold buildings worth C$100 million but said he never went for 'the last dollar'. An acquaintance close by his home was eminent lawyer, Allan McEachern. In 1988, by then Chief Justice of British Columbia, he phoned Lam to tell him that he would be next Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia. 'David Lam's appointment was probably the best decision that [then-prime minister] Brian Mulroney ever made,' said political columnist Vaughan Palmer. Vaughan Palmer said what distinguished Lam from others on the list was his philanthropy. Lam began giving money away in Hong Kong. If some accounts are correct he and his wife donated about C$1 million a year through two foundations. The main beneficiaries have been universities and Chinese community facilities.