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Known by his first name to all, our beloved Bing Thom was memorialized Sunday with a piano recital in the acoustically magnificent concert hall of his own design, UBC’s Chan Centre.
No speeches, just a lone piano virtuoso, whose notes rang to every seat in the house with a pristine brilliance that Bing himself planned meticulously.
Bing was one of Canada's foremost architects, having received multiple honorary degrees, the Order of Canada and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's highest honour, the RAIC Gold Medal. A cast of hundreds, maybe thousands, could write marvelous columns about Bing's impact on their lives. This one is mine.
Bing Thom bankrolled Vancouver Not Vegas
Many know that Bing opposed the proposed Vancouver mega-casino, but most don’t know how much. He thought casinos were a scourge that had no place in the human city that he planned to help shape here. It was Bing who bankrolled the community-based opposition group, Vancouver Not Vegas. He fully committed his human and office resources to the cause, shouldering the lion's share of all expenses.
From the beginning, we had a phenomenal team of activists, political hands, community organizers, and online expertise. But we were unknown, and needed credibility fast. We needed support from major public figures to draw more media so the public would swing behind us. That was a huge ask in a town where the establishment does not buck the provincial government lightly.
Bing tirelessly called all his friends. Few would join at the beginning, which surprised him. But he kept at it, and slowly, one or two were persuaded to publicly step up. Once the first said yes, others began to follow. Then more. Then the phones began to ring. We penned an op-ed with Peter Ladner, and the floodgates burst.
We were in business.
Vancouver Not Vegas became the little rocketship that could, when everyone said we couldn’t. "Done deal," they all said. Few knew our secret weapon was Bing Thom.
As must be the case with so many others, his quiet efforts behind the scenes gave me a name and public profile. In middle age, my life took an entirely unexpected turn toward media, and it was Bing who set the course.
What not to build
The mega-casino fracas wasn’t the first time I’d seen Bing sabotage a project he opposed. We’d first met years earlier when my husband’s family consulted him to advise on a potential development proposal for one of our land parcels.
Bing knew a building isn’t a thing, it’s a place. It should reflect its makers and have a purpose connected to the life that's lived in and around it.
He had a deep and abiding love of family enterprise and small business, which he considered the true backbone of the BC economy, and its greatest renewable resource in good times and bad.
Family enterprise was us, and who we remain today. The proposals and partners before us from major developers were wholly unsuited to our family’s approach to business, and to a property that had been in the family for half a century.
Bing torpedoed the project, killing a handsome fee for himself and a short-term win for us.
We’ve been fast friends ever since.
Inspired by his longer view, we went back to the drawing board, re-visioning a more modest approach that expressed our family’s character and values. No star-chitecture, no condos, no flourishes. The collection of shops in our buildings became the anchor to what’s now known as the Armoury Design District; a smaller scale, organic and highly successful streetscape of local merchants and designers.
Bing traveled the world as an acclaimed success, building magnificent concert halls, university campuses, libraries, and opera houses, but somehow he always had time to visit our little corner.
I think he felt a kinship with my father-in-law Jab, who founded the business in 1948.
Both had crossed the ocean to Canada as little boys, leaving a beloved parent in their home country, not to be seen again for decades. Both grew up as minorities in a sea of white faces on Vancouver’s west side, struggling, adapting and succeeding. Out of place and in it at the same time.
If there’s a word for that, it’s not in the English language.
Bing, and later his wife Bonnie too, would drop by our family’s shop near Granville Island to trade books and anecdotes with my husband Ravi. We shared a fascination with the history of economics, empire, capital, the Opium Wars and the subjugation of India and the Middle East. These were not academic subjects, they were intensely personal to Bing—and to us all. In one way or another, colonialism had shaped all our lives and family histories and brought us here.
Below is a (poor quality) photo from a visit with Bing at his office a few years ago. On the table to Jab’s right is a gift from Bing, the book From the Ruins of Empire, a study of British imperialism in China, India and the Muslim world.
This, mind you, was a business meeting about buildings and architecture. That’s how Bing rolled.
Bing loved this country with joyful passion. He saw Canada as an experiment going right for once, but was steadfastly clear-eyed about the forces that shaped us. In this, he saw architecture and public building as a powerful force for inclusion, humanity and social justice.
Space, time, and architecture
One of our most recent outings became an unforgettable memento. It was a spur of the moment visit last January to an extraordinary play by a small local theatre company. You've never heard of it.
“The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson” depicted a long-forgotten yet gripping episode in Vancouver’s history—the violent racist fall-out of the Komagata Maru debacle in 1914. Bonnie had heard the playwright and director on the CBC, so we whipped up impromptu plans to invade the sold-out gala and opening night performance.
To stunning effect, the play was performed inside the Vancouver Art Gallery, which as you may recall was the old Vancouver Courthouse. Designed in the British Imperial style by the renowned architect, Francis Rattenbury, it dripped with the trappings of power and empire.
It also held special meaning for Bing. As a young architect in the 1970's, he had overseen the courthouse’s transformation to art museum while working with Arthur Erickson on the decidedly contemporary landmark Robson Square and Smithe Street courthouse. He held very high hopes of re-imagining Robson Square for the 21st century, and soon.
Spellbound, we watched the play open with the re-enactment of an actual murder of a Canadian immigration officer in the very spot in the rotunda where it took place a century before.
Bear with me through this labyrinth—it matters.
Employing actual found court transcripts, the play went on to depict the murder trial of the Sikh killer Mewa Singh in an intact courtroom still preserved in the building where the original trial had been conducted. The accused admitted guilt, contested nothing, and was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Which he did, exactly 101 years to the day before the performance we watched.
But recently unearthed archives shed entirely new light on these events. The transcript record revealed that the accused Singh had made a full statement to the court. In a voice silenced for more than a century by oppression and indifference, a radically different story emerged. In this version, the killer was not a cold-blooded terrorist depicted in the day's press, nor the immigration officer an innocent victim.
In fact, the officer Hopkinson, a mixed race Eurasian, had only come very recently to Canada from India, probably brought purposely to infiltrate the Sikh community known for their opposition to British rule in India. He subjected supporters of the Komagata Maru to a reign of terror, even to the point of orchestrating the murders of two in a shooting at the local temple.
Hopkinson's murder was a direct retaliation for those temple shooting deaths.
That temple, located at 2nd and Burrard, originally stood just a stone’s throw from Bing and Bonnie's home and Jab's shop. It was demolished in 1970, when the congregation moved to the Ross Street Temple in South Vancouver, designed by Bing’s mentor Arthur Erickson. All that remains is a civic memorial plaque, often defaced with racial epithets.
Yet for this night, and for the run of the play, the young Sikh production company took control of the venerable old British courthouse, and of the narrative. This was their testimony, their exhumed history, and the Canada that Bing exhulted in. It was our shared history, coming into the light for the first time in a hundred years.
The acclaimed writer Madeleine Thien recently said that the Chinese perspective of the future is different from that of Europeans. Rather than turning their backs on history to face a totally uncertain future, she said, the Chinese approach the future facing backward toward the past, knowing that unfolding time will resemble but not repeat it.
That cold winter night it all came together. Space, time, and architecture folded in on one another, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. Entranced, and possibly responding to a chord that only he could hear, Bing returned the next night to watch it all again.
(Of course he had acoustic advice for the producers: hang fabric on the courtroom rear and side walls for better listening!)
If these stories depict Bing Thom as overly serious and possibly even dour, nothing could be further from the truth. I doubt anyone who knew him can picture him without smiling. This was a joyous man, barely able, at the age of 75, to contain his boundless energy and enthusiasm.
If curing Bing of his effervescent optimism was a hopeless task, he remained deeply anxious about the gathering clouds of racism, in which he saw a returning storm. He struggled with how to persuade British Columbians not to reject and turn away from Asia, but to engage positively and strategically in building an inclusive future that serves all our interests.
The last time we saw Bing was at his office reception in July, before he left for Hong Kong.
After an hour or two visiting in the crowded corridors, Ravi and I headed out. Slipping quietly away, we looked backward over our shoulders to see Bing on the steps of his famous office, holding court with friends and colleagues in the gleaming afternoon sun. Somewhere Bonnie was nearby, making everything tick smoothly. All was right with the world.
To the sound of receding peals of laughter, we rounded the corner.
And Bing was gone.