The Architect

bingthom

Next, on my list of old boys to interview, was Bing Thom. Bing has earned fame and reputation as one of Canada’s foremost architects. His projects are world renowned. Besides working on Pavilions for Worlds Fairs over the years, he designed an entire city in China, called Dalian. In Vancouver, most recently, he completed the Chan Centre at UBC and a host of other projects.

     I called Bing and booked an appointment with him for the following Saturday afternoon. As I made my way along the seawall, from English Bay towards the Burrard Street Bridge, I soon found myself at the Aquatic Centre where I turned left and arrived in a few moments at Beach Avenue, just below Bings’ office. Bing Thom Architects is located in an inauspicious, two level, older building, tucked discreetly below Pacific Boulevard, just to the right of the Burrard Street Bridge. It was not at all where I expected to find an architectural firm of that caliber.

I was a few minutes early but I knocked on the big glass door on the north side of the building anyway. Shortly, a young fellow appeared and ushered me into the foyer. He introduced himself as a photographer and said that Bing had not yet arrived but that he was sure he would be along anytime. The young fellow took me up a narrow staircase which led to huge open room. I could see several models of buildings under construction sitting on different desks and tables placed in rows that ran the length of the room. As we were waiting for Bing, the young fellow talked about some of their projects, both past and present.

It wasn’t long before the sound of footsteps could be heard from behind, coming from the stairwell.  When we turned around, we saw Bing standing at the top of the stairs.

 

“Hello,” he said, upon seeing me. “I see you have arrived. Let’s go into the kitchen. Would you like some cookies? I just finished a swim at the beach.”

“It was not too cold?” I asked.

“No, I do it every day so I am use to it.”

Bing showed me into a kitchen area where we both sat down at a table. On the table was a bag of cookies, Bing removed some of the cookies from the bag and placed them on a nearby plate.

“Tell me, how did you first meet Arthur Delamont?” I asked.

“We moved to Vancouver in the early 1950s from Hong Kong. My father was born here but myself and my brothers were all born in Hong Kong. I didn’t speak hardly any English. I was only twelve! My mother read about the band in the newspaper. It was a wonderful chance for boys to go to Europe. She asked us,

“Do you want to learn a musical instrument?” We said,

“Why not?”

So, she took us down to Point Grey Junior High School. It was an afternoon. My mother talked to Arthur. There was me and my two elder brothers. One of my brothers chose to play the trumpet. My second brother chose to play the saxophone and I chose the clarinet. He stuck this instrument in my mouth and said,

“Blow!”

We ended up taking lessons from him and then we went first into his Point Grey Junior Band. After that, we graduated into his Kitsilano Band, the junior Kitsilano band. They played earlier in the evening and when you were good enough, he held you over and you went into the senior band. It probably took about a year or a year and a half.

He was such a scary guy! We were all living in fear. Sometimes he would single you out and tell you to play in front of everybody else. If you played badly or squeaked, he would give you this look or hit you on the head with his baton or a rolled up newspaper. He somehow though, inspired you to work and practice. He had his way of bringing it out of you. It was like he challenged us to prove to him and ourselves, how good we could become. It was kind of a hidden challenge.

“You think you are so good,” he would say. Some of the boys who expressed to him that they wanted to become professional musicians he was extra hard on them.

“You think you could do it? You don’t have any idea what it is like.”  He would say.

It was his way of toughening them up. I do the same thing with my junior architects because if you are going into any field, every day, you have to achieve the best. If there was any kind of values that he taught, it was that in this world there is only the one percent. And if you are not in that one percent, you don’t count.  He taught that sense of excellence. That sense of discipline. That sense of perfection. When you play in a band, you are only as good as the worst player because the worst player is going to spoil the music. Even in the work that I do now, building buildings, you are only as good as the guy who is going to make the mistake. It is the mistake that everyone sees.   It is a whole different way of looking at what quality means. What perfection means. What competitive life means. He certainly built this competitive spirit into us, so that you never know what you can achieve until you try. That is something which is invaluable for young people to learn.

The fact is, you are only as good as the person sitting next to you. It is all about team work, achieving perfection as a group, rather than individually.”

“All three of you went on with your music?”

“No, my eldest brother dropped out and became a photographer. My second eldest brother, Gene, played with me in the Kits Band.”

“Do you remember just before the 1955 trip? Was there a competition to go on that trip?”

“Oh yes, especially for me. I was sitting on the last chair. I was the youngest. The problem was that there was another boy a little older, sitting one chair up from myself. Mr. D said,

“Look, there is only one of you going to go on this trip”.

That was a year before the trip. So we competed all the time; the two of us. He didn’t let us know until about one month before the trip, who was going to get to go along on the trip. For me it was traumatic. The pressure but it brought out that sense of work ethic in us.

“Tell me about the trip?”

“I got to go! I remember traveling across Canada and stopping at whistle stops, sleeping on the trains, playing in small towns. That was eye opening. I had never been across Canada before that trip. It was all kind of deliberately set up as a training period for when we reached England. We honed our skills! When we left Vancouver, the band was good but not nearly as good as he wanted. But if you play every day, twice a day, sometimes three times a day, you just get better and better and better. He was constantly forcing us to sight read, playing pieces we had never seen before. Testing, trying to see how far he could push us as musicians. On the train we had sectional practices. You never stopped playing.

“Tell me about the boat ride?”

“I was one of these guys who was already sea sick before I got on to the gang plank. I was sick all the way up the St. Lawrence. It became kind of a joke. We practiced, the boat would sway. If we were really sick, he didn’t insist on us attending practices. He didn’t humiliate us. He didn’t make us feel ridiculous. If you were sick, you were sick. I was fourteen on that trip. In England, he asked me to speak publicly at concerts. I even sang a little song, “When the Sun Shines In.” That was always a huge hit because I was just a little guy. At the end of the show, I would get a little more attention, for my singing, so that was fun. Once and a while a pretty girl would come up to me. That is when we discovered girls. It was really all about learning to stand on your own two feet and be able to present yourself and to represent others. That was to me the most significant experience that I got from the trips.”

“Did you see any other bands in England?”

“We saw Ted Heath of course. We didn’t compete on the 1955 trip. We played in vaudeville and stayed in digs. The landladies, because I was of Chinese extraction and because I was small, always made me rice pudding. I hated rice pudding but I always had to eat it because you didn’t want to offend people who thought they were going out of their way to make something special. I remember going to Paris and the Follies Bergere. I saw naked ladies for the first time. I wasn’t supposed to be able to go in but somehow they sneaked me into the theatre. That was a huge deal, everyone was drinking wine but I only drank coke. I didn’t have any money. All we ate in Paris was bread and cheese. Mail time was always fun. We always wondered if the girls we met in the last town would write to us or not. That was a big deal as well!

In every town we let the Mayor know we had arrived. We would march down the center of town, either unannounced or arranged. It was the old caravan act. Letting everyone in town know you had arrived. We usually made a lot of noise and marched around a lot, street theatre. That was the vaudeville in him. He was a showman. He knew how to present the band. I often wondered if his hair was really white or if it was peroxide. I thought maybe that was the Toscanini showing through in his character. They had a lot of the same characteristics, the temper tantrums, the showmanship, the drive for perfection“.

“Don’t forget John Philip Sousa.”

“Oh yes, John Philip Sousa. That was a logical association because of the bands but because Delamont played so much classical music, I personally saw a connection with Toscanini.

“Tell me about the incident in London when he called you all together one day and made an announcement.”

“My memory of it is, that one day, very suddenly he called us all together and said,

“The people who have been employing us, who brought us over here, who we are under contract with, we have broken off with them. Either they have gone bankrupt or something very serious has happened. We have two choices. We go home or we keep going but if we keep going, I cannot promise you a meal every day because we do not know where we are going to be. So what do you boys want to do?” We all said,

“Let’s keep going!”

No show of hands but he knew somehow we wanted to stay.

One night, at half time, during a concert and after I did my song, he said to the audience,

“We are stuck. We are in your city. We need you to volunteer to take one or two of these boys.” We were divided up into threes and fours and we ended up in people’s homes. The money from selling postcards was counted out and given to each of us for our meals each day. Often we were fed by the people with whom we stayed. Because I was young, I was always sent out to sell postcards. In 1958, I became the treasurer. It was my job to make sure we got enough money to pay for our meals.”

“I found a lot of quotes in the newspapers of the day, saying the band had been scheduled to perform in places like Norway and Sweden, but that never happened. I guess that could be accounted for by the fact that your bookings fell through?”

“I don’t know. It could be.

On the 1955 trip my brother was in charge of the laundry. He would always try to find a Chinese laundry. That way he could usually get a free Chinese meal and often did and then he could find a Chinese girl friend. There might be a daughter in the family.  That was his big thing.

After the music, the postcards were the next most important thing on the trip. We couldn’t lose those postcards. They were our bread and butter. They had to get on the train and they had to get off the train. It was very important. The postcards were as important as our instrument.”

“What do you recall about Ted Heath?”

        “I didn’t go to see him but my brother and Arnie Chycoski and some of the others went to see him and met him and the members of his band backstage. They came back in awe and were so happy. Delamont kind of played it down. To him, it wasn’t serious music. The boys got together and played little dances on the trip. Delamont didn’t discourage it but I never felt he encouraged it either. Arnie Chycoski had a real cool sound. He didn’t usually play the solos but whenever there were any technically challenging parts, Arnie took over. I remember Arnie well and I have great memories of him because he looked after me on that trip, especially in Paris. He went out of his way to look after me.

One of the things Arthur did not like us doing was sleeping in the daytime; whether it was on the bus or where ever. He always got upset. I never knew why he was so intolerant of daytime sleeping. Chewing gum and sunglasses were the other two things he disliked.

His discipline was so effective that even now at my age, maybe three or four times a year, I will have a nightmare. It will be either I forgot my cape or my instrument or my socks are not matching and I will wake up in a cold sweat.

He was a father figure to me. My father was in Hong Kong. I didn’t have a dominate male in my life except for Delamont. He affected me a lot with his values and his beliefs.

“He was larger than life.”

“Yes, indeed.”

“So you’re back home after the 1955 trip and then the 1958 trip comes up.”

“Yes, between 1955 and ‘58, I got a summer job in Sacramento and I didn’t practice for about four or five months. When I came back, he was so mad at me. He didn’t let up for a good six months.

I think he was really disappointed that I had let my skill slip. I think he felt quite hurt that I was so negligent to let that happen. It took a long time to get it back but I did.”

“I think he took it very seriously how he nurtured everyone along.”

“Oh yes, he was disappointed in my character that I didn’t care enough to practice.”

“He did, practice I mean.”

“Yes, he played right to the end. That’s why I quit. I didn’t have the time to keep it up. In university, I couldn’t face myself so I couldn’t fool around. That was the message he taught, don’t go halfway. If you can’t do it to the best of your ability, don’t do it. That’s the lesson I learned from him, that I have carried with me all my life.”

“Then, the 1958 trip came along.”

“That trip, for me, was more fun because I was older. I knew what was going on. On that trip it was more playing in bandstands and in holiday resorts. We didn’t play at all in vaudeville. I had more responsibility. The memorable part for me, of the 1958 trip was going to the Brussels World’s Fair. That really changed my life. It made me an architect.  I always wanted to be an architect. But that experience made me realize more than ever that I wanted to be an architect. That’s where all the buildings were from different countries. It gave me a sense of internationalism. In one short day, you saw the best from all the countries.

Playing in the festival in Kerkrade, Holland was also a great experience. Learning how much Canadians were loved in Holland. We played Dvorak’s New World Symphony at the festival”.

“Do you remember anything else about the 1958 trip?”

“No, I don’t remember things as vividly as others. I remember more the philosophical associations, rather than the specific.

So, I came back and went to university. He wanted us to keep playing. I wasn’t someone who ever thought he would make his life in music. I felt I had gone as far as I wanted to go in music. At one time I wanted to join the VSO but I never did. My interests were in the classics. I loved music but music was not my gift.

I went to architecture school eventually. I remember being interviewed by the director. He asked,

“What do you do for a hobby?”

“I play clarinet.”

“Do you still play?”

“No, I gave it up.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I didn’t think I was going to be really good in music.” He said,

“Oh, so you thought you would give architecture a try?”

“Well, I guess it’s true!”

All the values I learned in the band, I carried with me to the work I do today: the philosophy of working in the arts. Either you’re going to be really good or you don’t do it because it’s miserable in between. It’s difficult every day, just go at it. Keep honing your skills, your craft. You never know how good you can be, you just keep going at it. It becomes part of your life.”

“I don’t think Arthur thought much about his past glories or previous trips. I think he concentrated on the next challenge, the next group of boys.”

“We went to Belgium, Holland, Jersey and then all over England on that trip. On the 1955 trip there were a lot of boys from other bands. The core band in 1958 was from his West Vancouver Band. There was some friction between the parents of the West Van Band and Arthur. I guess that is why he left the West Van Band after the trip.

We came in second in the Victoria Music Festival one year. We heard about it for years and years. He did not like to lose. It’s the same in my practice now. If I go into a competition, I want to make sure I win. I think that comes from him. He was miserable if he lost. He ate us up but he ate himself up even more. He was a very competitive person. Imagine the pressure he put himself under. I think he only lost maybe three times in his whole career. He won two hundred awards and that’s not bad. I remember distinctly he said to us in Victoria,

“There is only number one in this world. Nobody talks about number two. You either win or you lose. Never tell anyone you came in second.” That’s the philosophy I have in my office, either you win it or you lose it but don’t tell people you came in second. There is no sympathy for the also ran and that’s the way he was. That, I remember really clearly!

I don’t ever remember Arthur sitting me down and talking to me alone. Whenever he said something to any of us, he always addressed the group. But you knew when he was talking to you. He had a habit of doing that.”

“Who were the three people who were the biggest influence on your life?”

“Delamont obviously was a big influence. He formed so much of my early years and then Arthur Erickson. He was very instrumental. Then later in life, I learned another technique, Transcendental Meditation.

So, the Maharishi Mahish Yogi was a big influence. I have been meditating now for several years. I met him when he was here in Vancouver. And there is probably a fourth. There was a professor at university, a Japanese professor named Kato. He was a philosopher, a medical doctor, social commentator, a universal man. He was a guest professor at UBC for three years. He was very influential in teaching me about culture, history and civilization; the broader aspects of education. And of course there is my wife who is my best friend and critic. She keeps me level headed and inspires me when I’m down.

Delamont taught me about character. Erickson taught me about architecture. The Maharishi taught me about inner truths. And Kato taught me about intellectual aspects of society and cross culturalism. He would compare Japanese literature to Chinese literature, to German literature, to French literature. Anyway, he taught history backwards. He said,

“We make history every day. The only way you can understand history, is to learn it backwards. The forward part is all our lives. Every day we re-invent it!”

“I’ve met some pretty interesting people. I have been blessed to know people like Delamont. Life is a series of accidents. Every day we probably have one hundred accidents. Depends what you make of them. Certain people you click with. So, it was a very deep relationship I had with Delamont, at least for me personally. I remember he used to say every year in the middle of band practice,

“I have to go and get my Pontiac.”

He never talked about it. He just kind of had a way of slipping things in now and then. Of course, I think he got a new Pontiac from Jimmy Pattison every year. It was like a stream of consciousness in between periods of stoppage. It would just come out. He treated all of us as though as if we were part of his family, a part of his inner life. He never talked to us as individuals. A very personal story for me was when my father passed away very suddenly, on a visit to Vancouver. That same day at band practice, he said something like this to the whole band,

“I am sorry your father has gone but I suppose it’s good that you have come to band practice.” He didn’t say it to me. He said it to everyone in general. It was a lesson! That was his way of teaching everyone. He always talked in generalities about specifics.”

 

When my time with Bing was up, Bing walked me back downstairs and said goodbye. What had impressed me most about Bing was that throughout the entire interview, I had completely forgotten that I was talking to such a world renowned architect. He was so unassuming and into the moment that I felt as though I could have been talking to someone about the scenery at the beach or someone I had just encountered on a nearby park bench.

From the moment we had sat down in the kitchen, I found myself looking at and listening to the young boy within the man. It was the same young boy whom Arthur had given the clarinet to, so many many years before. The excitement, the laughter and the humor were still present. The experience had been so genuine, real and spontaneous, that I knew I had been in the presence of a gifted, talented and rare human being…