Early Years and Education
David Lam was the second-oldest of nine children. His father, Lam Chi Fung, was a successful coal importer who founded the Ka Wah Bank (now CITIC Ka Wah Bank) in 1922. The family were devout Baptists, having been converted by missionaries in the early 1900s. David’s plans to attend university in 1941 were halted by the Second World War. Instead, he worked in the family’s coal business as they struggled to survive the Japanese occupation (see also Battle of Hong Kong).
Following the war, Lam Chi Fung re-opened the Ka Wah Bank (suspended since 1941) and helped finance the development of Hong Kong businesses. David went to school at Lingnan University (formerly Canton Christian College) in China’s Guangdong Province and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1947. Able to speak five languages, he began his graduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1948. He graduated with a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) and returned to Hong Kong in the early 1950s. He married his wife, Dorothy, in 1954. That same year, he completed an advanced management program in Hong Kong that was organized by Harvard University.
Career in Hong Kong
Lam spent the next decade and a half establishing himself as a successful financial investor with the Ka Wah Bank, eventually becoming Director and Chief Manager. He also worked with the Hong Kong Baptist Hospital as Chairman of the Baptist Medical Board (1955–67) and served as Chairman of Hong Kong Baptist College (1957–67).
Move to Vancouver
Lam travelled widely as a successful Hong Kong banker, stopping once in Vancouver. Although 30 years away, the coming transfer of Hong Kong to China prompted Lam to uproot and re-establish his family in a stable country well in advance of the handover. He chose to emigrate in 1967 with his wife Dorothy and their three children. They selected Vancouver as their new home, having been awed by the city’s great beauty. “We never dreamed there could be a place like this,” he said in a 1988 interview. He soon got a job selling real estate and began developing properties in Vancouver using Hong Kong money as investment capital. He became a Canadian citizen in 1972.
Real Estate and Land Development
Lam became one of Vancouver’s leading land developers. He entered into partnerships with the development firms Wall & Redekop and McKenzie Management, and in 1975 he started his own company, Canadian International Properties Ltd. He was instrumental in bringing Hong Kong investors to Vancouver. He believed Vancouver to be an Asian-Pacific city and made great efforts to extend Vancouver’s influence throughout the Pacific Rim, cementing economic ties between Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and other major Asian centres. Within 15 years of moving to Vancouver, Lam was able to retire with a fortune of more than $100 million.
Lam was a firm believer in the power of immigration as an economic tool and felt a responsibility to enhance his adopted community (see Chinese Canadians). Upon his retirement in 1983, he established the David and Dorothy Lam Foundation and the Floribunda Philanthropic Society. The two charities donated millions of dollars a year to worthwhile causes, such as the Sun Yat-Sen gardens (the first classical Chinese garden outside of China), the Asian Pacific Initiative Centre (which Lam co-founded), and the theological seminary Regent College. Lam also provided funding for numerous other initiatives, including the Institute of Dispute Resolution and the David Lam Auditorium at the University of Victoria,the David Lam Centre for International Communication at Simon Fraser University and the David Lam Management Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.
In 1988, Lam accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to become the 25th Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia (see also Lieutenant-Governors of BC). He had turned down the position twice but reconsidered after seeking spiritual counsel. As he said in a 1992 interview, “I felt intimidated because English is my second language and I am not a native of Canada. Finally, after discussing the invitation with my pastor, I said ‘yes.’ I decided that if God wanted me in the role of lieutenant-governor, I would do it for his glory to be used by him.”
Lam became the first person of Asian ancestry to hold a vice-regal post in Canada. The appointment came at a time when a massive influx of immigrants from Hong Kong — anticipating the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 — created a huge demographic and socio-economic shift in British Columbia, and Vancouver in particular. The Globe and Mail noted in 2005 how Lam “urged Chinese-Canadians to become more involved in mainstream society. And he told Canadians not to fear the great influx of immigrants from Hong Kong.” Lam once described his responsibility as lieutenant-governor as being a “healer of wounds, a matchmaker of sorts between people of different views, and one who offers encouragement and inspiration.”
Other Involvements and Contributions
Following his arrival in Vancouver in 1967, Lam founded the Hong Kong Merchants’ Association of Vancouver, which helped immigrants from Hong Kong make a more seamless transition to life in Canada. He continued to serve on the Board of Governors for Hong Kong Baptist College into the late-1990s and funded the David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He was also trustee of the Chancellor’s Circle at the University of British Columbia. His other contributions to the cultural life of Vancouver include assisting in the founding of the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival (now the Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival) and helping to finance the restoration of Stanley Park following a devastating wind storm in 2006.
Honours and Legacy
David Lam received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from UBC in 1987 and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1988. He was the first person of Asian ancestry to hold a vice-regal post in Canada, serving as lieutenant-governor of BC from 1988 to 1995. In 1994, during a visit to Victoria for the Commonwealth Games, Queen Elizabeth II invested Lam with the Royal Victorian Order, making him the first Canadian lieutenant-governor to receive the honour.
David Lam Park, at the former Expo 86 site in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, was named in his honour in 1995. That same year, David and his wife Dorothy received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from the University of Victoria, and were jointly inducted into the Order of British Columbia for their “extraordinary career of philanthropy and public service.” Lam was also promoted within the Order of Canada to Officer in 1995 and received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002.
Following Lam’s death from prostate cancer at the age of 87, BC Premier Gordon Campbell called him “a great British Columbian and a great Canadian. He served with pride and distinction, and his vision of Canada included a place where immigrants would find refuge and opportunity. He contributed much to the fabric of British Columbia, and his generosity and kindness will never be forgotten.”