Parents often have great plans for their children; sometimes their children are unaware of those plans.
I was saddened by the passing of esteemed American architect I.M. Pei in May 2019 at age 102. He is widely lauded for his concept of sharp lines and bold structure, as exemplified by the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. His death brought to mind the friendship that had sparked 80 years ago between him and my father.
But before I get to that, let me tell you how I.M. Pei could have changed my life and career. There are two things I remember vividly about the time right before I came to Canada in the 1960s. One, my father gave me a tailor-made suit, telling me that I might need to use it one day. Two, he advised me to pursue studies in either medicine or architecture. Medicine was an obvious path as my grandfather was a physician. Architecture was perplexing since my father was a civil engineer and my other grandfather was a lawyer. I always wondered, why architecture?
Back when I read bedtime stories with my young children, a favorite was the book People to Know. One evening the chapter we read was “Buildings that Serve People,” about I.M. Pei. The next day my youngest daughter excitedly told her grandpa all she could remember about I.M. Pei. He listened attentively with a smile on his face. When she was done, grandpa told us that he and I.M. Pei had been great friends. We were all surprised.
In 1935 I.M. Pei came to America to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1938 my father left China for graduate studies in civil engineering at the University of Michigan. In the late 1930s there were only a few students from China studying in America. In spite of the limited methods of communication (e.g., pen and paper, telephone) and being separated by long distances, those Chinese students were able to keep in touch with one another and bond in a brotherhood of sorts. And so, my father and I.M. Pei became great friends. My father even drove I.M. Pei’s car from the Midwest to the East Coast, demonstrating the great trust I.M. Pei had in my father and his ability to drive many miles through numerous unfamiliar American towns and cities, without GPS!
After graduation my father was to return to China and I.M. Pei would remain in the US. Toward the end of their studies, the young bachelors formed an agreement that they would look after one another’s future children. Hence, my father would take care of I.M. Pei’s children when they were in China while I.M. Pei would do the same for my father’s children in the US. When my father returned to China, World War II broke out and the rest is history.
When I learned about this, tears filled my eyes and I understood my father’s suggestion for me to study architecture. It had taken close to 20 years to have my question answered.
Had I not attended medical school, I might have studied architecture and perhaps worked under I.M. Pei at I.M. Pei & Partners (currently Pei Partnership Architects). None of my father’s or I.M. Pei’s children took them up on the offer their parents had arranged. However, they all excelled in their chosen fields—I.M. Pei’s children in architecture in the US and my father’s children in medicine in Canada.
If my daughter had not brought up the bedtime story involving I.M. Pei to her grandpa 30 years ago my father may have never told us the story of the agreement he made with his good friend. My father passed away 2 years later.
Over 50 years ago I came to study in Canada. In 1968, three medical schools accepted my application for admission, without asking me to come in for an interview. One medical school, before accepting my application, requested an interview with me. I wore my tailor-made suit to the interview, though I didn’t end up going to that school. In another 9 years I wore my suit for my Royal College oral examination.
I imagine that I would have also worn the suit to meet I.M. Pei. Regrettably, I did not have an opportunity to meet him and pay my respects. I thank my father for his kindness and thoughtfulness.
—H.C.G. Wong, MD
Wong HCG. Comment: Re: A tailor made suit for interview/oral examination. CMAJ 11 March 2019. Accessed 1 July 2019. www.cmaj.ca/content/191/10/E287/tab-e-letters.
This post has been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.