Mr. UBC—Bob Lee—dies at the age of 86

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      The visionary who created UBC Properties Trust, Robert H. Lee, has died.

      The founder and long-time chair of Prospero International Realty and cofounder of Wall Financial Corporation was 86.

      His name graces the YMCA building on Burrard Street and the alumni centre at UBC. Though he wasn't well-known to the masses, he ranks as one of Vancouver's most influential residents of the 20th century.

      Lee's most lasting legacy has been at UBC, where the trust has generated more than $1.7 billion and helped fund thousands of units of student housing.

      It's expected to have an endowment of $4 billion in perpetuity.

      "I can't think of a better friend of education than Bob Lee," UBC president Santa Ono says in a 2018 video. "Around here, he's known affectionately as Mr. UBC, because he embodies the mission of UBC and its vision for its alumni."

      In the same video, Ono says that Lee, a former chancellor, was the person he was most excited to meet when he was hired in 2016.

      Another admirer is former UBC president Martha Piper.

      "Bob has been the best friend of the University of British Columbia, I think, since he graduated from UBC," she says in the same video. "He exemplifies everything a best friend is: loyal, supportive, funny, there to help, there to celebrate, being the best advocate, being the best cheerleader."

      Video: Bob Lee was honoured by the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education in 2018.

      Lee was born in Vancouver and spent his first few years in Chinatown before moving to a neighbourhood near Cambie Street and West 7th Avenue. His father spent his days working in a greenhouse and his nights working in a restaurant before eventually opening his own store. 

      Lee learned about real estate and about the value of giving back from his father, a local Kuomintang activist who knew Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. 

      "We saw our dad for two hours a week for 12 years,” Lee says in a video created as part of a UBC series called Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon HIstories from a Common Past. “I never went for a haircut until I was 18 because he cut our hair with a rice bowl.”

      Lee graduated from UBC in 1956 and opened a real-estate business, becoming friends with many of the city's Chinese Canadian business pioneers, including Tong Louie, whose family still owns the IGA and London Drugs chains.

      UBC's Chinese Canadian Stories project created this video about Bob Lee's life in 2011.

      His big break came in the late 1960s when there was an exodus of Cantonese-speaking residents from Hong Kong in response to the Cultural Revolution in China.

      Mao's Red Guards were causing chaos north of the colony's borders, and leftist riots were creating panic in Hong Kong and Macau.

      Hong Kong business people who fled to Vancouver needed a local contact person—and Lee filled the bill perfectly.

      He became a key business associate and friend of philanthropist David Lam. They started doing real-estate deals together, making a fortune and giving huge sums to UBC, Vancouver General Hospital, and other charities. Lam later became B.C.'s first lieutenant-governor of Chinese ancestry.

      “I thanked my father for making me go to Chinese school for 12 years,” Lee says with a laugh in the video.

      The arrival and integration of these Hong Kong immigrants in 1967 wave cemented Vancouver's status as an immigrant-friendly city and reinforced its Chinese heritage.

      Many of these new immigrants ended up being supporters of the federal Liberals yet remained fiercely anti-communist. This had long-term implications on civic, provincial, and federal politics.

      In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee worked with other Chinese Canadian leaders, including Lam, to counter a racist backlash against a new wave of Hong Kong immigration. That wave was encouraged by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing's purchase of the former Expo 86 site, as well as fears about the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

      Lee served on several corporate boards, including CN Rail, B.C. Tel, Crown Life Insurance, and he was a long-time director of the Fraser Institute, which has had a profound impact on public policies in B.C.

      Lee is survived by his wife Lily, a retired community health nurse, and four children. Everyone in his immediate family graduated from UBC.