Foreign Real Estate Heirs And How They Are Changing Vancouver’s Skyline

When Joo Kim Tiah was still a scrubby high-school student in Kuala Lumpur, his parents came to Whistler for a ski trip. As Tony and Alicia Tiah passed through, they thought Vancouver looked clean and pleasant so when they spotted a nice-looking building on West Georgia, they went ahead and bought it. It was the Fortis tower, and they paid $91.4 million.

Seventeen years later, Tiah uses Fortis’s 21st floor as his office. From the grand but sparsely furnished room painted a sober olive, the 32-year-old oversees his family’s now-extensive Holborn Group holdings in Vancouver, properties he hopes will make an indelible mark on his adopted city. Next door is the site where one of Arthur Erickson’s final designs will be built, a distinctive twisting structure Tiah hopes will achieve the iconic status of the CN Tower in Toronto or the Petronas Towers in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur. Down the street, the family’s TA Properties owns the Bay parkade, a prime spot for redevelopment. And across the Cambie Bridge, the contentious Little Mountain lands. The six hectares of former social housing will bring density to the heart of single-family Vancouver—but not without some heavy ploughing. It’s taken five years just to get agreement on the overall concept for the project, currently a giant weedy lot punctuated by orange fencing. That’s happened amid passionate protests over the way the site was cleared of residents and over the lack of anything more than the replacement of the original 224 units, tussles between the city and the province over how much density will be acceptable, and a bullish insistence from Tiah about what he needs for Holborn to make a reasonable profit. That fight is far from over.

The community process has been both puzzling and frustrating for him. Meeting with residents is not a significant part of the development process in Malaysia. “There’s a world of difference here. The public consultation is so exhaustive. It’s dragged out so long,” says Tiah, who’s had two of the city’s ultimate power insiders—architect James Cheng and marketer Bob Rennie—at his side throughout the negotiations. He’s attended many of the meetings to show people the face behind the project, and he says he’s in awe of the volunteer hours people have put in to get as familiar with the project as he is himself. But the consultations, he notes, sometimes turn into meetings where “only the diehards show up, and it’s like their own club.” Several people say he was very impatient with the lengthy public talks, that he split with former Vision councillor Jim Green last year, hired to work with the Holborn team, because he thought Green should spend less time with residents and more time influencing former political colleagues. And, although publicly he says he can live within the density limit set by staff (a little more than the Olympic Village, noticeably more than the Arbutus Lands), privately he is badgering City Hall to get more.

Tiah is hyperaware of his critics, who think he’s a privileged daddy’s boy with insufficient experience. “A lot of people are skeptical about whether I can pull it off because I’m young, because I’m foreign,” he says in his colloquial, only slightly accented English—the result of undergraduate study at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and a master’s degree in Australia, plus six years working in Vancouver and two more in Singapore. His faith in God helps get him past the criticism. “Where God wants us to go, we listen and obey. Everyone’s got a calling and purpose. I have my own calling and purpose, which is to do this.” His parents converted to what he describes as charismatic Christianity many years ago; they speak frequently at religious gatherings, and, when all five of the children and their parents are together, the whole family goes to Tuesday fellowship meetings. Like them, he begins every morning with prayer, and like them, believes that it is his duty to do what God wills. 

It’s also his duty to help his family, who built an investment banking and stockbroking fortune in Malaysia before moving into land holdings and development in Australia, China, Malaysia, and Vancouver. “There is a lot of pressure on me. I have no margin for error now. A lot is at stake. It’s not an easy situation. If you’re not successful, the world is very cruel,” he says. His family has had its taste of that: his father was convicted of making false reports to the Malaysia stock exchange in 2002. The news was splashed all over Malaysian papers and commented on critically in a number of blogs.

All developers who work in the world of high risk feel pressure, but Tiah is part of a subculture unique to Vancouver, one that has helped to shape this city. Sons of wealthy offshore families, they’ve chosen to invest in or immigrate here because it seemed like a safe place to live and to learn how to make money through real estate. The Li family, who bought the Expo lands, was an early example. “Vancouver was a smallish, malleable, relatively open/transparent, and distant context—perfect for learning while doing,” says University of Wisconsin professor Kris Olds, whose 2001 book Globalization and Urban Change included a study of the Li family and Expo. Olds adds that Vancouver, more rigorous than Asia, is also more clear-cut, with explicit rules that help even newcomers understand exactly what they need to do. “It makes obvious sense why a city like Vancouver worked for them. You’re out of the glare, you can make mistakes quietly—especially if you’re a major family—and Vancouver’s pretty transparent. Cities like New York and Chicago would have been tough going, with more risks and much harder to crack into and learn while doing, especially on big projects.”

That doesn’t mean they feel free to fail. Carrying the family banner, these scions face extraordinary stress to succeed spectacularly. This can foster interesting (and game-changing) experimentation with the development conventions of Vancouver. And sometimes failures of gigantic proportions. Both have had their impact. “These are not people who come in to do average projects. These are people taking some of the biggest projects that are defining our city. So you have a combination of young people coming in from wealthy families and the most pivotal properties. Whatever is in their consciousness becomes part of the consciousness of the city,” says Larry Beasley, the city’s former co-director of planning. In his time, he dealt with Victor Li, Li Ka-Shing’s son, who started the vast redevelopment of the Expo lands; Terry Hui, whose family took over that project; and the Malek brothers, who’ve developed a number of condo complexes in Burnaby and on the North Shore with the backing of their Iranian father, a major developer in France.

They also interact differently with Vancouver than outsider developers do in other cities. Beasley, who is now consulting in cities from Moscow to Dallas to Rotterdam, says Vancouver’s complex planning process makes it hard for large companies to fly in, do one big building, and leave, as happens in the rest of Canada and the U.S. “There are few genuine outsiders here. They come in and they get grounded as insiders. To do development here, you have to come here and stay and learn the culture.”

At the same time, they’ll approach problems in a different way—because they don’t know the process, because they’re tuned to a global market, because they’ve seen other ideas in other places. “They bring an inherently bigger perspective. They have much more of a global consciousness,” Beasley says. Victor Li, unfamiliar with development habits in Vancouver, went along with an unusual proposal from his Vancouver guru, the Hong Kong-born Stanley Kwok: rather than spend months cooking up elaborate site plans bureaucrats might well reject—the usual model for developers until then—developers and planners sat down weekly to think through the massive 168-acre redevelopment together. Li also brought in a concept that changed our sales strategy forever. When he sold Pacific Place in 1991, marketing the building only in Hong Kong, it entrenched forever a Vancouver myth that foreigners were buying up the city and transforming it into a landscape of empty condos. It also showed local marketers what could be done. “Vancouver had done pre-sales, but very slowly. They never thought they could do it like that, in a day,” says Kwok, as he looks contentedly across False Creek from his plant-filled 18th-storey terrace to what he accomplished with Li: a seaside swath of the Concord towers and parks bathed in summer sunshine.

For their part, the Maleks brought a richer palette of materials and an idea of more sophisticated, elegant buildings than the standard glass condo, something Beasley says affected the whole market. Terry Hui pioneered the idea of providing internet to every condo through a special fibre-optic link, something that was new to North America at that point.

But these princes are also prone to spectacular failures. Ron Shon was 38 when he carried out his dead father’s wish to redevelop the Georgia Medical-Dental building. He partnered with Sir Run Run Shaw for the financing of the $90-million Cathedral Place. Shon acknowledged, in an interview with Vancouver Sun reporter Pete McMartin in a special newspaper series on the building the year it opened, 1991, that Cathedral Place was about more than just money. “Everybody’s got an ego, okay? And the building is an expression of my ego, there’s no question about it. I wanted to do something special here, and if you can’t be the biggest, maybe you can be the best. And since I’m going to be very closely associated with the building, people will look at that building and say, ‘He did it.’ Okay? And that does a lot for my ego.”

Shon ran into financial trouble afterward, because, says one source, he didn’t understand that in Vancouver “office leasing is an old boy’s club.” He had trouble getting commitments and had to lure tenants with cut-rate deals; he was eventually reduced to a minority shareholder.

The Maleks, anxious to prove they had arrived and could build a landmark project, bid unsuccessfully on Woodward’s, then turned their sights to Olympic Village. By the end of that tortuous process, carrying the weight of a worldwide recession, Olympics deadlines, experiments in green building, and their own fixation on building and selling luxury condos, they’d lost everything. The city took over the project, as well as the real-estate holdings the Maleks had pledged as security to cover a $500-million construction loan and unpaid land purchase price. Because of a fresh influx from the family’s holdings, they are back in business now with a development planned for East Hastings.

And then there was Simon Lim, Tiah’s brother-in-law and the family’s representative for a few brief years. Lim also bid unsuccessfully on Woodward’s, then started the plans for the Erickson tower (but took a long time to get it going) and committed the family to the Little Mountain project, which some think the family paid far too much for. He was yanked shortly after the recession hit.

Is Tiah to be yet another princeling driven by anxiety, undone by hubris? His family was listed as the 35th richest in Malaysia in last year’s Forbes ranking, and he has been brought up to take over that empire. In Malaysian news reports, his father has said he will turn over the business in 2014.

But he is also a modern, internationalized young guy who lives on the edge of Yaletown, which he likes because he can walk out the door and get or do anything—in stark contrast to Kuala Lumpur, where life is divided rigidly between tower-dominated residential neighbourhoods and massive shopping malls. His girlfriend is a young Vietnamese woman from East Side Vancouver with a degree in biopsychology, currently working in a nail bar. He has a predilection for dress shirts as richly textured as a Renaissance court portrait, with dazzling cufflinks, but his favourite restaurants aren’t downtown power spots. For Malaysian he loves Penang Delight at Rupert and 33rd, a tiny unlicensed place with a multicultural fan base.

And he plays drums in a metal band recently put together from friends and Craigslist ads. Invikta practises in his parents’ Shaughnessy house; he says it’s teaching him skills he can bring to the business world. “In a band, no one’s getting paid and everyone has an opinion. It’s taught me a lot in how to get along with people. And the drums suit my character. It’s an extension of me. It takes less talent. Drumming is 80 or 90 percent hard work. You practise a lot and every day you hit a brick wall and then you get better. So you’re always driving for perfection, because when you’re drumming, there’s no in between. You’re in the beat or you’re off.”