Knowing Mr I.M. Pei and the Pei family, and being able to establish the I.M. Pei Foundation with his son, my good friend, Chien Chung Pei (Didi Pei), are among the most fortunate things to ever happen to me.
Like many Chinese Americans, or many Asian Americans, I chose to study architecture in 1975, my last year of high school in New York, simply because I wanted to be the next I.M. Pei. He was the inspiration for my career and my life. Unfortunately when I applied for a job at his office after graduating from the Pratt Institute in 1980, I was told by his associate partner and HR director, Kellogg Wong – who later also became a good friend of mine – that I was too young and inexperienced.
Kellogg told me in the interview that perhaps I could try again after a few years. Fate is a strange thing. I took a different career path, and in 1984 I set up my own firm, James Jao & Associates in Queens. In the heyday of the 1980s, my office was very busy. According to the Dodge Report on Construction, in 1987 and 1988, my firm designed approximately 30 percent of new residential family buildings in Queens. I had 100 employees then.
At that time I.M. Pei was commissioned to do the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and the Convention Center in New York. The joke at the time was that I.M. Pei was the biggest Chinese American architectural firm with over 2,800 staff members, and James Jao with 100 was the second largest.
In the summer of 1990, after I became the first Asian American on the New York City Planning Commission, I had the opportunity to pay Mr Pei a personal visit at his Madison Avenue office about building a Chinese garden in the Bronx Botanical Garden. In the meeting, after realizing I was only 32 years old, he congratulated me for breaking what he thought to be the curse that no architect can be famous until after the age of 40. He wished me continued success.
In 2010 when his partner, Kellogg Wong, who was 90 years old, recommended Dr Janet Adam Strong, author of I.M. Pei's autobiography, to help me co-author my first English book, The Straight Talk about China's Urbanization, both said that Mr Pei had told them I had a greater influence than him as I was doing city planning, while he was merely an architect. I told them while I was flabbergasted by Mr Pei's nice words, I really didn't think so. I don't think anyone, especially me, will ever be as influential as him. He is an iconic figure.
Later in the fall of 2018, when I held my 60th birthday celebrations at the Beijing American Club, I.M. Pei's son, Didi Pei, flew in specifically from New York. He then flew out the next day. I will never forget this wonderful gesture from Mr Pei.
Last November, Didi and I had a rare and a wonderful opportunity to meet with Mr Pei in person in his apartment about the establishment of the I.M. Pei Foundation, which is registered in Hong Kong as a non-profit organization to promote the philosophy of his works and, most importantly, his spirit of achieving excellence in art and culture.
Just a few days ago on Monday, when Didi and I were traveling in Shanghai on business, we had dinner with our good friend Jean Pierre Heim in Shanghai. Didi was asked to fly back to New York the next day due to his father's unexpectedly worsening condition. After some discussion about the concept of the I.M. Pei Foundation, we quickly wrote on a napkin the following draft:
Whereby I.M. Pei has been a renowned world architect who always cared about the preservation of art, culture and local heritage by integrating every element thus to inspire world architecture in modern design.
This morning I was deeply saddened but not surprised to hear about the passing of a great architectural legend of our time. Nonetheless, knowing that at the age of 102 he died without any illness and had all his family members by his bedside, I think he was a fortunate man. According to Chinese tradition, anyone dying after the age of 90 is a joyful event. It is called the "red and white joy".
Mr Pei died with great achievements to his name. I not only sent Didi and his family my sincere condolences, but I would also like to say rest in peace, Mr Pei. We will vow to carry on your torch and your sprit because you are the one and only IM Pei.
James C Jao, NACRB, NABAR, AIA, RA
James Jao is chairman of the Long On Group, and co-founder of the I.M. Pei Foundation.