Zoe Chan's story
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( ZOE CHAN )

Zoe was born in London to a Shanghainese father and Cantonese mother, both of whom were brought up in the British boarding school system from a young age. Zoe's own life choices saw her reject a career in banking - a profession typically seen as prestigious by Chinese families - to found Atelier ChanChan, a practice combining architecture and art to create urban installations. Zoe continues to live and work in London but finds that, as her work and personal life mature, she increasingly identifies with her Chinese side.

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INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

I’m Zoe Chan and I’ve lived in London my whole life. I’m an artist and architectural designer and I’ve just set up my practice, which is ‘Atelier ChanChan’.

Zoe, where were your parents and your grandparents from? Could you tell us a bit about your heritage?

My mother’s father grew up as a peasant and became a precious metal carrier - he used to deliver it between provinces, so he was quite a tough guy. He was completely uneducated. They moved to Hong Kong, and when Hong Kong became occupied by the Japanese they hoarded as much currency as possible, because at the time it was worth absolutely nothing. When the Japanese left they made millions and started their own bank. My grandma was my grandfather’s third wife, so on my mum’s side I have a massive family - I’ve never met all my cousins. Just through my grandma, my granddad had six children so you can imagine if he had three wives!

"I guess if people asked me I would say I was British just because I’ve lived in Britain my whole life. I would say I was British because it was simpler. I guess I was always uncomfortable with that side because I never spoke Chinese."

On my dad’s side, my granddad moved around between lots of different countries. He was born in Shanghai; my great-grandfather was initially a judge in the Qing dynasty but when the whole regime changed after the revolution he became a lawyer in Shanghai. My grandfather followed in his footsteps and became a lawyer, but when the whole regime changed in China he moved to Paris and got his doctorate in International Law. From there he became a businessman and also went into property. When he started making a lot of money he sent all his kids - my father and my aunts and uncles - to a British school in Madrid, then from there they went to school in England because the education was better.

So, both my parents went to boarding school in the UK from probably about the age of 13 and grew up here. After university they actually both went back to Hong Kong for a few years and when they wanted to start a family they came back to the UK - so my background is from everywhere but I’ve lived in Britain my whole life.

With such a multi-cultural background, what was it like growing up in the UK? Did you feel British, European or Asian?

I think because all my friends at school were British and I never really talked about my identity, I felt British. I guess if people asked me I would say I was British just because I’ve lived in Britain my whole life. I would say I was British because it was simpler, but obviously I looked Chinese, so I knew that I was Chinese. I guess I was always uncomfortable with that side because I never spoke Chinese, and because my parents divorced it was all mixed up in my head.

"I actually went to Beijing to try to learn Chinese, and although I didn’t manage to I met a lot of international Chinese people who I really connected with; it made me realise that I was a lot more Chinese than I thought."

At school I didn’t have any Chinese friends, so from a young age I would have said I was more British because it was easier and I could just avoid the subject. But when I finished high school, I actually went to Beijing to try to learn Chinese, and although I didn’t manage to I met a lot of international Chinese people who I really connected with; it made me realise that I was a lot more Chinese than I thought. All of the cultural and family values that I have are very Chinese but I had never realised that - I just thought it was my family.

Do you feel like you share the same views as your parents and your grandparents, or are there differences?

My granddad is very traditional: because he left China at such an early age I almost feel like he’s in a time warp. The China that he remembers is not China today, so he is even more family-oriented - probably the most family-oriented of all of us. He was saying to me the other day that if he could have it his way we would all live in one house because we’d have more fun and we’d have a richer family life.

"My granddad is very traditional: because he left China at such an early age I almost feel like he’s in a time warp."

My mum has always been quite independent and not very traditionally Chinese. My grandma - my mum’s mum in Hong Kong - was quite forward-thinking for her time: she was the first woman to get her driver’s license in Hong Kong which was really frowned upon in those days because it was believed that women should stay at home. She’s quite a free thinker and I think she passed that on to me. There were never any limits; it was an ‘anything is possible’ kind of mentality which has helped a lot.

Are there certain stereotypes that confront you in your British life, either in your work or personal life?

Ha! A lot of people ask me ‘do I play the piano?’ Which I don’t - I never liked music, though my little sister plays the violin. Recently somebody said, ‘You work so hard and you are so driven and motivated, is that a Chinese thing?’ I found that hilarious. Maybe Chinese people are really hardworking, but you can’t just blanket all Chinese people and say they are all the same. So I don’t think I’ve hit too many stereotypes…yet!

You said that you’ve recognised more of your Chinese identity as you’ve become older. Do you think that is through maturity? How do you see that developing?

I think partly maturity and I think partly I just became more open-minded when I actually went to China. Because I’d never been to China before it was always this awkward part of me that I’d never really dealt with or had to address. But when I went to China, I loved it. I think because China has emerged as an up-and-coming international power and there is so much happening there, even though I’m not really a part of it, because I’m Chinese I feel linked to it. I’m proud of my heritage.

I’m Zoe Chan and I’ve lived in London my whole life. I’m an artist and architectural designer and I’ve just set up my practice, which is ‘Atelier ChanChan’.

Zoe, where were your parents and your grandparents from? Could you tell us a bit about your heritage?

My mother’s father grew up as a peasant and became a precious metal carrier - he used to deliver it between provinces, so he was quite a tough guy. He was completely uneducated. They moved to Hong Kong, and when Hong Kong became occupied by the Japanese they hoarded as much currency as possible, because at the time it was worth absolutely nothing. When the Japanese left they made millions and started their own bank. My grandma was my grandfather’s third wife, so on my mum’s side I have a massive family - I’ve never met all my cousins. Just through my grandma, my granddad had six children so you can imagine if he had three wives! The four brothers that founded the bank all had several wives as well, so I’ve got hundreds of cousins.

"I guess if people asked me I would say I was British just because I’ve lived in Britain my whole life. I would say I was British because it was simpler. I guess I was always uncomfortable with that side because I never spoke Chinese."

My mum grew up in Hong Kong and because my grandfather had made a lot of money he invested in property; from a young age she has memories of being dragged along to site and she herself developed an interest in property investment. She was sent to boarding school in the UK, went on to study economics and accountancy, and then went into banking. She didn’t think too much about it; her family was quite prescriptive in where she had to go. When I was young I used to get dragged to site too, so my attachment to property and investment definitely came from my mum’s side. And then with my dad being an architect, that’s tied together to where I’ve landed.

On my dad’s side, my granddad moved around between lots of different countries. He was born in Shanghai; my great-grandfather was initially a judge in the Qing dynasty but when the whole regime changed after the revolution he became a lawyer in Shanghai. My grandfather followed in his footsteps and became a lawyer, but when the whole regime changed in China he moved to Paris and got his doctorate in International Law. From there he became a businessman and also went into property. He started off in import-export in Germany, and then he moved to Spain to do import-export there because there was less red tape. He made his fortune in the mail-order business with Hong Kong and invested the money he made in land in Spain. When he started making a lot of money he sent all his kids - my father and my aunts and uncles - to a British school in Madrid, then from there they went to school in England because the education was better.

So, both my parents went to boarding school in the UK from probably about the age of 13 and grew up here. After university they actually both went back to Hong Kong for a few years and when they wanted to start a family they came back to the UK - so my background is from everywhere but I’ve lived in Britain my whole life.

With such a multi-cultural background, what was it like growing up in the UK? Did you feel British, European or Asian?

I think because all my friends at school were British and I never really talked about my identity, I felt British. My parents divorced when I was quite young - my dad married a French lady and my mum’s partner was English. I guess if people asked me I would say I was British just because I’ve lived in Britain my whole life, but I’ve always felt kind of international because I have a really close-knit family, especially on my dad’s side. For example, my cousins and I used to meet up every single weekend at my granddad’s house, have big family dinners and play mahjongg. I guess they were like my best friends. I had cousins from all over, so there were so many languages being spoken around us that I never felt purely one identity. My dad speaks to all my aunts and uncles in Spanish and my grandparents speak to my dad and aunts and uncles in Shanghainese. My mum speaks to her siblings in Cantonese, and we speak to each other in English.

I would say I was British because it was simpler, but obviously I looked Chinese, so I knew that I was Chinese. I guess I was always uncomfortable with that side because I never spoke Chinese, and because my parents divorced it was all mixed up in my head.

"I actually went to Beijing to try to learn Chinese, and although I didn’t manage to I met a lot of international Chinese people who I really connected with; it made me realise that I was a lot more Chinese than I thought."

Also, at school I didn’t have any Chinese friends, so from a young age I would have said I was more British because it was easier and I could just avoid the subject. But when I finished high school, I actually went to Beijing to try to learn Chinese, and although I didn’t manage to I met a lot of international Chinese people who I really connected with; it made me realise that I was a lot more Chinese than I thought. All of the cultural and family values that I have are very Chinese but I had never realised that - I just thought it was my family.

What were these shared values?

Closeness to family and an enjoyment of family life - values that are installed to you from your parents. I can’t pinpoint them exactly, maybe a respect for your elders - I think its mainly values to do with your family. Maybe work ethic as well - or maybe that was just the people I was surrounded by. I work quite hard but I don’t know if that is something uniquely Chinese.

Do you feel like you share the same views as your parents and your grandparents, or are there differences?

My granddad is very traditional: because he left China at such an early age I almost feel like he’s in a time warp. The China that he remembers is not China today, so he is even more family-oriented - probably the most family-oriented of all of us. He was saying to me the other day that if he could have it his way we would all live in one house because we’d have more fun and we’d have a richer family life. My mum and dad are really open-minded and I think I share similar values to them because they also grew up in the UK.

"My granddad is very traditional: because he left China at such an early age I almost feel like he’s in a time warp."

My mum has always been quite independent and not very traditionally Chinese. My grandma - my mum’s mum in Hong Kong - was quite forward-thinking for her time: she was the first woman to get her driver’s license in Hong Kong which was really frowned upon in those days because it was believed that women should stay at home. She used to play loads of sport, was really sociable and never really followed convention, and I think my mum is quite similar to that. She’s quite a free thinker and I think she passed that on to me. There were never any limits; it was an ‘anything is possible’ kind of mentality which has helped a lot.

Before you started your own architecture practice you worked in banking, is that right?

Yes, I’ve previously flitted between different things. I’ve found it hard to make a decision in terms of my career as to which of those things I’ve really wanted to embrace; at school I was always torn between arts, economics, or something to do with money. After studying architecture at Cambridge, I still really liked it but because I’m quite an impatient person and I like things to happen, it just seemed like forever away before I could actually make or do things. I was also put off by the salaries in architecture - everyone around me in Cambridge was going into investment banking and consultancies and getting big fat pay slips and I suppose I just wanted to prove to myself. So that’s how I applied for Goldman Sachs; I did an internship there and that made me realise how much I loved architecture I supposeAlthough I was surrounded by really intelligent and driven people, I just didn’t find the work satisfied me. It just so happened that the credit crunch hit just after then anyway, so I went back to architecture and I’ve never looked back since.

"For me Chinese culture was something quite foreign; my grandparents used to sing the Peking Opera in their living room and I just used to think, ‘What is this?’ It confused me yet at the same time I related to it."

As I said, my mum is quite a freethinker and independent, but she does have certain benchmarks that she classifies as successful in her head. From a young age, education has always been really important and we had to get good grades. She definitely values academia over say, sport or art - they were things that I could only do once I’d fulfilled certain requirements and in a way I almost feel like banking was one of those requirements. I just wanted to show her - ‘See, I could’ve done this if I wanted but I’ve chosen not to’. Subconsciously, I think that may have been one of the reasons why I did it.

Banking fulfills a lot of traditionally Chinese values such as having a stable income and being respected in the community - does taking on architecture represents a bit more of a personal risk?

Definitely, but I think my mother would have a problem if she felt like I was just slacking around and wallowing in nothingness. The fact that I am working harder now than probably I’ve ever worked before, I’m not earning that much and it’s all just because of my passion for it, that’s something that she respects and is proud of. She’s definitely changed. I think she can also see the potential of where it could go.

Are there certain stereotypes that confront you in your British life, either in your work or personal life?

Ha! A lot of people ask me ‘do I play the piano?’ Which I don’t - I never liked music, though my little sister plays the violin. Recently somebody said, ‘You work so hard and you are so driven and motivated, is that a Chinese thing?’ I found that hilarious. Maybe Chinese people are really hardworking, but you can’t just blanket all Chinese people and say they are all the same. So I don’t think I’ve hit too many stereotypes…yet!

Do you think that is in part due to London being a very multi-cultural city?

I think so, London’s very multicultural. I think even if stereotypes did exist, its very un-PC to actually voice them or make me aware of them. I think in London it’s more a positive thing than a negative thing.

You said that you’ve recognised more of your Chinese identity as you’ve become older. Do you think that is through maturity? How do you see that developing?

I think partly maturity and I think partly I just became more open-minded when I actually went to China. Because I’d never been to China before it was always this awkward part of me that I’d never really dealt with or had to address. But when I went to China, I loved it. I think because China has emerged as an up-and-coming international power and there is so much happening there, even though I’m not really a part of it, because I’m Chinese I feel linked to it. I’m proud of my heritage.

Do you feel differently about your heritage now than when you were growing up in the UK?

When I was much younger I didn’t really think about it – I didn’t know anything about China really because I couldn’t speak any Chinese, so I didn’t understand what my grandparents were saying. For me it was something quite foreign; my grandparents used to sing the Peking Opera in their living room and I just used to think, ‘What the hell is going on? What is this?’ It confused and scared me a bit yet at the same time I related to because it was part of my family upbringing.

Do you see this increasing Chinese influence playing a part in your work?

I would love to go to China and do projects or set up an office there, but one thing that still scares me is the fact that I cant speak Chinese, so I’d probably want to partner up with somebody over there. I just haven’t had to opportunity yet and there are so many things happening in the UK that I want to establish myself first and then maybe go over later, but I’d definitely like to go to China.

Do you have certain ambitions?

I want to grow my practice to a scale big enough whereby I can take on any type of architectural project, and I can pick and choose my projects so that they are very strong design and concept-based projects but have a small enough team so that creatively I can still get involved with all the processes. I would like to be international, but I am not quite sure how and when to do it. I think now is the right time to be in China because it is growing so quickly, there are so many exciting things going on and the cities are evolving amazingly but I don’t think I am ready to go yet. I think I need to establish my name, identity and the kind of projects that I do before I go over there. I think once you go over there things move at a million miles an hour so you have to be really sure of what you are doing because otherwise, you could lose control.

How about in your personal life?

I want to be wherever my family is. Although I have family in China, I think if my immediate family stays in London I’ll probably stay too, because they are so much a part of my life I wouldn’t want to lose out on that. I think if I did go to China it would have to be pretty soon because ultimately I’d like to settle down in London. I’d actually like to have practices everywhere: one in New York, one in London and one in Beijing. I’d be based in London and fly between them; be completely international and do projects out there for a few weeks at a time. My main base would be in the UK, but I could still enjoy being in other cities and enjoy the progress of China.