Architect Joseph Lau: "Parisian public toilets and Velib are a 'manifestation of human equality.'"

Published in the South China Morning Post, 12 September 2010

Having spent three decades in capitalistic Hong Kong and America, architect Joseph Lau She-chin had never given much thought to socialism. It all changed when he moved to France.

Living in Paris, currently run by socialist mayor Bertrand Delonoë, Lau is impressed by how often citizens’ needs seem to take precedence over profit making. When he wants to go around the city, he can easily pick up a Velib bike, a popular public bicycle from a low-cost bike rental programme launched by Delonoë, and ride for free for the first 30 minutes. When nature calls, he can visit one of the city’s high-tech, self-sanitising public toilets for free. To advance his career, there are architecture competitions that pay contestants to enter.

Blasé Parisians may take all this for granted, but Lau, 34, sees it as a manifestation of human equality in a socialist democracy. “In France, many things are based on some humane ideas. Surely it’s not purely socialist, but this society works quite differently from Hong Kong and the US.”

Lau looks at France not only from the perspective of someone brought up in a “capitalistic culture”, but also from that of an architect who aspires to “improve people’s lives”.

Born in New York and relocated to Hong Kong at age five, he has always been “interested in other people’s lives, culture and traditions”. Much of his childhood in Hong Kong was spent on drawing and playing sports. After completing Form Six at a boys’ school in Yau Ma Tei, he went to the US, first in Connecticut for a pre-university course and then New Orleans to read architecture and fine art. Upon graduation, he found an apprentice job at an architectural firm in New York, where he sometimes worked a 70-hour week. He quit the job five years later to study architecture again, at University of Columbia in New York. One morning, his life took a turn.

“I was waiting for the train when a backpacker ran into me. She didn’t apologise, and I was a bit miffed,” Lau recalls. “Then she sat next to me holding an air ticket to France. She was a lone traveller looking carefree. I was impressed and started talking to her.”

The woman, a French-Dutch art therapist from France, later became Lau’s wife, with whom he has a one-year-old child. In 2006, he moved to Paris to join her. He soon landed a job at an architectural company, where he stayed for a while before going freelance.

Life in Paris has been good for Lau. He is happy with the plentiful bike lanes as he can cycle all the time. There is no more long working hours, and it is relatively easy to make friends.

“Compared with New York and Hong Kong, people here are more straightforward and less formal. In a café, when you hear someone saying something you don’t agree with, you can join the conversation and start a debate without feeling awkward. I have made a couple of friends this way.”

The biggest difference between France and the US, according to Lau, lies in the way people call him. “In the US, people called me ‘Joseph’ – they found it hard to pronounce my Chinese name. In France, people like to call me ‘She-chin’. Initially they may struggle, but they would make an effort.”

Much as he enjoys Paris, Lau will move back to New York soon to advance his career. He has developed a series of recyclable, machine-washable light and intends to use his professional network in the US to diversify into green product design.

This urge to move, however, is also driven by his ideals. “When you know you’ll stay in a place forever, you tend to accumulate loads of things and get tied down by these materials. That’s not my way of life. And life is just too short. We want to live in a different place every four or five years, or alternate among Paris, New York, Hong Kong and mainland China. Maybe we’ll stop one day – but not until we get to 80!”