Holland-based architect Shi Wenchian, who loves the freedom Europe offers, hopes for a more open China, writes Daniel Jeffreys.
Shanghai-born Shi Wenchian is helping to mould the face of modern China. As senior architect, she manages three groundbreaking mainland architecture projects for MVRDV, a Rotterdam-based design firm that recently won accolades from The New York Times for 'taking social engineering to a new level' and its 'radical, research-driven methodology.' Shi arrived at MVRDV with a Shanghai University bachelor of architecture degree and a master's from the Delft University of Technology.
'I came to the Netherlands by chance,' says Shi. 'I wanted to study in Europe but Britain was too expensive and the Netherlands is one of the few places on the continent that has English language courses.'
Shi shared her graduate school class with students from 13 other countries and fell in love with the diversity of her new home.
'There are 170 different nationalities in Holland and I like that,' she says. 'The coffee shops [where smoking marijuana is tolerated] and the red light district [where prostitutes have pensions and police protection] are good examples of the country's openness. My hope is that China will become more like Europe, with more individual zones that have their own character, united by a single Chinese culture.'
Among those Shi manages from her desk in MVRDV's converted printing plant is the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area project. Working in Europe has taught her many things, including an increased awareness of her own culture. 'I know many Asians here,' she says. 'I found we have a lot in common, our languages are connected, our cultures are connected, in the same way as they are among European countries.'
Shi is an only child. 'That's something I regret, being here,' she says. 'My parents don't have any other children to keep them company, but they have been here and they like it, they found Holland very romantic and classic, although I didn't take them to a coffee shop.'
Shi enjoys what she calls the 'rough style' of Rotterdam, which lost most of its city centre in the second world war and has since been rebuilt in an industrial fashion that is at odds with the 17th-century graciousness of Amsterdam. Although she admits Paris is her favourite European city because 'the girls all dress so beautifully', it is Holland that wins her vote when it comes to the political climate.
'I like Holland because of the left-wing feeling,' she says, without a hint of irony. 'People here are very equal and free and you can say what you like in meetings, even if the boss is present. Women have more opportunities here than in Asia. Girls don't like boys to open doors for them here because they want to be equal to men.'
Shi is looking forward to her first visit to Hong Kong in December, when Holland will act as the partner country for Hong Kong's Business of Design Week. 'We will present MVRDV's 'Fantasies for Hong Kong',' she says. 'It will be very controversial.'