Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Having spent his first three decades in money-obsessed Hong Kong and America, architect Joseph Lau She-chin hadn't given much thought to socialism. That changed when he moved to France.

Living in Paris, which is run by socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoe, Lau, 34, is impressed by how often citizens' needs are met. When he wants to move around the city, he picks up a Velib - a bicycle available through a no- or low-cost rental programme launched by Delanoe - and rides for free for the first 30 minutes. When nature calls, he can visit one of the city's self-sanitising public toilets with- out having to spend a literal penny. To advance his career, there are architecture competitions that contestants are paid to enter.

'In France, many things are based on humane ideas. It's not purely socialist but this society works quite differently from [those in] Hong Kong and the United States.'

Born in New York, Lau moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. After completing Form Six at a boys' school in Yau Ma Tei, he went back to the US, first to Connecticut, for a pre-university course, and then to New Orleans, to read architecture and fine art. Upon graduation, he found an apprenticeship at an architectural firm in New York. Five years later, he quit the job to study further, at New York's Columbia University. Then one morning, fate collided with him.

'I was waiting for the train when a backpacker ran into me. She didn't apologise; I was miffed,' he recalls. 'She sat next to me holding an air ticket to France. She was a lone traveller looking carefree. I started talking to her.'

The woman, a French-Dutch art therapist from France, was to become Lau's wife. They now have a one-year-old child.

Since 2006, when he moved to the city, life in Paris has been good for Lau.

'Compared with New York and Hong Kong, people here are more straightforward and less formal. In a cafe, when you hear someone saying something you don't agree with, you can join the conversation and start a debate without feeling awkward.

'In the US, people called me 'Joseph' - they found it hard to pronounce my Chinese name. In France, people call me 'She-chin'. Initially they may struggle but they make an effort.'

Much as he enjoys Paris, though, Lau will move back to New York soon. He has developed a series of recyclable lights and intends to use his professional network in the US to diversify into green product design. The urge to move, however, is also driven by his ideals.

'When you know you'll stay in a place forever, you tend to accumulate things and get tied down by them. That's not my way of life. Besides, life is too short. We want to live in a different place every four or five years. Maybe we'll stop one day - but not until we get to 80.'