When Liu Zhenchen finished art college in Shanghai, he felt lost. While his classmates wasted no time in finding jobs, he 'thought it was meaningless to work for the sake of making a living. I couldn't accept doing something I didn't like just for the money'. Liu believed his attitude had no place in booming Shanghai - or anywhere else in China. Art-loving France might suit him, he thought. So, in his early 20s, he began a life of 'escapism', studying year after year in France as he tried work out what to do with his life. Ten years on, the 34-year-old is drifting no more. He lives happily in Paris as a 'poor artist' and an award-winning short-film maker. Liu's life abroad began in Nice, in southern France, where he enrolled in an art school. When the three-year course was over, he moved to Lille, in the north, to do a second master's degree, at Le Fresnoy, a postgraduate audio-visual institute. Fortunately, his sculptor father and painter mother, back home in Shanghai, were understanding and supportive. At Le Fresnoy, Liu began to make films. A turning point came in 2006, when he returned to Shanghai to shoot Under Construction, a short film about the reckless demolition of old neighbourhoods, as part of his coursework. The part-animation, part-documentary film went on to win him 37 awards across Europe, Latin America and Japan. It would also make him the Le Fresnoy student with the longest list of accolades at graduation. 'The film takes the viewer through walls and windows to various construction sites,' he says. 'That was a special effect that could only be done with advanced and expensive equipment. I was very lucky to have free access to such equipment at Le Fresnoy.' From Lille, Liu moved to Paris to become a full-time artist. He stayed in a studio flat overlooking the Seine, provided at a low rent by Cit? Internationale des Arts, a foundation that accommodates foreign artists. 'France treats artists very well,' he says, 'It doesn't only nurture French artists, it has a history of supporting foreign ones.' Not that the aid and awards have made Liu a rich man. 'Paris is very expensive and I don't have a fixed income, which is my biggest stress,' he says. To make ends meet, he and a few friends work as street painters in the summer and split the profits. 'The nicest thing about this job is after a long day, we'll have a beer and chat until 2am. It makes me happy,' he says. Throughout his decade in France, Liu has developed a critical view of the country of his birth. He feels obliged to use his art to highlight the mainland's frantic modernisation efforts and their impact on the poor, a theme that was at the heart of Under Construction. 'Every time I return to Shanghai, I feel shocked; everything is changing too quickly. The development is irrational. Many people get evicted from their homes. I want to make more people aware of the situation. Society needs critics. Without them, we'd be left [believing in] the emperor's new clothes.' Liu doesn't rule out living on the mainland again one day but, for now, he's content with what he has. 'When I lived in Shanghai, I was like a fish in a tank,' he says. 'My two decades in this tank were very precious but I'm glad and lucky to have got out into the sea to see other fishes. It's a very different world.'