Alexandra Chu: Now more than ever is a great time to experience Shanghai as a young professional

Alexandra Chu is founding partner of The ANKEN Group, an innovative, boutique real estate development company that uses sustainable practices to design and build commercial spaces for the Shanghai market.

The focus of ANKEN is to bring new life to buildings that have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair, by promoting sustainability at a grassroots community level. ANKEN delivers a very important message: that everyone can make a positive contribution to the environment.

Moving to Shanghai in 2000 with an International Planning and Landscape firm, Alexandra’s ostensible reason to relocate was to learn Mandarin. After discovering that the city is “a dynamic international city to live and rife with professional opportunities” she is still there 18 years later – fluent in Mandarin no less.

Alexandra is among the growing number of young, talented and successful Australian’s who are proof that the opportunities in Shanghai are in abundance.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

How long have you been based in Shanghai, and what originally brought you to China?

I moved to Shanghai in 2000 working with EDAW, an International Planning & Landscape firm. They had just opened their first office in China and I was the first foreign staff member who volunteered to make the move. The main reason for coming, however, was to learn Mandarin - I am 5th generation Australian Chinese on Mum’s side, but I suppose the language skills in our family went out the window after the 3rd generation!

What was the impetus of founding the ANKEN Group?

In 2003 we began as a design consultancy firm looking for an office of our own. After coming across a beautiful old industrial building on the Suzhou Creek, we decided to design, renovate, share and manage the space.

This was the beginning of the ANKEN model - bringing new life to an underperforming building with sustainable design, building a community of like-minded users to share and manage the ongoing use of the space in order to ensure consistency and organic growth.

What are some of the measures you take to ensure your projects focus on sustainability or smart growth?

We transform abandoned or overlooked properties into places where people want to be - a catalyser for urban regeneration and community building.

Our principle is to design and develop with respect to people, place and environment. This can translate in various ways, ranging from choosing certain environmentally friendly building materials, experimenting with prefabricated building techniques or optimising the shared public spaces with community-driven events.

Are more planning, landscape and architecture firms in Shanghai turning towards a sustainable model, or is ANKEN one of the few?

We are a boutique Real Estate Development Company - planning, landscape and architecture is only one aspect of the development process and in order to better control the final product, we believe it is important to get involved in the entire lifecycle including the management process which extends for 20-25 years after the initial end users move in. Sustainability is a given these days, it is important that everyone does their part no matter how small.

Is there any particular project that you’re most proud of?

ANKEN Life is a project that is focused on building a health and fitness community. It has been up and running for almost five years now.

We took quite a risk with this project, as it involved building a large number of shared facilities (showers, locker rooms and saunas) and putting the commercial uses at the back of the project in order to centralise the public amenities.

At the time of development six years ago, it was rare to see people getting into sport or nutrition. It is nice to think that we have made a small contribution to the changing attitudes towards health and fitness that has occurred in Shanghai and China in the last few years.

How important are Australia-China relations to keep Australia forward-moving and agile?

China is fast becoming a global economic driver. Australia is in a great position to tap into its close ties, immigration links and geographical proximity to Asia. Relations with China are an important element in maintaining a global outlook.

What advice would you give to young Australian professionals moving to Shanghai?

Now more than ever is a great time to experience Shanghai as a young professional, it has become a dynamic international city to live and work.

Shanghai is its own world however, so travel outside of the city will give a more rounded view of what is going on in China as a whole.

What can the rest of the world learn from China?

In the same way that Australians are known for a collective “can do” approach, there is that same practical attitude in China towards getting things done and moving forward.