Soho China Case Study

SOHO, the property company which she founded with her husband, has done much to transform the skyline on which Zhang looks out, across a green landscaped roof terrace - futuristic glass and steel constructions rubbing shoulders with the kind of grubby, concrete tenements where she grew up during the 1970s.

"It's been a gradual build up for so long," she told The Sunday Telegraph in her first interview since being named in the list. "I remember the days when we were struggling to pay salaries and the bills, and then us moving slowly from a company in debt, with strict cost controls, to gradually, with more profits, becoming more relaxed. We went from taking the cheapest possible flights to being able to fly business class."

Yet she is not one to flaunt her new wealth and the first impression she gives is of a rather respectable middle-class mother.

No perm, no Prada, no shoulder pads for this CEO whose simply bobbed hair falls on toned shoulders exposed by a summer dress. If she was wearing make-up then it was almost undetectable, her only other adornment being two finely woven gold bracelets that jangle on a slim wrist.

Asked what car she drives, she hesitated, before replying: "Oh, it's a Lexus something, I don't know the number."

And even now, with her millions safely behind her, Zhang retains an instinct for thrift, albeit of a billionaire's kind. She refuses to fly first class, for example, even though she could easily afford to.

"It's not about affordability, it's about conscience," she said. "When I see how much my ayi [nanny] makes, and then I think of the prices of a first class ticket, I just think, 'Oh my god'. Business class is comfortable enough."

Zhang, now 45, was born into China's past, growing up during the second half of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the daughter of third-generation Chinese immigrants to Burma who returned to Beijing in the 1950s, drawn partly by the dream of the new Red China.

The family lived in a utilitarian building assigned by her parents' work units – her mother worked as an official translator helping disseminate the pronouncements of Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai – and Zhang returned each lunchtime from school to eat in the canteen.

"There were only three types of food, all pretty bad," she recalled. "We each had a rice bowl and we carried the bowl to the canteen where it was dished out of a massive container." She pointed to a photo on the wall of construction workers being dished out their food on one of her building sites. "It was like that, only a lot worse."

Beijing was a drab city at the time, she said. "The buildings were grey, everyone dressed in grey. We never noticed the sky - there was no notion of blue sky being important for the soul. Nobody was prosperous.

"Everyone dressed the same, ate the same; the difference between one person and another might be as small as how you put your hair back, or just the hair band itself. There was no class or wealth difference." Factory work in Hong Kong was not much better for her. "It was terrible," she said. "Every day you were looking for a way out. You jumped factories all the time for anyone prepared to pay an extra dollar, but we had to make a living."

After her "escape" to Britain, however, new doors began to open. With her masters in development economics she landed her first job on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. By 1994 she was ready to return to China, lured like many other expatriates by the possibilities offered by the new special economic zones and hastening economic reforms.

A friend suggested she looked at the property business - where she met a man called Pan Shiyi who was the co-founder of an up-and-coming company, and from an even poorer background than hers.

Four days later, Pan had proposed to the woman with whom he would found SOHO China. Together they nurtured it from an indebted start-up to the point, in 2007, when it was ripe for a $1.65bn stock-market listing - turning years of hard work into hard cash.

Yet Zhang's personal story is not unique. The Forbes list revealed a startling fact : o fewer than half of the world's 10 richest self-made women hail from the formerly Maoist, now aggressively state capitalist, People's Republic of China.

These women lived through the madness of the Mao years, with the bitterness of its Cultural Revolutions and the folly of its Great Leaps Forward, and then went out and amassed huge fortunes in fields as diverse as property and paper, tobacco and Tibetan medicine.

Zhang is not, like some Chinese, nostalgic for those Maoist days of equality but she does acknowledge that, in one respect, China's Communist revolution laid the foundation for the success now enjoyed by women like her.

"Mao did liberate women," she said. "He said women 'held up half the sky' but in practice women were not half the sky so much as half the strength of China. We all grew up with parents who both worked for equal pay. There was no such thing as a lady of leisure."

Zhang utters that last phrase with a hint of derision, but being the hard-headed CEO worth £1.35 doesn't prevent her from taking an obvious pride in being the mother of two boys, aged 10 and 11, a job to which she seems to attach as much importance as running her property empire.

"I don't do evening business dinners and I don't do weekends," she said, standing in front of framed family pictures that were the nearest thing to clutter in her well-ordered office.

On the shelf was a colourful drawing dedicated "To Mum" in a childish hand, and a picture of one of her sons playing in a ping-pong tournament. "We don't do too much socialising," she said. "On the weekends I do the usual parental things, going to the boys' football tournaments or getting out for a hike along the Great Wall."

She admitted she did not like being singled out for her wealth in lists like that published by Forbes. "To be honest, it makes me cringe, and I think most people with my background would feel much the same way.

"I find it hard to be labelled in this new 'super-rich' category because we all grew up with very little. The idea that 'to get rich is glorious' is really a new phenomenon. I certainly didn't grow up like that."

Looking to the China that her sons will inherit, Zhang's vision was suddenly more clouded. She is confident that China will continue to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs like her, but she also has deep concerns over where Chinese society is heading.

Economic growth, plain and simple, would not be enough to satisfy the growing aspirations of the people, she said. "The government is now confronted with more problems than ever before, and this is a real test for them. People's whole frame of reference is changing, they are more liberal in the ways of expressing their voices.

"As a result, the government at the moment is very confused. For the last 20 years all they needed to do was set a GDP growth-rate and that's it. But now they cannot ignore the problems any more. This period is really a major test for them."

January 08, 2015

Though it has been another 2 years, such amazing project is still remaining modest to vast range of BIM professionals. Thanks to the explosion of BIM development in recently years, the SOHO Galaxy, like its name, shines from the East. 

The Galaxy SOHO project in central Beijing for SOHO China is a 330 000m2 office, retail and entertainment complex that will become an integral part of the living city, inspired by the grand scale of Beijing. Its architecture is a composition of five continuous, flowing volumes that are set apart, fused or linked by stretched bridges. These volumes adapt to each other in all directions, generating a panoramic architecture without corners or abrupt transitions that break the fluidity of its formal composition.

The great interior courts of the project are a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces. Here, the architecture is no longer composed of rigid blocks, but instead comprised of volumes which coalesce to create a world of continuous mutual adaptation and fluid movement between each building. Shifting plateaus within the design impact upon each other to generate a deep sense of immersion and envelopment. As users enter deeper into the building, they discover intimate spaces that follow the same coherent formal logic of continuous curve linearity.

The lower three levels of Galaxy SOHO house public facilities for retail and entertainment. The levels immediately above provide work spaces for clusters of innovative businesses. The top of the building is dedicated to bars, restaurants and cafés that offer views along one of the greatest avenues of the city. These different functions are interconnected through intimate interiors that are always linked with the city, helping to establish Galaxy SOHO as a major urban landmark for Beijing.

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