Shooting hoops in Burma, school in Singapore, a future in Melbourne: Architect Steven Chu
Architect Steven Chu has probably pondered the concept of what makes a home far more deeply than you or I have. Growing up between Singapore and Burma, now a Melbourne citizen, Chu’s business model is wrapped up in the idea of a creating a safe haven for creativity — Habitat, his co-working space, is full of plants and happy faces. His rescued greyhound is a regular, and Chu is busy marketing, fielding inquiries, and bringing in baked goods for his fellow co-workers. He spoke to Aerostorie about the ups and downs of launching a Melbourne business, missing basketball trials in Burma and the relief of carrying an Australian passport.
“There has been highs and crippling lows and just unrelenting stress all the time, but it’s just a typical journey of running a business, I guess. But when I put things in perspective, it’s actually going really well.
I think it’s just my personality, just, sort of, over-thinking things and getting too ahead of myself.
There’s four people in the space now and there’s a really positive vibe in the space and everyone’s getting along.
It’s been a balance of good things and bad things, I suppose. But I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, this is exactly what I want to be doing, so I’m just going to keep moving forward.
Right now, I’m working on the co-working business almost all day. I’m replying to emails, speaking to people on the phone, that sort of thing. With my architecture practice, I’ve got three houses that are not really in the bag yet, we’re just negotiating contracts...
Part of [the idea of co-working space] was to allow me to work on anything I want in Altar Atlas (Chu’s architecture firm).
You know, like complete creative independence. Even thinking up art pieces, and creating visualisations of installations — just concepts, and creating things that I enjoy doing, not because this client is asking me to do it, and I’ll have to say 'Yes’, because I need to pay my rent.
I was trying to think of a way that combined a lot of goals into one and Habitat is obviously doing that for me.
I arrived in Melbourne in 2006 11 years ago, but actually, I had wanted to go to the States for college because I played competitive basketball. I had a dream — a delusion I guess — that I could enter the NBA... (laughs)
I really want to go pro. I was training every day and then there’s a few short players in the NBA — I’m tall in Singapore, but you know I was 5-9, 5-10… I was doing research on my own based on the college basketball teams not based on like what I was going to study.
Then I wanted to do a tourist visit to the campuses, but my visa got rejected because I was a Burmese citizen. That was a pretty hard.
I sort of grew up going back and forth between Burma and Singapore.
I left when I was four to go to school in Singapore, but I spent about three months of the year in Burma, because of school holidays.
My dad was always in Burma and my mum was in Singapore. In hindsight that was a really weird arrangement though, they were not divorced or anything.
That’s how I grew up. I saw my dad once a year, and sometimes I just spent two weeks in Burma, and that’s how long I would see my dad for.
I did spend 15 years in Singapore. Kindergarten, primary school high school, then junior college, Transferred to the Polytechnic because the only reason I went to junior college was so I could get scouted in my basketball team yeah and I miss that team trials because I missed the flight from Burma to come back to Singapore.
So there were a few events that made me rethink whether basketball was the right direction.
I left to Singapore when I was 19 and I came here on my own, with like a thousand dollars in my pocket and I had a high school friend who was already here. So it was like crashing this place or just sleeping on the floor yeah for the first week.
That was almost 11 years ago.
But I always felt like I could go back to Burma and I could go back to Singapore yeah because I still had homes there... when I was around 22.
But then, a huge rift started to appear between my parents so it became clearer, they were talking about divorce and going into this process of separating... That’s when I stopped speaking to my dad, which meant to me that I could never go back to the home I grew up in Burma. I lost that connection there. So I felt I lost a home there.
A few years later, I think that was when the financial crisis hit...
[My family] couldn’t live in the house that we were living in Singapore, we had to sell the house. It was my aunt’s, and were just like you know living there, then we had to move to a smaller apartment.
So my aunt is she owns a few properties in Singapore. She used to anyway, and because my mother taking care of my grandma we were allowed to live in one of our properties and just take care of my grandma and it was this quaint little brick and terracotta thing with a nice garden.
The person who bought our Singapore house ended up demolishing it and building this like very ugly modernist building...
That was just devastating, emotionally. It was more devastating to my mum and brother who are still living here.
At that point I felt like I lost Singapore as well.
Yeah. So in the same year a I felt like I lost two homes you know and before that I just thought I was here temporarily, studying.
And when that happened I decided okay at least I’ve got Melbourne. And then at that point I decided I’m going to make Melbourne my home, that no one else can take away from me. Because it’s solely up to me.
I did grow up traveling a lot... I started travelling when I was four. It wasn’t like a family trip to Paris or Tokyo, it was just really rough stuff...off road, I didn’t really know where we’re going, we were just on the road.
Once we crossed the border from Burma to China. We took that trip by bus that was mostly like immigrants, just like workers. Everyone was smoking in a bus and the bus was like a. they didn’t have seats on it. They had beds and everyone was like lying down on the bed like stacked up so tightly that you can’t sit up on your bed.
In the middle of the night. The bus with which checkpoint a few soldiers would get and shine a torch light on people’s faces and start dragging people off the bus right. Where they were. I was like yeah maybe the word smugglers as well but. I look up. And this soldier was shining a light in my face so I couldn’t see where I was. I could see like a rifle. So that was just that was the travel experience.
So when I got to Melbourne I didn’t have that need to backpack around Europe, because I’ve always traveled, what I really had was a desire to just to have a home.
That led me down to the path of getting permanent residence, applying for citizenship. because before that I was just a Burmese citizen which which made me feel really vulnerable because you know like I felt I couldn’t go to the [United] States simply because I was born in Burma.
I really wanted an Australian passport.
Because if anything happens... they would have to answer to the Australian embassy.”