Architects find new life on washroom floor

Zheng Qiong
Zheng Qiong Ma Xuefeng Zhong Youyang
Living in downtown Shanghai, with three kids and a fat cat, Canadian couple Sherry Poon and Raefer Wallis said they have built an intimate relationship with their neighbors.

Zheng Qiong
Zheng Qiong Ma Xuefeng Zhong Youyang
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Jonathan.

Living in downtown Shanghai, with their three kids and a fat cat named Gingy, Canadian couple Sherry Poon and Raefer Wallis said they have built an intimate relationship with their neighbors and also with Shanghai.

Seventeen years ago, as two young architects, Poon and Wallis came to Shanghai for the first time because of work opportunities.

“Being young designers, we wanted to gain more experience, as much as we could learn, as quickly as we could, and we thought Shanghai would be a good place to start,” Poon recalled.

Now, Wallis owns an architecture and software company “GIGA.” It combines the development of building standards with technology to increase the accessibility and impact of healthy buildings.

Poon has had a fashion label called Wobabybasics since 2007, providing organic cotton children’s clothing and accessories.

The couple’s three kids were all born in Shanghai.

They used their strengths and renovated their house using environmentally friendly materials.

“Our second daughter was born in the washroom,” Poon said, “because we didn’t make it in time to the hospital.”

“Afterward, she would often joke that I’m an architect-doctor, because I’ve assisted the birth of our two children,” Wallis laughed.

For Poon and Wallis, the house is not just a living space shared with their kids and cat, it is also a connection with their neighbors.

“We have known our neighbors for 17 years now, and we attended their son’s wedding and were there to congratulate them when their grandchild was born,” Wallis said. “They are like part of our family, too.”

Architects find new life on washroom floor
Ti Gong

Portrait of a happy family of five — Sherry Poon, Raefer Wallis and their three children, all born in Shanghai

Name: Sherry Poon and Raefer Wallis
Nationality: Canadian
Job: architect
Years in Shanghai: 17

Q: What do you remember about your first time in Shanghai?

Poon: I came to Shanghai first, in October of 2001, while Raefer was still studying back in Canada.

I came at the start of the National Day holidays. I didn’t realize people had gone out of town for the holidays, so I thought: “Wow, Shanghai is so quiet. There is no traffic. There are no people on the streets.”

But after a week, I saw the real Shanghai. There was a lot of traffic and a lot of people.

We came to Shanghai because of work, but after three months, we chose to stay because of the energy here. It is different from Canada. Canada is too quiet. 

Q: How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?

Poon: I am Chinese-Canadian. When I first arrived, for the first couple of years, I was kind of confused, because people would be either very happy to see me, or to remind me that I am Chinese or an Asian. They also scolded me, because I didn’t speak Chinese very well.

But for Raefer, with a typical Western face, it is always like: “Wow, you said ‘ni hao’, you are so good.”

Culturally speaking, I feel comfortable living in Shanghai. My parents are from Hong Kong. Although I was born in Canada, my parents would have Hong Kong movies going on at all times when we were home. We read Hong Kong newspapers and we celebrated every single Chinese holiday. My mom made Chinese food at home as well.

Wallis: We both lived overseas. I had lived in Europe before for a year, and Sherry had lived in Thailand. So, moving to a new place wasn’t a completely crazy shock. But to adapt to China, it definitely took me quite a period of time.

It is much harder for the people like Sherry, especially 17 years ago, because of the expectations from the local community. People think you look Chinese, you should speak Chinese.

And you look stupid to them when you don’t speak Chinese. 

Q: Share with us some memorable tales of Shanghai.

Poon: Again, we weren’t supposed to be here for 17 years. At first, we just wanted to stay for three years, get some experience and go back to Canada. But instead, we started a family here. We had all three of our kids here, in Shanghai. Actually, two of our kids literally born here, in the house.

Our second daughter was born in the washroom because we didn’t make it in time to the hospital. Every time you give birth, it’s faster and easier.

By the time we had the third child, our doctor said to us, “Stay at home. Here is a sterilized kit, this is what you need to do, then bring the baby and yourself to the hospital.”

We’ve had a very intimate relationship with our house. 

Architects find new life on washroom floor
Ti Gong

The Wallis' spent much of their time at home, which they designed and renovated using environmentally friendly materials. 

Q: Were you scared?

Wallis: There is no time. “There’s the baby, and there’s the head! Okay!”

It’s just all adrenalin, all action. As children, we grew up outdoors. My brothers and I, we were very into doing extreme sports, so we were all trained in first aid — if somebody breaks a leg, how do you respond? If you’re stranded in the woods, how do you survive? Things like this. So in time of emergency, a little bit of blood, it’s okay for me.

I remember actually being very calm, just watching the baby come out and thinking: “Wow, everything is wrong.”

Because I’d read a book “What happens if..?” It says you need to wash your hands for 20 minutes in hot water, and then you need to be in a sterilized location. But we’re in the dirtiest place in the house, we’re in the toilet and I don’t have time to wash my hands for 20 minutes, the baby’s coming out!

And then it says you need to wrap the baby in a clean, sterilized cloth. But there’s nothing but a dirty towel we used that morning to shower! Fortunately she was healthy. They were all healthy. 

Q: What have your Chinese friends added to your time in Shanghai?

Wallis: We were very lucky to have an amazing neighbor in our first house, not far from here, when we first moved in Shanghai. On the floor below us lived a couple with their son. The son spoke a little bit of English, but he wanted to learn more.

So we taught him English and he taught us Chinese.

His mom is such an amazing character that she would cook hongshaorou (braised pork in brown sauce) for us and chunjuan (spring rolls). The old couple are like grandparents for our kids now.

The doorkeeper of our community is the same guy for 17 years, no change. He saw us move in, and then kids being born. He knows everything. And most people in the alley, too. They are an important part of our Shanghai experience.

Special Reports