Jenny Peng, 36
Grew up: Brisbane, Australia
Lives: Hsinchu, Taiwan
As a kid, Jenny Peng always spoke up. Getting her point across wasn’t always easy: she moved to Australia with her family at the age of twelve from Taiwan and at that point she knew only one phrase of English, ‘excuse me’. But she was never one to let a lack of words get in her way.
Today, Jenny is still speaking up and in ways she hadn’t expected. After spending her teens and twenties in Australia, Jenny is now back in her hometown, Hscinchu, Taiwan. She’s a mum to four-year-old daughter QQ, and owns an architectural firm with her husband. As a mother, Jenny loves that her profession—when done well— can have a positive impact on her daughter’s life, improve the environment and community she grows up in. She feels a new sense of urgency to fulfil her city’s potential and this recently led her to become involved in Hsinchu’s local elections. She doesn’t think of herself as political, but as Jenny puts it, she simply couldn’t help but tell people about Mayor Tsai, the candidate she campaigned for. She was overcome by excitement.
Speaking with Jenny I can see the happy-go-lucky kid who doesn’t take life too seriously, but equally a strong woman doing all she can to support her beloved city. She is a doer with a big heart, designing her way to a better world for her daughter to grow up in.
You were born in Hscinchu, Taiwan, and moved to Australia as a kid. What stands out to you about the move over?
I moved to Australia when I was twelve with my whole family. Prior to moving to Australia, I had very little knowledge of the English language. In fact, the only phrase I knew was ‘Excuse me!’ (and this became my favourite phase so to speak). So I’d be going through the Woolies [supermarket] as a kid saying, ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’ to everyone. I didn’t expect people would respond to me and often people would turn around and just go, ‘Yes?’ and I would have nothing further to say. Ha!
That’s hilarious! How long until you felt that you could communicate easily?
I think it really depends on your personality. I was just a whacky, happy, bubbly kid and I really was very keen on communicating with others and trying to say what I want. It was a struggle but as a kid you don’t really care about it. When I’m put into a situation where I just have to give it a try or walk away with nothing, more often than not I try.
An example would be going to the tuckshop and wanting one particular thing. In Chinese there is one term for all kinds of bread so I’d ask for bread at the tuckshop but I actually wanted a toffee scroll [laughs]. It took me like half a year to get the right thing! I just wanted that thing with the pink frosting on top, not the slice of white bread!
When I’m put in a situation where I just have to give it a try or walk away with nothing, more often than not I try.
Moving to Australia and then back to Taiwan as an adult you must have a very interesting perspective on being an insider and an outsider. What do you think it takes to be an insider in a culture?
Woah, that’s a big question! I think being able to communicate and feel what locals actually feel about things makes a difference. I moved back to Taiwan when I was 28 and by that time I had spent more time in Australia than I had in Taiwan. So coming back was a bit of a culture shock for me but because I was born here you just pick up the empathy that you had in you. I don’t mean pitying others, but culturally you feel how someone might react because of all the things that are culturally linked, and this might not be the same if I was born in Australia.
Can you tell me more about Taiwanese culture, and how that plays out in your life and your family’s?
When you say family it’s a bit complicated! Currently I live with my in-laws, which is quite a culture shock in itself because I see they’re very different from my parents. My parents are really nomadic and they have values that are quite different from the average Taiwanese family; it’s probably why I turned out the way I did. It’s just funny that I married this person who is from a really traditional family. I have had to learn to deal with traditions that I have forgotten and try to understand the meaning behind it all.
The empathy I have for people is within me but the way I do things is very direct. I think I’m still learning to find the balance.
Taiwanese people don’t like to offend people, they have a very roundabout way of saying what that they want. Often you don’t get the truth directly; you have to poke. But I’m not like that, which can be difficult for people who don’t know me because they might find me too abrupt. What I’m trying to say is that the empathy I have for people is within me but the way I do things is very direct. I think I’m still learning to find the balance but once people understand that your intentions are genuine better outcomes can be hoped for.
What drew you to architecture in the first place?
Well, as a kid I had a few things I wanted to do. One was a corner store owner because it was cool to own your own little shop. Growing up, I had so many fond memories of going to the corner store with my siblings and neighbours that this was an obvious “career choice” at a young age. After that, for quite a while I wanted to be a lawyer because I think I was always one of those kids who liked to speak up. Then, in grade 11 I went to the US and I noticed that I took a lot of photos of buildings. At first I didn’t think much of it and then I thought maybe I could be a photographer of buildings. I think someone was telling me how I’d starve as a photographer, so I picked another profession that got paid even worse! [Laughs]
I was told that my mind was always moving faster than what I could actually do.
And when you got out into the industry, was it what you thought it would be?
I think I felt so empowered after leaving school. I had had my own struggles in school and was told that my mind was always moving faster than what I could actually do. It was really frustrating and some of the skills I was lacking were what industry gave me. After a few years I thought maybe my hands were actually catching up with what my head was thinking. That felt really good.
So what’s life like today as an architect in Taiwan?
One of the best things about being in Asia is being able to experiment. I’ve been back for seven or eight years and one of the things that really excited me initially when I started working for myself was the idea of being able to experiment with a lot of designs and manufacturing materials because a lot of the trades are quite accessible here. Being able to think up a design and see it being custom-made in a factory is one of the more exhilarating experiences.
Recently, we bought this run down 40-year-old row of housing and we’re trying to turn it into our family home. I purposely looked for a building that was semi-rundown because it wouldn’t feel so wrong demolishing parts of it. I get really annoyed with having to tear down a lot of finished but bad design in my line of work, and there is a lot of that in the domestic housing market. To turn this concrete box into a home, we felt it was necessary to plant a fully-grown tree inside the house.
Yeah, this house is a two-story house and we decided to cut open two floor plates to create a void in the house so the tree will get daylight and we will experience the weather. Instead of weatherproofing we’re actually weather inducing!
The urban landscape is so built up here; we’re so used to seeing green in specific places. You know, let’s go to a park and that’s where we’ll see trees. I just feel like architecture should do its bit in making the environment greener and I’m trying to set an example for others; to show that greenery doesn’t have to be restricted to a large plot of land.
I agree, and that it can be integrated into your everyday life. Now I need to see pictures!
It was one of the most exciting projects for me last year. I’ve always wanted to do it but sometimes you can’t convince clients to do that! I wanted to show that green architecture can be achieved simply and cheaply because we can talk about all these grand ideas, but if it’s not affordable, then it’s just talk. So I always say actions speak louder.
It’s not just about putting nice things together. It’s about having a lot of empathy for people and making every project your own home.
How do you think good designers and architects can help a city? What’s their role for the people that live there?
Understanding how people live is one of the most important things. And secondly, understanding how the environment works. You know, the weather, the wind patterns. They’re basic things but as designers I think more focus should be on the environment. It’s easy to make a building look good but it’s not easy to make a building liveable and comfortable. That requires a lot of skills. It’s not just about putting nice things together. It’s about having a lot of empathy for people and making every project your own home, almost.
So you’re still in the middle of renovating and in between all of this I know you’ve just finished work on your city’s local elections where you were campaigning for Mayor Tsai, a former mayor who decided to run again as an independent. How did you get involved?
I felt like all the stars just lined up or something this year. I have actually never been involved in any sort of election before Mayor Tsai’s. He was the mayor [of Hscinchu] when I came back to Taiwan [in 2001] and worked for one year just after finishing third year of uni. During that time, I was working in the Department of Urban development of Hsinchu City and witnessed the changes the new municipal government made to my city compared to what I remembered [as a child]. I felt like during that year this place was magical. The local government was very active in urban planning and the civic spaces in the city improved drastically.
I had very fond memories of the “golden era” when Mayor Tsai was in government (1997-2001) and I would often tell people that he was the best mayor we ever had. Little did I know that he was living two doors down the road from one of my latest projects. After I found out he was running [for the 2014 local election] I got a little excited and made a Prezi about the changes that occurred in my city in “those golden years”. Do you know Prezi?
In becoming a mother I felt a sense of urgency…I’d like my child to grow up in a city both her and I will love.
A little bit, yeah, it’s like a PowerwPoint right?
Yeah, I just felt like I needed to share my thoughts. I’m 35 now and when I first knew of mayor Tsai I was 21, so I felt like there might be a generational gap. People who are 21 now might not know of the revolutionary changes the former mayor brought to the city in terms of infrastructural development. In the Prezi slides, I was just trying to tell people how the city was when I was younger and how revolutionary the changes were that Mayor Tsai made.
As the election date was drawing near, I actually wrote two ireports on CNN for more exposure as the local press was not favouring independent candidates. On top of this, in becoming a mother I felt a sense of urgency with the election as I’d like my child to grow up in a city both she and I love. And for us to do that it needs to reach its best potential.
We just felt that this is our fight and we need to give it a shot even though the chances were quite slim.
So what happened after you made the prezi and wrote the ireports?
It was posted online and shared by many and I certainly hope it reached some young people! Mayor Tsai ran as an independent so he didn’t have enough funding for a proper campaign. In the end it was all up to the volunteers! I think this really shows that he was genuinely supported by the people. It was liberating in that way because we just felt that this is our fight and we need to give it a shot even though the chances are quite slim.
What was the biggest thing you learnt from being involved in the campaign?
Biggest thing? Losing is quite painful! I wish I had something wiser to say but I think I was grieving for a while. It was a really heartfelt campaign, it brought people from all walks of life together and our hearts were broken by the result. Not to say that it didn’t make an impact on the city; a lot of people heard us but maybe they didn’t take a stance this time. We had a great group of volunteers—teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors and engineers—and we brainstormed ways to raise the awareness of citizens and held events like ‘Dine by the river'; things that are definitely not associated with political events. Citizens were invited to join us and enjoy the civic spaces that were made possible by Mayor Tsai’s first term in office. We hoped that events like this would re-ignite people’s imagination.
I’ve always wanted to change the world with my own profession.
Having said that, who knows what happens in four years time? If Mayor Tsai decides to run again, I know I will make the same decision.
What do you think is the best way to get people engaged in the wellbeing of their city? I’d love to know your personal take.
I think everyone has a view on how they would like their city to be, and your vision is most likely influenced by your passion and profession. Personally, right now I’m trying to draw my energy back into architecture a bit. I’ve always wanted to change the world with my own profession because, to be honest, I’m not that political. If you want me to speak about policies I don’t profess to know enough to get into a debate. But like I said, actions are louder than words, so now I’m trying to go back to my initial passion by changing the world the way I know best. That is, promoting sustainability through design, and hopefully communicating the importance of design in a greater context. Love what you do and do what you love. It will change your surroundings.
You mentioned before that you want your city to be the best version of itself, especially now you’re a mum. How does this drive to make an impact on the world fit in with you being a mum?
I think my daughter is one of the reasons that I became more vocal with politics. One of the biggest concerns I have for this city is that one of the streets, Beimen Street—a very historic street with beautiful shops and houses—has been gentrified so much that a lot of the old shops have been bulldozed and they’re building high rises over the top. It’s a real shame because that was the best part of the city. It’s like we’re forgoing our own potential. I can’t help but curse all the time when I drive past! For this city to reach its best potential, the historic buildings and sites need to be seen as an asset and not a hindrance to development. A city that successfully consolidates with its past can offer more imaginative and culturally significant solutions for the future.
What do you hope for your daughter as she grows up in Taiwan?
I want her Chinese to be better than mine! I want her to learn the culture, know the language and be immersed in it first. I would like to take her to Australia as well. Being bi-cultural really does add a dimension, but it has a complex as well. I sometimes get a sense of confusion about where exactly home is.
Being a relatively career-driven person, motherhood has actually surprised me a little bit in how much I enjoy it.
I also want my daughter to see the city maybe not so much through my eyes, but as an architect. I take her to places that I like in the city because it’s important as a kid to have that sort of memory, to not be brainwashed by all the new and the glossy stuff. The best part of this town is definitely not the glossy stuff. It’s such a lovely city if you just calm down and walk through it.
As a mum in her thirties with your own architectural firm, and a house with a tree in it, what are you looking forward to next?
Another big question! I was saying to a friend that being a relatively career-driven person, motherhood has actually surprised me a little bit in how much I enjoy it, and I look forward to combining the two— from my own influence on the environment and how that could impact a child’s world. And for me, that is all about environmentally sustainable design. I’m not saying I can do that every time but I certainly preach for it given the opportunity. If my clients see the passion or the drive that I have in me about this then they will be convinced that it’s a good thing for them and future generations.
Things I Love
Architecture as a profession
Being an idealist myself, I like to think architecture, when done right, can have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Appreciation of humanity
The love I have for this little creature and the love she shows me puts me in awe constantly. I wish for the world to be made of more of this and less of what we see on mainstream media.