Now Zhang is back in China, pursuing an entirely new career: real estate. Her privately held Beijing company, which pulled in revenues of $405 million last year, is called SOHO China Ltd. It's not only one of the busiest builders in the capital but also one of the most admired for the attractive, innovative architecture of its buildings.
Since 1995, Zhang and her 40-year-old husband, Pan Shiyi, who runs SOHO with her, have built four projects in Beijing and Hainan Province, and have three more in the pipeline in the capital. SOHO is an acronym for "small office, home office," and most of its projects are residential and commercial developments for the upper middle class. One recent project is Jianwai SOHO, consisting of 18 residential towers, two office towers, and four villas in downtown Beijing that boast light, airy apartments, trendy restaurants, and art galleries. But while Zhang prides herself on building for the middle market, she has also taken on lavish projects such as the Commune by the Great Wall, which comprises 12 villas, each designed by a different Asian architect. Last year, Zhang became the first non-architect to receive an award at the Venice Biennale, for her "bold personal initiative."
In overseeing the design of her buildings, Zhang is vividly aware of how oppressive and chaotic a contemporary Chinese city can be. "Wherever there is ugliness and messiness," she says, "that is the place we can make a difference."
Does she worry that she will be caught in a housing bubble? Zhang says no, since most of what she builds appeals to the cost-conscious new generation of aspiring middle class buyers -- the most stable segment of the market. "These people don't care about big lobbies," she says. "They want broadband and a good location." And if hard times come, Zhang thinks she is well-equipped to face them. "I don't come from an ivory tower background," she adds. "In many ways, that makes you much tougher in executing your plans." As tough as any of China's up-from-the bottom entrepreneurs.