Caribbean coast to urban jungle
By Magdalena Rojas  ·  2022-06-17  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 23, 2022
Alvaro Royo (second right) and his family (COURTESY PHOTO)

Throughout two decades of living in China, Alvaro Royo has taken part in different endeavors, teaching him important lessons and earning him many successes. But above all, it has marked a 180 in life, alongside his family.

There are bold people, but very few are like Royo from Cartagena, Colombia. Royo studied visual arts and architecture in his homeland and holds a master of business administration from the Technological University of Bolívar. A daring decision he made two decades ago—in March 2002—would forever change his destiny, its impact stretching well beyond his wildest dreams.

His journey began thanks to his friend Alvaro Cárdenas who encouraged him to come to China and try his luck. "I told him, 'Look, I can't speak English nor can I speak Chinese; what am I going to do over there?'" he recalled. Still, he decided to take a leap of faith. "I came [to Shanghai] without knowing any English, without a job, with a one-month visa and barely $700 in my pocket. But I was packing millions of dreams and hopes."

After the first month, Royo tore up his return ticket. With the die already cast, the Colombian had to find a way to generate income—and quickly. Royo found a niche in music that he could use to his advantage. He started working as a DJ and, soon after, began studying percussion, before forming his own band with three other friends from Peru, Mexico and Turkey. As the musical ensemble grew from four to eight members, its popularity also increased, allowing Royo to travel around China to the sound of Latin rhythms. Along with this, he also dabbled in acting, doing commercials for television and appearing as an extra on several productions, at a time when he was one of the few foreigners in this field.

New horizons

Royo's beginnings were marked by a myriad of new experiences, but also by adjustments. "Shanghai is a charming city; its history, maturity and modernity make it unique, but I come from a city of 1 million inhabitants, as is Cartagena in Colombia," he related. "Sometimes I felt Shanghai and its over 20 million people could be a bit overwhelming."

That all changed in 2003, when the band was invited to play in Xiamen, in the southeastern province of Fujian. "As a coastal city, the smell of Xiamen was immediately familiar and from the very first minute I stepped foot on its soil, I felt as if I had arrived back in Cartagena," he said. And it is here that Royo, now married and with two children aged 14 and 16, has remained to this day.

Royo's stroke of luck came in 2004, when he came across the architecture and landscaping firm Australian Region Landscape Ltd., which he was then invited to join. "The years I was with them were wonderful," he recalled. Although it was a relatively brief stint, Royo has continued to collaborate with the firm and particularly highlights the project in which the team participated for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, creating the urban elements of the Olympic Village. "Our work was among the top 10 out of 4,800 firms worldwide," he pointed out.

This experience, said Royo, was what gave him the strength to start his own architecture firm, which he still maintains to this day with more than 50 landscaping, interior and design projects under his belt. Running his own company has meant a lot of work, but he never regretted the decision.

"The difference between working as an employee for someone else's company, in which case you often miss what goes on behind the scenes, versus running your own firm is huge," he said. "Having your own company requires you to be on top of things 24/7 and to constantly reinvent yourself so that you're not left out of the game." However, "despite being more exhausting, it's also much more rewarding," he added.

One man, many hats

But that's not all. In addition to his talent as an architect and musician, Royo is also a successful entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry. "In 1990, almost at the same time when I started my university major, I opened a hamburger stand in Colombia. Then the stand became a restaurant, one restaurant led to another, and it's been like that to this day. I have always danced with those two passions, architecture and gastronomy," he said. "I still haven't decided which one to stay with; I haven't had the courage to leave one for the other because I love them both."

According to Royo, these two pursuits have been a way for him to enter both the homes and hearts of Chinese people. "Restaurants and bars allow you to have direct, face-to-face contact with a country's people," he said. "Even though I have always managed Latin-styled restaurants, the sustained contact with the families that come in makes you delve deeper into their lives, and almost touch on what they feel and how they think," he detailed. "Through architecture, I can enter people's homes and find out how they live, but as a restaurateur, I can have an almost full understanding of what their day-to-day life looks like, as well as an appreciation for their feelings and culture."

As an architect, the Colombian is no stranger to the colossal infrastructure undertakings that have been rolled out in China over the last few decades thanks to its economic growth, changing the very appearance of cities across the country. "I can safely say that the people who feel the changes in a city the most are engineers and architects, because all of that is a result of their efforts," he said. Seeing China explode before his eyes in real time reconfirmed Royo's belief that he was in the right place, especially given he could let his imagination run wild as he didn't have to deal with the economic constraints he would have encountered in other places because architectural budgets are much heftier here.

Throughout all his experiences in China, Royo believes that the support of his wife Verushka­—who was a singer in the band and now dedicates herself to special needs education—has been fundamental. Another aspect the Colombian highlighted, is how much he has learned over the years. "The lessons [here] are permanent and all your previous behaviors and ideas are shaken to the core, making you question everything," he stressed. In this sense, arriving first to Shanghai, and then to Xiamen, was a 180 he described as "being reborn."

As for his future plans and whether he still sees himself in China, Royo said this is something he thinks about every day, but without letting it overwhelm him. "As of today, my present is here," he said. "There would have to be a really interesting undertaking somewhere else for me to consider leaving this place which has taken hold of me in such a charming way." 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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