David Tse's story
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( DAVID TSE )

David is the Creative Director of Chinatown Arts Space and founder member of Yellow Earth Theatre, the UK's foremost company producing theatre of British East Asian content. David lives and works in Soho, the heart of London's Theatreland.

EXTRA IMAGES

  • David Tse family 9
  • David Tse family 1
  • David Tse family 3
  • David Tse family 5
  • David Tse family 7
  • David Tse family 2
  • David Tse family 4
  • David Tse family 6
  • David Tse family 8
  • David Tse family 10

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name is David Tse. I was born in Hong Kong and I came to the UK in 1970 when I was six years old.

David, could you tell us a bit about the heritage of your parents and your grandparents?

My parents and grandparents are all Chinese; they were originally from Po On, near Shenzhen, in the southern part of China and moved to Hong Kong. Both my parents were born in Cheung Chau, where they met. Cheung Chau is a little island just next to Lantau Island. That’s where I was born and had a fantastic childhood, an idyllic childhood. The first six years were playing with gangs of kids, lots of families, lots of friends - there were no cars on Cheung Chau so we had a very free life; it was wonderful.

"We went from a harmonious, normal family life in Hong Kong to suddenly being dysfunctional after moving to the UK. It’s taken twenty-odd years for our family to heal and re-establish itself."

Do you remember what life was like for your parents then?

When I was a child my father was already working in the UK as a waiter. My earliest memory was of my dad returning home with a big tin of chocolates! It was a red and golden tin, the chocolates were wrapped in golden foil and I just remember being really excited by that as a kid. Then I remember having to befriend him – this stranger. That was my first memory of my dad.

My mum was always there and was very loving but also quite strict because there were five of us - being the youngest I probably got away with quite a lot. So my mum had to be the disciplinarian – I remember if we were out of line, she had a feather duster and she would chase us around with it! That’s a strong memory I have of my mother in Hong Kong.

What do you know about your parents’ decision to come to the UK?

Because my Dad was from a poor working class background he had to leave school when he was fourteen to start working – that’s what happened in those days. So he was working as a fitter and a family friend said to him that Chinese takeaways and restaurants were taking off in the UK. My dad made some enquiries through this family friend and he thought, he had a growing family, so maybe it was worth trying to seek his fortune abroad to support them. That’s what he did: some time in the ‘60s he came over and started working as a waiter in restaurants all around the UK. He even worked in a restaurant in Dublin when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were together and they came in and he served them. He had those kinds of stories to tell us.

"It was really tough: for my brother it was much harder at the beginning and being younger, it was much easier for me. My brother and three sisters have all had slightly different experiences and as a result it’s really shaped us as a family."

He’d come home every two years or so – so my siblings were all born with a two-year gap between each of them! I’m the only one who has a three-year gap, with my younger sister. After a period of time he suggested to mum we emigrate, because another work colleague had saved some money and asked dad if he wanted to invest jointly and go into partnership with this English man who ran a fish and chip shop and start up a Chinese takeaway as part of it. Mum said yes, so in December 1970 she bundled all five of us on a plane and we arrived in London. So they came over to work, to start a new business – that’s why my parents brought us here.

David, what were your first memories of then, when you first arrived in the UK?

When we first arrived it was incredibly cold and it was the first time I’d seen snow. As child of six, everything was very exciting and new; but very foreign. I don’t think I spoke any English at the time. I’d been to school in Cheung Chau probably for a term, maybe a bit longer. I think my earliest memories of primary school were in a small market town called Leominster in Herefordshire where we were the only Chinese family - I was featured in a local paper. There was an interview and my photo, saying here was a Chinese boy who has just arrived from Hong Kong, who doesn’t speak any English.

It sounds like you really made an effort as a kid to really be part of British culture. How was it for your siblings who had lived in Hong Kong for longer?

I think it was much harder. My brother is nine years older, so he was fifteen when we came over and you can imagine – he’s doing quite well in school in Hong Kong and then suddenly he’s coming over here. He found it really tough to assimilate, and if you are not doing so well then you find attention in other ways. He ended up with all the bad boys and did all the typical stuff - got a tattoo, started fighting, etc. He went from being a nice young lad to being slightly off the rails. I think my brother had the toughest time of all, partly being the oldest child with the pressures and family expectations on him.

It was really tough: I think we went from a fairly harmonious, normal family life in Hong Kong to suddenly being slightly fractured, slightly dysfunctional, and it’s taken twenty-odd years really for our family to heal and re-establish itself. For my brother it was much harder at the beginning and being younger, it was much easier for me. Also, I picked up English much faster. My brother and my three sisters in between have all had a slightly different experience as a result and it’s really shaped us, being uprooted and transplanted, and it’s led to a lot of dysfunction in my family.

What is your relationship now with your family?

My father passed away a few years ago and that helped I think in my appreciation of the love and support of my family. I think my family now is in a much better place; my mum came over here for the first time in eleven years and we had this big family reunion with a Chinese banquet - that was one of the happiest times for me. It was such a rare thing, the whole family all together with my mum, because mum and dad took early retirement and went back to Hong Kong in ’89.

"We used to travel miles to see these late-night Hong Kong films in a cinema in Birmingham. That was fifty-odd miles away from home, but that was how strong the need for cultural affirmation was in the ‘70s."

A wonderful thing about moving here is that my parents achieved their goal and the profits they made they very sensibly invested in property in Hong Kong, and that enabled them to take early retirement. They achieved their immigrant goal of working hard, saving up and living a more comfortable life than their working class roots would have given them. But the other part of their dream was that we, as second generation, would all become educated and professional: be working as doctors, lawyers, accountants in Hong Kong and actually, with migration, that isn’t what happens! My siblings have all ended up settling here and they are all somehow still connected to catering, to varying degrees. So, mum and dad had loads of relatives over in Hong Kong, but their children and their grandchildren are all over here. That’s one of the casualties of the immigrant experience, really.

Who have been your role models in your life?

My role models have mainly come from the time of my childhood. In the early ‘80s there was a programme on the BBC called ‘The Chinese Detective’, and it was the first ever series with a leading Chinese character. I remember thinking ‘this is fantastic, this is really important’. Every time there was anything Chinese, you thirst for it, because it’s a kind of cultural desert and very rarely was there somebody who looked like us.

"I met a colleague after she visited China who said her whole world view had been turned because she thought, I’m from a little island with a small population of 60 million: China is 1.3 billion people. Suddenly, she had to completely re-evaluate how culturally important she was."

We used to travel miles to see these late-night Hong Kong films in a cinema in Birmingham. That was fifty-odd miles away from home, but we’d close the shop, grab a quick bite to eat, then we’d be in the car driving to Birmingham and we’d watch these late-night Hong Kong movies. I’d be up past midnight and I remember watching these movies, some of which were a bit saucy – Hong Kong humour in the ‘70s! My mum would put her hand over my eyes and I’d be trying to look to see all sorts of things! But that was how strong the need for cultural affirmation was in the ‘70s.

Fast-forwarding to now, the East Asian sector, we are 1.6% of the national population and of that 1.6%, 1.5% is Chinese, the rest is Japanese, Korean – all the other East Asian communities. Through our BBC license fee we are subsidising a lot of work and we are getting very little back. So as license fee payers we do have a right to expect fair play, equal opportunities – I mean, we are still culturally invisible in mainstream British media. I would expect there to be more role models around.

A final story: I remember meeting a colleague after she visited China, and she said her whole world view had been turned on its head because she was so ignorant of what China is, how people are over there and what a vibrant, modern society a lot of it is. Suddenly she thought, I’m from a little, small island with a small population of 60 million: China is 1.3 or 1.4 billion people. Suddenly, she had to completely re-evaluate how much cultural influence or how important she was.

My name is David Tse. I was born in Hong Kong and I came to the UK in 1970 when I was six years old.

David, could you tell us a bit about the heritage of your parents and your grandparents?

My parents and grandparents are all Chinese; they were originally from Po On, near Shenzhen, in the southern part of China and moved to Hong Kong. Both my parents were born in Cheung Chau, where they met. Cheung Chau is a little island just next to Lantau Island. That’s where I was born and had a fantastic childhood, an idyllic childhood. The first six years were playing with gangs of kids, lots of families, lots of friends - there were no cars on Cheung Chau so we had a very free life; it was wonderful.

"We went from a harmonious, normal family life in Hong Kong to suddenly being dysfunctional after moving to the UK. It’s taken twenty-odd years for our family to heal and re-establish itself."

Do you remember what life was like for your parents then?

When I was a child my father was already working in the UK as a waiter. My earliest memory was of my dad returning home with a big tin of chocolates! It was a red and golden tin, the chocolates were wrapped in golden foil and I just remember being really excited by that as a kid. Then I remember having to befriend him – this stranger. That was my first memory of my dad.

My mum was always there and was very loving but also quite strict because there were five of us - being the youngest I probably got away with quite a lot. So my mum had to be the disciplinarian – I remember if we were out of line, she had a feather duster and she would chase us around with it! I remember one time I was particularly naughty and had a little beating from her. You had to kneel on the floor in front of a picture of the ancestors and you had to hold your ears – you had to pull on your ears! It was supposed to be like a confession – you had to think pure thoughts and apologise for your bad behaviour. I think the pulling of the ears is something to do with Buddhism - Buddhas are supposed to have very long ear lobes - but it was definitely about asking for forgiveness from your ancestors. So I had to do that, leaning on the floor, tears streaming down my face. That’s a strong memory I have of my mother, but I was probably what the British call a ‘latch-key kid’ because we were so free, but there was a sense of community; it was incredibly joyful childhood I had in Hong Kong.

What do you know about your parents’ decision to come to the UK?

Dad was working as a fitter and doing manual work. A fitter is like an engineer - taking things apart, fixing them and stuff like that. So we were very much working class; he’d dropped out of school when he was fourteen and didn’t have much of an education because his schooling coincided with the Japanese invasion. He went from speaking Chinese and learning English at school, to learning Japanese under the Japanese occupation.

"It was really tough: for my brother it was much harder at the beginning and being younger, it was much easier for me. My brother and three sisters have all had slightly different experiences and as a result it’s really shaped us as a family."

Because he was from a poor working class background he had to leave school when he was fourteen to start working – that’s what happened in those days. So he was working as a fitter and a family friend said to him that Chinese takeaways and restaurants were taking off in the UK and they were looking for more help, for waiters and cooks. My dad made some enquiries through this family friend and he thought, he had a growing family, so maybe it was worth trying to seek his fortune abroad to support them. That’s what he did: some time in the ‘60s he came over and started working as a waiter in restaurants all around the UK. I’ve seen some family photos and heard that he worked in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, all around England. He even worked in a restaurant in Dublin when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were together and they came in and he served them. He had those kinds of stories to tell us.

He’d come home every two years or so – so my siblings were all born with a two-year gap between each of them! I’m the only one who has a three-year gap, with my younger sister. After a period of time he suggested to mum we emigrate, because another work colleague had saved some money and asked dad if he wanted to invest jointly and go into partnership with this English man who ran a fish and chip shop and start up a Chinese takeaway as part of it. Mum said yes, so in December 1970 she bundled all five of us on a plane and we arrived in London. So they came over to work, to start a new business – that’s why my parents brought us here.

David, what were your first memories of then, when you first arrived in the UK?

When we first arrived it was incredibly cold and it was the first time I’d seen snow. As child of six, everything was very exciting and new; but very foreign. I don’t think I spoke any English at the time. I’d been to school in Cheung Chau probably for a term, maybe a bit longer. I think my earliest memories of primary school were in a small market town called Leominster in Herefordshire where we were the only Chinese family - I was featured in a local paper. There was an interview and my photo, saying here was a Chinese boy who has just arrived from Hong Kong, who doesn’t speak any English.

I remember really enjoying reading and watching a lot of television - assimilating quite quickly really, picking up the language much faster than my siblings and having good friends. I remember the first time someone called me a ‘chinky’ - we ended up having a fight about it. It was a good friend of mine called Paul, an English guy who was slightly taller than me, but I remember he called me a few names once so I hid behind the classroom door and when he walked out I jumped on him and we had this big fight! I was between six and eleven, sometime during that period. But I do recall Paul and I became good friends after that.

It sounds like you really made an effort as a kid to really be part of British culture. How was it for your siblings who had lived in Hong Kong for longer?

I think it was much harder. My brother is nine years older, so he was fifteen when we came over and you can imagine – he’s doing quite well in school in Hong Kong and then suddenly he’s coming over here. Obviously he was learning a bit of English in school, but didn’t need to practice it on a regular basis. So it was a big challenge for him – suddenly he arrives, he’s got a year to his O-levels. He found it really tough to assimilate, and if you are not doing so well then you find attention in other ways. He ended up with all the bad boys and did all the typical stuff - got a tattoo, started fighting, etc. He went from being a nice young lad to being slightly off the rails. I think my brother had the toughest time of all, partly being the oldest child with the pressures and family expectations on him.

It was really tough: I think we went from a fairly harmonious, normal family life in Hong Kong to suddenly being slightly fractured, slightly dysfunctional, and it’s taken twenty-odd years really for our family to heal and re-establish itself. If you use a horticultural analogy, its like taking a tender young plant and suddenly ripping it up by its roots – if you replant it in a new garden which is not necessarily fertile for you, you can feed it and give it water but whether it takes root or not is another matter. So for my brother it was much harder at the beginning and being a younger plant, a younger shoot, it was much easier for me. Also, I picked up English much faster. My brother and my three sisters in between have all had a slightly different experience as a result and it’s really shaped us, being uprooted and transplanted, and it’s led to a lot of dysfunction in my family.

What is your relationship now with your family?

My father passed away a few years ago and that helped I think in my appreciation of the love and support of my family. I think my family now is in a much better place; my mum came over here for the first time in eleven years and we had this big family reunion with a Chinese banquet - that was one of the happiest times for me. It was such a rare thing, the whole family all together with my mum, because mum and dad took early retirement and went back to Hong Kong in ’89.

A wonderful thing about moving here is that my parents achieved their goal and the profits they made they very sensibly invested in property in Hong Kong, and that enabled them to take early retirement. They achieved their immigrant goal of working hard, saving up, investing, retiring early and living a more comfortable life than their working class roots would have given them. But the other part of their dream was that we, as second generation, would all become educated and professional: be working as doctors, lawyers, accountants in Hong Kong and actually, with migration, that isn’t what happens! None of what they wanted for their children came about – my siblings have all ended up settling here and they are all somehow still connected to catering, to varying degrees. So, mum and dad had loads of relatives over in Hong Kong, but their children and their grandchildren are all over here. That’s one of the casualties of the immigrant experience, really.

"We used to travel miles to see these late-night Hong Kong films in a cinema in Birmingham. That was fifty-odd miles away from home, but that was how strong the need for cultural affirmation was in the ‘70s."

I don’t have my own kids but I’ve been able to be a vicarious parent with my nephews and nieces, making sure they feel they have cousins, they have uncles and aunties, and they have a normal family life, which we lost when we came here. I’ve tried to make sure that the third generation are as balanced as possible and as integrated as possible. The difference is that now four of them have been to university. In my generation, one out of five went to university, and in their generation four out of five are going.

Who have been your role models in your life?

My role models have mainly come from the time of my childhood. In the early ‘80s there was a programme on the BBC called ‘The Chinese Detective’, and it was the first ever series with a leading Chinese character. ‘The Chinese Detective’ was built around the character that David Yip played and I remember thinking ‘this is fantastic, this is really important’. Every time there was anything Chinese, you thirst for it, because it’s a kind of cultural desert, you know; its just white, white, white all the time and then sometimes some black and some Indian and very rarely somebody who looked like us.

"I met a colleague after she visited China who said her whole world view had been turned because she thought, I’m from a little island with a small population of 60 million: China is 1.3 billion people. Suddenly, she had to completely re-evaluate how culturally important she was."

We used to travel miles to see these late-night Hong Kong films in a cinema in Birmingham. That was fifty-odd miles away from home, but we’d close the shop, grab a quick bite to eat, then we’d be in the car driving to Birmingham and we’d watch these late-night Hong Kong movies. I’d be up past midnight and I remember watching these movies, some of which were a bit saucy – Hong Kong humour in the ‘70s! My mum would put her hand over my eyes and I’d be trying to look to see all sorts of things! But that was how strong the need for cultural affirmation was in the ‘70s.

Fast-forwarding to now, the East Asian sector, we are 1.6% of the national population and of that 1.6%, 1.5% is Chinese, the rest is Japanese, Korean – all the other East Asian communities. Through our BBC license fee we are subsidising a lot of white work, a lot of black work, a lot of South Asian work, a lot of disabled work, we are subsidising lesbian and gay work, we are subsiding it and we are getting very little back. So as license fee payers we do have a right to expect fair play, equal opportunities – I mean, we are still culturally invisible in mainstream British media. I would expect there to be more role models around.

Do you think the absence of East Asian artists in mainstream British media is anything to do with East Asians holding on to their own culture, maybe to the detriment of integrating into British culture?

I remember working for a large firm once and what was very interesting is that a lot of these East Asians – highly intelligent, very capable professionals – were saying that within this British company, they sometimes feel that if they do not drink as much as their white colleagues they don’t get on as quickly, because it means they miss out on certain inside information or getting close to the CEO. Asian culture is much more based around food, so we would much prefer to go and have dinner rather than go to the pub, and it is quite a big difference. People in Asia enjoy a drink as much as anybody, but these really deep things are fundamental differences and I think that’s one reason - its not because Asian people are being too proud or want to be separate.

I think on the whole East Asian people are more open to the rest of the world; they are more curious. I remember as a kid, when an English lady came to Cheung Chau, as children we were delighted with her blonde hair and we asked if we could stroke it! There was a kind of curiosity and a playfulness about that, but here its more perceived as a threat when there is difference - people feel threatened. If you look at the news in East Asia, it does engage with the rest of the world, especially from somewhere like Hong Kong because it was a former British colony - it had no choice but to know the social mores of both East and West.

A final story: I remember meeting a colleague after she visited China, and she said her whole world view had been turned on its head because she was so ignorant of what China is, how people are over there and what a vibrant, modern society a lot of it is. Suddenly she thought, I’m from a little, small island with a small population of 60 million: China is 1.3 or 1.4 billion people. Suddenly, she had to completely re-evaluate how much cultural influence or how important she was.