Ho-Yin Ng's story
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( HO-YIN NG )

As a result of attending school in suburban London and having had very little interaction with other British-Born Chinese throughout his youth, Ho-Yin's upbringing felt 'very British'. In recent years he has begun to see how a blend of Western creativity and Eastern thoroughness has made his career successes possible as a Director of Amanda Levete Architects. He currently resides in New Malden, just streets away from his parents, in the British community he grew up in.

EXTRA IMAGES

  • Ho-yin Ng family 7
  • Ho-yin Ng family 1
  • Ho-yin Ng family 3
  • Ho-yin Ng family 5
  • Ho-yin Ng family 2
  • Ho-yin Ng family 4
  • Ho-yin Ng family 6
  • Ho-yin Ng family 8

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

I'm Ho-Yin Ng, I'm 34 years old and I was born in London. My parents are originally from Hong Kong; my grandparents are from Hong Kong as well.

Could you tell us about your family history?

You can actually trace my heritage and family back to 500BC - back to Confucius. We originally came from an area south of the Yellow River, but due to slander and other mishaps, my family then moved to Toisan, and it was there that the family base grew. In the 19th century, my family moved to Hong Kong and started a business. My great-great-grandfather became quite a successful businessman and opened an insurance company, but of the influence you could gain back then, he also joined Sun Yat-sen and actually funded the Chinese Revolution. He sent my great-grandfather - his second son - to Boston, USA, to study, which I think was quite rare back then. So my great-grandfather stayed in Boston and actually studied mining, and after that moved back to China and became the chief of the South China Mining Group.

"In Hong Kong, my father was always told off for doing extracurricular activities. He was told, ‘You must study hard and forget about these other things’. So when it came to picking a career, he never forced me. He just asked me, ‘What do you enjoy the most?’."

Then when his father died he moved back into Hong Kong. I don't believe he could actually read or write or speak Chinese, and it was actually when he got married that he learnt; his wife actually taught him how to read and write Chinese. They stayed in Hong Kong and had nine children - of which my father is the seventh - and my grandfather started his own business, but then the Second World War started and he was in the voluntary forces, and unfortunately was killed when he was 41.

So this left my grandmother, my father and his siblings, who were all taken care of by the Red Cross. When my father was older he came to the UK to study, supported by his older brother and sisters. My father studied to become a medical researcher, but probably around his early 40s he discovered he suffered from glaucoma, which put an end to his career; he could no longer do what he wanted to do and he had to take on other jobs to try and sustain our family. My mother is also from Hong Kong - she came to the UK in 1969 and married my dad in 1970, and then I was born in 1977. From my memories of childhood - for the majority it was of my parents trying to get by. We started a fish and chip shop and sort of started a restaurant as well, so financially it was a struggle for them, but as a family we were very close.

Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing?

When I do speak with other Chinese people I find that they had a lot of contact with other Chinese families, or went to Chinatown, and I never really had that. My family was quite detached from the Chinese community: we really kept to ourselves and maybe that was because of my father’s glaucoma and him not being able to carry on in his chosen field. When I was younger the majority of my friends were people that I had at school - I think in my year in secondary school there were no other Chinese people at all. The friends I had never highlighted the point that I was Chinese, and I just felt like one of them.

"When I was in Hong Kong, I realised that that people were frowning at me when they realised that I was not really from Hong Kong. I felt like I wasn't good enough to be British, and not good enough to be Chinese."

So I guess my Chinese influences were directly always from my parents. My parents were very strict: they had very strict principles - whether they were Chinese principles, I don't really know. All I understand is that it was my parents' way of bringing me up.

Did you then discover later on that they were Chinese principles?

Yes, I think so. As I got older I began to understand how my life was different from other people; how much stricter they were and how much focused they were on my education. I always thought that everyone went home and got tutored by their mum and dad, but obviously that wasn't the case. After his day at work, my father would come straight up and start tutoring me, doing all the homework and going beyond the school curriculum. Then at the weekend we would always go out; we would always be doing something together, he was very much someone who would focus on working very hard but then ensuring that I had extracurricular activities as well.

In Hong Kong, my father was always told off for doing extracurricular activities. He was always told, ‘You must always study hard and forget about all these other things’. I think my dad realised that he didn't think this was the best way to go – he realised that you needed a mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. So when it came to picking a career - again he never forced me - he never said you have to be a lawyer, doctor or an accountant. He just looked at me and said, ‘Which do you enjoy the most?’.

Do you think you could tell us more about how both your British and Chinese influences have affected your professional life?

I see a lot of it especially now because I do some tutoring at universities and lecturing around the world. What I've realised is that British students are very creative; all the students I see from universities are very lateral thinkers. They are able to think outside the box, and are not afraid to push the boundaries. Often you would set them a task and more often than not they would come back with the task incomplete but something completely different, which you hadn't really been thinking about.

"When I go to meetings in Hong Kong now, it's half in Cantonese and half in English. So it's very comfortable for me. Previously I thought ‘if I don't know this word I will have a problem’; now if I just say the English it's fine because they understand it."

I find with the Chinese students, they are very focused, very driven and very logical. I guess they are less lateral thinking: you would give them a task but you have to define what the task is. They would go away and they would push that task to the nth degree, but they never really explore beyond that; they've gone down one singular line, they are unable to take the branches. I think the balance that I have now is still understanding the conceptual stage, but I'm able to say, ‘Right, I need to stop being conceptual now and actually manage the team and deliver the final product.’ So I think I am able to balance that and achieve those things.

What changed that?

I think my understanding of the world. I have a project now that is in Hong Kong - you go there and realise that actually they are actively seeking people who have been taught in the UK because the UK is at the forefront of architecture. I think when you’re in China, you realise that they actually want you and want your ideas - even when I go to meetings in Hong Kong now, it's half in Cantonese and half in English. So it's very comfortable for me. Previously where I thought ‘if I don't know this word in Chinese I will have a problem’, now if I just say the English it's completely fine because they understand it and they are conversing in the same way.

I will have children, hopefully, and my aim for them would be to have a similar upbringing to me. Hopefully I can offer them more, for them to be able to do better than me. But that's in the future - so who knows?

I'm Ho-Yin Ng, I'm 34 years old and I was born in London. My parents are originally from Hong Kong; my grandparents are from Hong Kong as well.

Could you tell us about your family history?

You can actually trace my heritage and family back to 500BC - back to Confucius. My father told me that we came from an area south of the Yellow River; we were quite a large family back then but due to slander and other mishaps, my family then moved to Toisan, and it was there that the family base grew. In the 19th century, my family moved to Hong Kong and started growing a business. My great-great-grandfather became quite a successful businessman and opened an insurance company, but of the influence you could gain back then, he also joined Sun Yat-sen and actually funded the Chinese Revolution. He sent my great-grandfather - his second son - to Boston, USA, to study, which I think was quite rare back then. So my great-grandfather stayed in Boston and actually studied mining, and after that moved back to China and became the chief of the South China Mining Group.

"In Hong Kong, my father was always told off for doing extracurricular activities. He was told, ‘You must study hard and forget about these other things’. So when it came to picking a career, he never forced me. He just asked me, ‘What do you enjoy the most?’."

Then when his father died he moved back into Hong Kong. I don't believe he could actually read or write or speak Chinese, and it was actually when he got married that he learnt; my great-grandmother, his wife, actually taught him how to read and write Chinese. They stayed in Hong Kong and had nine children - of which my father is the seventh - and my grandfather started his own business, but then the Second World War started and he was in the voluntary forces, and unfortunately was killed when he was 41.

So this left my grandmother, my father and his siblings, who were all taken care of by the Red Cross. When my father was older he came to the UK to study, supported by his older brother and sisters. Two of his siblings stayed in Hong Kong, one went to the USA, but everyone else came to London. My father studied to become a medical researcher, but probably around his early 40s he discovered he suffered from glaucoma, which put an end to his career; he could no longer do what he wanted to do and he had to take on other jobs to try and sustain our family. My mother is also from Hong Kong - she came to the UK in 1969 and married my dad in 1970, and then I was born in 1977. From my memories of childhood - for the majority it was of my parents trying to get by. We started a fish and chip shop and sort of started a restaurant as well, so financially it was a struggle for them, but as a family we were very close.

Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing?

When I do speak with other Chinese people I find that they had a lot of contact with other Chinese families, or went to Chinatown, or to Chinese school when they were young, and I never really had that. My family was quite detached from the Chinese community: we really kept to ourselves and maybe that was because of my father’s glaucoma and him not being able to carry on in his chosen field. When I was younger the majority of my friends were people that I had at school - I think in my year in secondary school there were no other Chinese people at all. The friends I had never highlighted the point that I was Chinese, and I just felt very at ease, I was one of them. I just felt like I was in this multicultural society, this is the way it was and this was how everyone else was.

"When I was in Hong Kong, I realised that that people were frowning at me when they realised that I was not really from Hong Kong. I felt like I wasn't good enough to be British, and not good enough to be Chinese."

So I guess my Chinese influences were directly always from my parents. My parents were very strict: they had very strict principles - whether they were Chinese principles, I don't really know. All I understand is that it was my parents' way of bringing me up.

Did you then discover later on that they were Chinese principles?

Yes, I think so. As I got older I began to understand how my life was different from other people; how much stricter they were and how much focused they were on my education. I always thought that everyone went home and got tutored by their mum and dad, but obviously that wasn't the case. We lived in a small flat above the fish and chip shop which my father owned; he would work the whole day, then when I would come back from school he would leave the shop - my mum would be there with an assistant - he would come straight up and start tutoring me, doing all the homework and going beyond the school curriculum. Then at the weekend we would always go out; he would always take me to the park, we would always be doing something together, he was very much someone who would focus on working very hard but then ensuring that I had extracurricular activities as well.

In Hong Kong, my father was always told off for doing extracurricular activities. He was always told, ‘You must always study hard and forget about all these other things’. I think my dad realised that he didn't think this was the best way to go – he realised that you needed a mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. So my father took a lot of time to ensure that I experienced everything, such as playing musical instruments, which he allowed me the opportunity to do but I failed miserably - I had no interest in it whatsoever. But he didn't force me, he realised this and said fine. When I threw my musical instrument across the room and shattered it, he said, ‘Fine, we don't need to do anything else on that, we can explore other things’. That really opened my eyes: he never forced me into a direction, everything I wanted to try he allowed me to try and he really encouraged me. So when it came to picking a career - again he never forced me - he never said you have to be a lawyer, doctor or an accountant. He just looked at me and said, ‘Which do you enjoy the most?’.

When did you start to learn more about your Chinese heritage?

I think I made a real conscious decision when I went to Newcastle University when I chose to do a BA in architecture. It was then that I decided that I wanted to get in touch with my Chinese side, meet other Chinese people and really immerse myself in it. So I joined the Chinese society, the Hong Kong society and I lived in a flat with two Chinese people who are my two best friends. It was a real eye-opener, because even though I didn't realise it, I was different from the normal British person. Because my parents were quite strict, I never really went out and partied. All my British friends always did that, and so I was a little bit disconnected. But then when I started university, I realised that all these other people were not too dissimilar to me; we drank but didn't drink that much, we liked to play card games. Not that I didn't feel comfortable with my British friends, but it was a different type of comfort with these friends - a familiarity. That was a really happy three years. I guess it was then that I understood that I was different. I realised that although I was in the UK, and I was born here and have been here all of my life, walking down the streets people look at me and don’t think I am British - I had never actually thought about it before.

When I was young I went to Hong Kong pretty much every year of my life. Now, I can't read or write Chinese because I never went to Chinese school, and if you speak Cantonese just at home with your parents, your Cantonese is never going to be perfect. So when I was there, especially when I was older, I became more conscious; you realise that people are frowning a bit at you when you're speaking to them because they're realising that you're not from Hong Kong. I began to realise that I wasn't Chinese or from Hong Kong, I wasn't British and I wasn't from the UK: I was sort of in-between. I wasn't really sure: was this an advantage being a BBC? I felt like it wasn't – I wasn't good enough to be British, and not good enough to be from Hong Kong.

I did my diploma at a school called the Architecture Association. It's a very unique school, you can only study architecture there, and there are only about 200 students per year. There are very few British students there: everyone in my unit was from a different country, and all the tutors were from all over the world as well. So obviously I was British, but Chinese as well. I felt like I was the same as everyone else. There were people from different countries but they were now in England, whereas I was now in England but kind of from a different country as well. I felt really at home there; it really boosted my confidence because I felt that I was unique in a certain way, and I was able to bring in a different method of thinking. I've found that especially now as I'm working, the older you get, you have to have your own uniqueness. I think this is where I've begun to understand being a British Born Chinese and what that can bring to the table, my Britishness, my stubborn Chineseness. Going through my schooling has solidified this and really made me understand how I can bring all of these things to my advantage and make my career successful.

Do you think you could tell us more about how both your British and Chinese influences have affected your professional life?

I see a lot of it especially now because I do some tutoring at universities and lecturing around the world. What I've realised is that British students are very creative; all the students I see from universities are very lateral thinkers. They are able to think outside the box, and are not afraid to push the boundaries. Often you would set them a task and more often than not they would come back with the task incomplete but something completely different, which you hadn't really been thinking about, so I think their analytical qualities are very good.

I find with the Chinese students, they are very focused, very driven and they are very logical. I guess they are less lateral thinking: you would give them a task but you have to define what the task is. They would go away and they would push that task to the nth degree and exceed all your expectations in the amount of information and level of production that they could produce, but they never really explore beyond that; they've gone down one singular line, they are unable to take the branches. For me that's quite interesting, but I think things are developing. Chinese people are now learning the Western way of analysing and looking beyond the brief.

"When I go to meetings in Hong Kong now, it's half in Cantonese and half in English. So it's very comfortable for me. Previously I thought ‘if I don't know this word I will have a problem’; now if I just say the English it's fine because they understand it."

My parents obviously bought into Chinese culture – with every discussion with my parents there was always an end goal. It was always: ‘Ho-Yin, you need to do this, you need to do that, you need to come and fix this.’ It was always very focused, very driven. Their conversation always has a point to it, whether it be learning or completing something. But having had British tutors at university, I feel that I am able to take both sides. I think the balance that I have now is still understanding the creative process and the conceptual stage, but I'm able to say, ‘Right, I need to stop being conceptual now and actually produce the information or manage the team and deliver the final product.’ So I think I am able to balance that and achieve those things.

So for you, would you say having a combination of a British and a Chinese identity has been an advantage?

Oh, I think huge advantages, but it's taken me a long time to realise that. If we had this interview maybe ten years ago - maybe not even ten years ago, maybe six or seven years ago - if you had asked me what were the advantages of being a BBC, I think I would've answered you in the negative.

What changed that?

I think my understanding of the world. I have a project now that is in Hong Kong - you go there and realise that actually they are actively seeking people who have been taught in the UK because, especially for architecture now; the Western world but especially the UK is at the forefront of architecture. If you look around the world, those who are building at the moment, they're all mostly British architects, or British companies. So I think there's a real influence from British architecture in countries where architecture is not mature; they're realising that there's a lot to learn from them.

I think China still has a long way to go and perhaps Hong Kong as well. But they are beginning to realise this; they are allowing the influence and the architecture from the UK to go into these places. I think when you’re there, you realise that they actually want you and want your ideas - even when I go to meetings in Hong Kong now, it's half in Cantonese and half in English. So it's very comfortable for me, because I am able to flit between these two. Previously where I thought ‘if I don't know this word in Chinese I will have a problem’, now if I just say the English it's completely fine because they understand it and they are conversing in the same way.

How do you see the future of and what are your hopes for the British Born Chinese community?

My hopes for the BBC community are similar to my own - I think they need to hopefully gain in confidence. There are some prominent BBCs at the moment but I think they should be more proud of their background, proud of the mixture of cultures that they have and not be afraid that they're not from Hong Kong. I think actually just to embrace it and to realise that this is positive - this is something you can build on and this is something you can use to your advantage.

So for you personally then, would you like to continue working within Chinese communities?

Yes, I think a lot of it focuses on my career but also my children; I will have children, hopefully, and my aim for them would be to have a similar upbringing to me. Hopefully I can offer them more, for them to be able to do better than me. But I think it's important for them again to have a good balance. I realise that for you to really push that, you need to read write and speak Chinese fluently, and I think for that I would probably need to move to Hong Kong in the near future with my children so that they can learn Chinese properly, but then maybe send them back to the UK to study at a fairly early age. I think it would be a real influence on their lives, which would be really positive. But that's in the future - so who knows?