Lucy Sheen's story
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( LUCY SHEEN )

Born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents, Lucy began her life in the UK in 1963 after being adopted by an English family. Lucy was never told about her Chinese heritage by her adoptive parents, putting her in the unusual position of having to learn about her Chinese identity, rather than having it being passed down to her by parents. Her research has produced a body of work centred around British-Chinese issues in her career as an actress, and a deeply personal interest in her ethnic roots that she hopes to pass on to her daughter.

EXTRA IMAGES

  • Lucy Sheen family 1
  • Lucy Sheen family 2
  • Lucy Sheen family 3
  • Lucy Sheen family 4
  • Lucy Sheen family 5

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name’s Lucy Sheen, I’m 49 years old. I’ve been in the UK practically all my life; I came over here when I was eleven months old. I grew up just outside London near Windsor; I ended up training to be an actress and I’ve been doing that ever since.

Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and childhood in the UK?

I was brought up like any other British child; for me there was no reference for me to my cultural or ethnic origins. In fact, I was never officially told by either of my adoptive parents that I was adopted from China. Considering that I didn’t look like them or the natural son that my parents had, I’m not quite sure what they were thinking or how long they thought I wasn’t going to notice that!

Your parents were white British?

Yes, very much so – my being not white was a bit like the ‘elephant in the room’ sort of thing. It stemmed from the social ‘norm’ of the time; there are certain things you didn’t talk about. I did try to talk about it as I grew older but it was a subject that wasn’t going to be talked about at all. So I had no reference to my Chinese heritage - I grew up as an oddity in some senses. I was probably the only foreign influence that a lot of my so-called schoolmates had ever come across. It was the usual thing: lots of people saying “Ah so” to me, which I didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand the reference. When I went to secondary school – each year class had thirty kids in it and there were five forms in each year so it was massive - I was the only non-white pupil in my year.

"I’d spent the majority of my formative years being told I could not call myself British because I wasn’t white. Then I discovered this some Chinese were unwilling to accept me as Chinese because I didn’t speak the language. So I was stuck between two very different cultures and backgrounds, neither of which were particularly willing to accept me."

So that’s what I knew, and it was only when I left home, around sixteen, that I journeyed into the centre of London and Chinatown which was kind of amazing: it was very, very different from what it is now, because it was the sole preserve of the Chinese. So long as I didn’t open my mouth I was fine, because nobody knew that I couldn’t speak Cantonese. But that was fascinating, suddenly realising there were loads of other Chinese people. But that was also a disappointment to me because I couldn’t communicate with them.

Can you recall the thought processes that you had when you were discovering the Chinese portion of your identity? Obviously that’s something that developed a lot later in your life than with other British Born Chinese.

It was a strange one, because I’d spent the majority of my formative years being told I could neither call myself English nor British because I wasn’t white. Then I discovered this whole other Chinese side - not the majority - but quite a vociferous section that were basically unwilling to accept me as Chinese because I didn’t speak the language. That was a head-scratching moment: so what the hell am I then? This thing, stuck between two very, very different cultures and backgrounds, neither of which were particularly willing to accept me.

Do you feel that you have something in common with other British Born Chinese people, given your somewhat unusual upbringing as a white British child?

In the short space of time that I’ve actively become aware of other British Chinese, or people who like me have been adopted by English families, I have immediately hit it off with the majority of them, because there’s an unspoken understanding of the position that we are in; we are not strictly speaking British Born Chinese and most of the adult adopted children have no language facility in Chinese, unless they’ve gone out and learned it. The majority that I’ve come across haven’t because at the time they were growing up Chinese wasn’t a language that was offered and you had to find somebody who was probably academically inclined in that way and invariably they would be English.

"In terms of my daughter being able to engage with the Chinese community as a whole, it’s very difficult because it is very self-contained; you do have to go to Chinatown in order to see loads of Chinese people walking around. But I’m sure she’d love to get more involved if she had the opportunity."

The other British Born Chinese that I’ve come across, I personally can put them into two camps: there are ones that openly accept me as being Chinese, and then there are the other ones who don’t because I don’t speak the language and that seems to be the be all and end all of where their initial demarcation comes.

Could you tell us a little about your family?

I’m married. My husband Patrick is black South American; he’s one of nine, but the only one that was born in this country. We have a daughter called Sophie who’s now eighteen. So she’s mixed and doesn’t fit any of the boxes for the ethnic minority thing so doing the census was a laugh, you know, what do I tick? She is quite proud of being both ‘Black British’ and ‘British Chinese’. But you have to put ‘Other’ which she got really annoyed about actually. There was a period, especially when she was at secondary school, when she identified completely, only, with the black portion of her ethnicity because the school she was in was very much in two camps: you were either black or Asian. It wasn’t until she came across now a friend of hers who had exactly the same background as her – his mother is Chinese and his father is black, that she kind of realised it’s okay to be like that. So I guess she identifies equally, or as equally as you can with that identity.

Would you like your her to be more engaged with the British Chinese portion of her identity than you were when you were a child and if so, how would you go about facilitating that?

I would. She will get to know all the Chinese people that I know. Sadly, I’m sure that she will come across people who will not accept her being any portion of Chinese because predominantly she looks black and I know that that is, for some Chinese people, a real problem because that just does not compute. In terms of being able to engage with the Chinese community as a whole, it’s very difficult because it is very self-contained; you do have to go to Chinatown in order to see loads of Chinese people walking around. She’s come across Chinese kids and got on really well with them, but it’s not the norm. But I’m sure she’d love to get more involved if she had the opportunity.

My name’s Lucy Sheen, I’m 49 years old. I’ve been in the UK practically all my life; I came over here when I was eleven months old. I grew up just outside London near Windsor; I ended up training to be an actress and I’ve been doing that ever since.

You’ve been an actress for nearly 30 years now - what have been your experiences in the Chinese acting scene during that time?

I emerged on the scene in 1984, our group consisted of Burt Kwok, David Yip, Sarah Lam, Susie Leong. I was one of the first of that Chinese generation that graduated from a recognised adult drama school. That was quite important because at the time, during the mid-80s to early-90s, there was very much a move towards multicultural theatre and multiculturalism, so there were many more opportunities. People were much more willing, especially in theatre, to see you for non-specific parts: ‘non-specified casting’, and I benefited from that. My first role was the lead in a Channel Four film, which has now been quoted as ‘the one and only British film thus far that’s been made that actually looked at the concerns and possible challenges of the British Chinese community’. I was very lucky - I didn’t get typecast as such into roles that I personally call ‘Chinese takeaway roles’; ‘me no speak English’ and all that sort of thing that was going on.

"There are plenty of Chinese faces visible now, far more so than when was I growing up and even when I came into the centre of London, but that crossing over of it being a norm to see a Chinese face in a drama has not happened like it has with black Afro-Caribbeans."

Then towards the mid-90s, I did a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ for the Bristol Old Vic. It was a mixed, ‘multiracial’ cast, and not only when we eventually mounted the production did we get hostility from some of the critics, but there was actual open hostility from within the building. One of the critiques that came out was: ‘If you’re not white, no matter how well you speak English, you can’t do Shakespeare’, and from that I think things started to lose momentum. It was then back to specified roles only. So for me, it was secretaries, the occasional lawyer, plenty of doctors and nurses, and obviously loads of roles where a heavy Chinese accent was required.

There are plenty of Chinese faces visible now, far more so than when was I growing up and even when I came into the centre of London, but that crossing over of it being a norm to see a Chinese face in a drama has not happened like it has with black Afro-Caribbeans.

Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and childhood in the UK?

I was brought up like any other British child; for me there was no reference for me to my cultural or ethnic origins. In fact, I was never officially told by either of my adoptive parents that I was adopted from China. Considering that I didn’t look like them or the natural son that my parents had, I’m not quite sure what they were thinking or how long they thought I wasn’t going to notice that!

Your parents were white British?

Yes, very much so – my being not white was a bit like the ‘elephant in the room’ sort of thing. It stemmed from the social ‘norm’ of the time; there are certain things you didn’t talk about. I did try to talk about it as I grew older but it was a subject that wasn’t going to be talked about at all. So I had no reference to my Chinese heritage - I grew up as an oddity in some senses. I was probably the only foreign influence that a lot of my so-called schoolmates had ever come across. It was the usual thing: lots of people saying “Ah so” to me, which I didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand the reference. When I went to secondary school – each year class had thirty kids in it and there were five forms in each year so it was massive - I was the only non-white pupil in my year.

"I’d spent the majority of my formative years being told I could not call myself British because I wasn’t white. Then I discovered this some Chinese were unwilling to accept me as Chinese because I didn’t speak the language. So I was stuck between two very different cultures and backgrounds, neither of which were particularly willing to accept me."

I was typically Chinese: I was very small, I had long black hair, a flat nose and slanted eyes. One of the things that saved me was the fact that I was good at sport, running and jumping, so I became a mascot I guess. I was good at running away from kids trying to kick the crap out of me to and from school. I only got caught once and got a beating, but I didn’t yelp out so they left me alone because obviously it was no fun - if you’re going to torture somebody then sound effects are much more preferable I guess.

So that’s what I knew, and it was only when I left home, around sixteen, that I journeyed into the centre of London and Chinatown which was kind of amazing: it was very, very different from what it is now, because it was the sole preserve of the Chinese. So long as I didn’t open my mouth I was fine, because nobody knew that I couldn’t speak Cantonese. But that was fascinating, suddenly realising there were loads of other Chinese people. But that was also a disappointment to me because I couldn’t communicate with them.

Can you recall the thought processes that you had when you were discovering the Chinese portion of your identity? Obviously that’s something that developed a lot later in your life than with other British Born Chinese.

It was a strange one, because I’d spent the majority of my formative years being told I could neither call myself English nor British because I wasn’t white. Then I discovered this whole other Chinese side - not the majority - but quite a vociferous section that were basically unwilling to accept me as Chinese because I didn’t speak the language. That was a head-scratching moment: so what the hell am I then? This thing, stuck between two very, very different cultures and backgrounds, neither of which were particularly willing to accept me.

I guess you eventually find a way of existing, which is very much on your own terms, and you have to develop a very thick skin. What on Earth induced me to acting, God only knows! It’s the worst possible thing you can do because it’s all about the superficial. So from that point of view, I spent my life pretending to be other things, being other people and creating an existence that way. I guess in some senses, hiding in plain sight. The acting community was far more accepting and known for its wide variety: in sexual orientation, beliefs, whatever. So one wasn’t short of actually finding people you could communicate with and it didn’t matter what my background was, the commonalities were greater than what my skin tone was, or what my eyes were or were not doing, or how flat my nose was.

In terms of learning about the history of China and the Chinese diaspora, then yes, I actively did learn about it: I read, watched films, and got involved in that way - to the point where some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re an expert!’ I’m not, I’ve just decided to read certain publications or books, or took an interest in certain exhibitions that came along.

You’ve never met your birth parents, is that right?

No. I went back to Hong Kong in 1979, and the babies’ home where I spent the first eleven months of my life was still there. I did half-think about going over to Kowloon and knocking on the door and saying hello. I talked myself out of it because a) I didn’t speak a word of Cantonese, and b) if perchance they could actually tell me where I came from or give me any pointers as to whether I did have any living relatives, what the hell was I going to do with that? I think it was more to do with fear of possibly being a disappointment to any living relatives and verse versa, so I didn’t.

In terms of my own lineage, until literally the last eighteen months, I hadn’t done anything. I’m now actively trying to find out what I can about my circumstances of being orphaned, so I’m going to pick up my records tomorrow from what was known as the National Children’s Home, one of the bodies that was involved in the original programme which saw us being adopted to English families over here. So that will be quite interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

That will come tomorrow?

Yeah, I’ll be doing that tomorrow. So I don’t know, I have no idea. There are people who have found out things that they didn’t think they actually had, like siblings - the home actually knew the family, so they still have relatives over in Hong Kong and they were given up for whatever reason: at the time that this was happening, there was a lot of mainland migration and a huge amount of poverty.

"In terms of my daughter being able to engage with the Chinese community as a whole, it’s very difficult because it is very self-contained; you do have to go to Chinatown in order to see loads of Chinese people walking around. But I’m sure she’d love to get more involved if she had the opportunity."

I have no expectations either one way or the other. Depending on what’s in there will formulate what I’ll do next. If there’s enough then I will go back to the Hong Kong social services and see what further records they may or may not have on me and my circumstances, and take it from there.

Do you feel that you have something in common with other British Born Chinese people, given your somewhat unusual upbringing as a white British child?

In the short space of time that I’ve actively become aware of other British Chinese, or people who like me have been adopted by English families, I have immediately hit it off with the majority of them, because there’s an unspoken understanding of the position that we are in; we are not strictly speaking British Born Chinese and most of the adult adopted children have no language facility in Chinese, unless they’ve gone out and learned it. The majority that I’ve come across haven’t because at the time they were growing up Chinese wasn’t a language that was offered and you had to find somebody who was probably academically inclined in that way and invariably they would be English. The other British Born Chinese that I’ve come across, I personally can put them into two camps: there are ones that openly accept me as being Chinese, and then there are the other ones who don’t because I don’t speak the language and that seems to be the be all and end all of where their initial demarcation comes.

Something that I came across the first time that I went to Hong Kong was an almost obsession as to why I couldn’t speak Chinese – was it because I was Eurasian? I didn’t fully understand why that should be such a huge thing. I don’t know whether it still is, but even worse than not speaking Chinese was basically if you were a ‘half-caste’. That was something that was then a huge taboo for a lot of people. I became very sad about it because I couldn’t speak Cantonese. But over here, as a friend pointed out the other day, the Chinese as an ethnic community must be one of the most disunited ethnic communities in this country - that’s true from my perspective.

Could you tell us a little about your family?

I’m married. My husband Patrick is black South American; he’s one of nine, but the only one that was born in this country. We have a daughter called Sophie who’s now eighteen. So she’s mixed and doesn’t fit any of the boxes for the ethnic minority thing so doing the census was a laugh, you know, what do I tick? She is quite proud of being both ‘Black British’ and ‘British Chinese’. But you have to put ‘Other’ which she got really annoyed about actually. There was a period, especially when she was at secondary school, when she identified completely, only, with the black portion of her ethnicity because the school she was in was very much in two camps: you were either black or Asian. It wasn’t until she came across now a friend of hers who had exactly the same background as her – his mother is Chinese and his father is black, that she kind of realised it’s okay to be like that. So I guess she identifies equally, or as equally as you can with that identity.

Would you like her to be more engaged with the British Chinese portion of her identity than you were when you were a child and if so, how would you go about facilitating that?

I would. She will get to know all the Chinese people that I know. Sadly, I’m sure that she will come across people who will not accept her being any portion of Chinese because predominantly she looks black and I know that that is, for some Chinese people, a real problem because that just does not compute. In terms of being able to engage with the Chinese community as a whole, it’s very difficult because it is very self-contained; you do have to go to Chinatown in order to see loads of Chinese people walking around. She’s come across Chinese kids and got on really well with them, but it’s not the norm. But I’m sure she’d love to get more involved if she had the opportunity.