Paul Hyu's story
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( PAUL HYU )

Paul grew up in North Yorkshire, one of three children of an English mother and Chinese Guyanese father. Paul was one of the first British Born Chinese actors formally trained in the UK, and is regarded as one of the foremost Chinese accent voice-over artists in the UK. Paul is also known as ChineseElvis and has performed the length and breadth of the country, and just about every Chinese restaurant in between.

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  • Paul Hyu family 2
  • Paul Hyu family 1

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name is Paul Courtenay Hyu, I’m an actor and I’m 44yrs old.

Could you tell us a bit about your heritage and about your parents and your grandparents?

I’m half Chinese. My mother’s English; she was born in Surrey. My dad’s the Chinese one, and he is from Guyana in the West Indies. Guyana is actually on the mainland of South America actually, next to Surinam, which is Dutch Guyana, and it used to be called British Guyana. It was in the Commonwealth but it’s part of the West Indies and my dad is one of quite a number of Chinese who grew up in Guyana. There are a number of islands but in particular Trinidad has many Chinese living there and Guyana, even though it’s not an island, also has a lot of Chinese - my dad is one of them.

"I would enjoy being Chinese amongst friends but when it came to a test of my Chineseness, say at a restaurant, I would bluff it. I would order and always think, ‘Oh God, I have no idea, I hope these Chinese guys don't embarrass me!’."

Do you know how the Chinese community in Guyana came about?

I believe the Chinese community was initially established as indentured labor in the 1830s-40s when boatloads of Chinese came over. There weren't any women on the original boat and they went all the way to an un-chartered, as far as they were concerned, part of the world. There were a lot of criminals on it; it must’ve been a pretty rough crossing. So literally 400 Chinese guys arrived on a boat and then a second boat arrived about a year later with another 400. I think they lost four or five on the way every time but on the second boat they had three women. So it’s arguable and it only makes sense that all us Chinese-Guyanese are all descended from those three original women.

I have a few books that I’m reading which are fascinating and I’m related to all of the people in them, so when I read I just phone up my dad and say have you heard of Trevor? The thing about the Chinese in Guyana, and this is true of the whole of the West Indies, is that we have unusual names - I have an uncle Edwin, and my father's name is Colin, very West Indian names like Derek and Keith. So these Chinese guys all speak English with a West Indian and not a Chinese accent. And interestingly, it is the only instance of Chinese migration where the new Chinese immigrants have elected - because that must have been what happened - to lose the language, so no Chinese in Trinidad or Guyana speaks any Chinese; my dad doesn't speak a word of it.

How do you see your own identity?

I grew up in north Yorkshire, but when I was ten my dad decided to move to Germany where he spent the rest of his professional life. I went with them to Germany for a year, then they sent me back to Harrogate where I went to boarding school. So I’ve been this Chinese-Guyanese, half-English British person who lives in Germany, so wherever I’ve been I’ve felt somewhat exotic. There isn't a formal template that I can happily sit in or an umbrella under which I feel comfortable and I guess that’s a consequence of my dad coming from Guyana, England, Germany; it rubs off.

"I’ve met my whole Chinese-Guyanese family who've had the same experience as me: they may be Asian-looking but they’re not Chinese, or black but they're not African. They've had a similar experience to me."

I would enjoy being Chinese amongst my non-Chinese friends but when it came to a kind of test of my Chineseness, such as a meeting with Chinese people who were out of the family in a restaurant, I would feel a lot of pressure. We’d go in the middle of Yorkshire, in the 80s, and I’d feel proud to say come on, let’s go to a Chinese restaurant. Everyone would go up and order, and I’d go there and would kind of bluff it. I would always think, ‘Oh God, I have no idea, I hope these Chinese guys don't embarrass me!’. So I knew I was Chinese, but I never felt it.

Do you think that has changed in your later life and your career?

It has actually: the one thing I have learned is that I think I’ve become more accustomed to my own skin. I think it’s a lot to do with actually meeting my whole Chinese-Guyanese family who've had the same experience as me: they may be Asian-looking or black but they're not African, they’re Guyanese and half-West Indian. They've had a similar experience.

Can you tell us what you think are some of the challenges the British-Chinese community faces?

During my career I discovered was that the Chinese have a very good right to complain about their lot in Britain, because we are overlooked, and at the moment for example the whole national arts portfolio doesn't have a single East Asian company in receipt of funding in the next three years. It’s totally unacceptable, but what nobody actually addresses is that the Chinese community is more than partially responsible for this itself. We haven't got anybody who is unifying the community; we haven't got a leader. The Chinese community seems to love to fight themselves; there’s no unity between any factions. Everybody’s in it for themselves and anybody who plays the Chinese card - which I think we have a legitimate right to play in many cases - doesn't play it for the benefit of the whole community, they're playing it for their own benefit. It’s like we think, ‘I see your success as costing me, we can’t all be successful together’. I think that’s a Chinese ‘protect your rice bowl’ mentality.

How will you transfer your British Born Chinese values over to your son? Will it be similar to how your parents did to you?

Well I’ll start off by saying my relationship with my son is totally different with my parents and I. I don't think it’s because I’m Chinese, I think parenting has just changed. But in terms of my son growing up what I have noticed - and I’m very proud of, but wonder how long it can sustain itself - is that they don't seem to be bound by any form of racial boundaries whatsoever. He was telling me about a kid Marco - I don't know all the names of the kids, and I said which one is Marco? He said, you know, the one with the head, oh come on dad! I said, do you mean the guy with the bag, he said no, and I said, do you mean the black kid? And he said, ‘black skin’? From my generation, that would be the first thing if you were trying to identify someone, to him, it’s the last thing.

My name is Paul Courtenay Hyu, I’m an actor and I’m 44yrs old.

Could you tell us a bit about your heritage and about your parents and your grandparents?

I’m half Chinese. My mother’s English; she was born in Surrey. My dad’s the Chinese one, and he is from Guyana in the West Indies. Guyana is actually on the mainland of South America actually, next to Surinam, which is Dutch Guyana, and it used to be called British Guyana. It was in the Commonwealth but it’s part of the West Indies and my dad is one of quite a number of Chinese who grew up in Guyana. There are a number of islands but in particular Trinidad has many Chinese living there and Guyana, even though it’s not an island, also has a lot of Chinese - my dad is one of them.

"I would enjoy being Chinese amongst friends but when it came to a test of my Chineseness, say at a restaurant, I would bluff it. I would order and always think, ‘Oh God, I have no idea, I hope these Chinese guys don't embarrass me!’."

Do you know how the Chinese community in Guyana came about?

I believe the Chinese community was initially established as indentured labor in the 1830s-40s when boatloads of Chinese came over. There weren't any women on the original boat and they went all the way to an un-chartered, as far as they were concerned, part of the world. There were a lot of criminals on it; it must’ve been a pretty rough crossing. So literally 400 Chinese guys arrived on a boat and then a second boat arrived about a year later with another 400. I think they lost four or five on the way every time but on the second boat they had three women. So it’s arguable and it only makes sense that all us Chinese-Guyanese are all descended from those three original women. I don’t really know the details but the whole story is quite extraordinary when you start looking at the story of the indentured Chinese laborers in the West Indies, in particular Guyana.

I have a few books that I’m reading which are fascinating and I’m related to all of the people in them, so when I read I just phone up my dad and say have you heard of Trevor? The thing about the Chinese in Guyana, and this is true of the whole of the West Indies, is that we have unusual names - I have an uncle Edwin, and my father's name is Colin, very West Indian names like Derek and Keith. So these Chinese guys all speak English with a West Indian and not a Chinese accent. And interestingly, it is the only instance of Chinese migration where the new Chinese immigrants have elected - because that must have been what happened - to lose the language, so no Chinese in Trinidad or Guyana speaks any Chinese; my dad doesn't speak a word of it.

Could you tell us about the story behind your birth?

I was born in 1967 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, the hospital where my dad was training to be a doctor. He was sent over here on a banana boat: a five-week boat to follow in his father’s - my grandfather’s - footsteps to become a trained doctor. My grandfather happened to be one of only two British-trained doctors in the whole of Georgetown, which is the capital of Guyana, and my father was following in his footsteps. But tragically, when he arrived in 1964, five weeks after having set off, there was a two-week old telegram waiting for him to say that his father had died. So he was now a Chinese West Indian freezing in London during the swinging sixties, having literally just stepped out of the jungle. St Bartholomew’s took pity on him, organized him and let him study, and then he went off the rails for a bit so he didn't finish. He had to retake a year and they sent him off to Dublin, but he was only 17 so it was quite a hell of a journey. He met my mum who was working in the servery, serving out food, and I was on the way before long so I distinctly remember the day my dad graduated, I was about five. He had me when he was very young; I mean he's only 65 now and I’m 40. My mum and dad married kind of ‘shotgun’ style.

How do you see your own identity?

I grew up in north Yorkshire, but when I was ten my dad decided to move to Germany where he spent the rest of his professional life. I went with them to Germany for a year, then they sent me back to Harrogate where I went to boarding school. So I’ve been this Chinese-Guyanese, half-English British person who lives in Germany, so wherever I’ve been I’ve felt somewhat exotic. Even in the middle of London I still feel quite exotic because I’m not ‘Chinese’ Chinese as everybody knows it, I’m a slightly different version of Chinese. I’m not German so up in Harrogate I’d probably be Chinese, but then along came some real Chinese guys from Hong Kong and it was like well, I’m obviously not Chinese Chinese so what are you? ‘Well, I’m German’ – ‘Ok, so he's the German Chinese’. Well, ok, I’ll accept that for now, but when I go to Germany I’m obviously not German-Chinese, I’m English-Chinese, so I’ve had this struggle to feel comfortable with an identity that is not just my own. There isn't a formal template that I can happily sit in or an umbrella under which I feel comfortable and I guess that’s a consequence of my dad coming from Guyana, England, Germany; it rubs off.

"I’ve met my whole Chinese-Guyanese family who've had the same experience as me: they may be Asian-looking but they’re not Chinese, or black but they're not African. They've had a similar experience to me."

I would enjoy being Chinese amongst my non-Chinese friends but when it came to a kind of test of my Chineseness, say as a meeting with Chinese people who were out of the family in a restaurant, I would feel a lot of pressure. We’d go in the middle of Yorkshire, in the 80s, and I’d feel proud to say come on, let’s go to a Chinese restaurant. Everyone would go up and order, and I’d go there and would kind of bluff it. I did it with no authority - not that my friends would have realised because I was good at bluffing, that’s why I’m an actor - but I would always think, ‘Oh God, I have no idea, I hope these Chinese guys don't embarrass me!’ which they never did. So I knew I was Chinese, but I never felt it.

Do you think that has changed in your later life and your career?

It has actually: the one thing I have learned is that I think I’ve become more accustomed to my own skin. I’m more comfortable in myself and I think it’s a lot to do with actually meeting my whole Chinese-Guyanese family who are now mostly based in Toronto - that’s where my dad is now. And also having met people who've had the same experience as me: they may be Asian-looking or black but they're not African, they’re Guyanese and half-West Indian. They've had a similar experience. But I do feel Chinese now simply because I feel more comfortable in my own skin I think. And also I’m now encountering more and more people like me in my business of acting who are half-Chinese or who are culturally less Chinese than your stereotypical fully Hong Kong-Chinese person whose parents own a catering establishment or something. That isn't now the only template from which Chinese actors come from, so there’s a bigger diversity of types of Chinese and they also identify as Chinese to an extent, and I do too to the same extent.

Can you now tell us about your work as Chinese Elvis?

I trained ostensibly in theatre: it was classical acting and I’ve had very few opportunities really to put that into practice. I was lucky enough in 1999 to be cast in a great play as a British-Chinese Mancunian Elvis impersonator. I loved the role so much that I asked if I could keep the costume, which is all white and came with fat padding. By the end of that I had about ten letters by random people who'd seen the show saying, ‘we loved the show, we thought you were hilarious, are you available on the 4th of June to do my sisters wedding in Toxteth’, and I was thinking, I’ve got no work! You know, an actor’s occupational hazard is to be unemployed and I said to the other actors, I’ve got nothing but I’ve got all this, what should I do? And one said, ‘my advice is: don't let the other actors know about it’, because actors are quite snobby and they look down on this kind of work. I thought he's right, I am a massive snob, and so is everybody I know. God! So I did it, I kept it quiet and literally within 18 months Chinese Elvis was more successful and earning more money than Paul Courtenay Hyu as an actor, so what I wanted to do was bring him ‘out of the closet’. Now I don't ever pretend I’m Elvis, I am Chinese Elvis, and Chinese Elvis is a character that is a massive superstar in China and he's a sexy guy!

Can you tell us what you think are some of the challenges the British-Chinese community faces?

During my career I discovered was that the Chinese have a very good right to complain about their lot in Britain, because we are overlooked, we are invisible and at the moment for example the whole national arts portfolio doesn't have a single East Asian company in receipt of funding in the next three years. It’s totally unacceptable, but what nobody actually addresses is that the Chinese community is more than partially responsible for this itself. We haven't got anybody who is unifying the community; we haven't got a leader. The Chinese community seems to love to fight themselves; there’s no unity between any factions. Everybody’s in it for themselves and anybody who plays the Chinese card - which I think we have a legitimate right to play in many cases - doesn't play it for the benefit of the whole community, they're playing it for their own benefit.

Why do you think that happens?

I don't know but it doesn't happen in any other community that the elders - the ones who've made some money - don't sponsor and help the young artists who are going to define the next generation of that community. The Chinese are the only ones who don't do that - I have personally been in that situation where I’ve asked. We've got all these Chinese billionaires, millionaires but they're not helping us - they'll help if it helps them, if there’s an OBE in it for them. Put a statue in Chinatown, put my name on a plaque, then it’s fine. Tell me any Chinese benefactor who's actually looked out for the general sake of the community. Whereas in the Indian community or the Bangladesh community, they can point to leaders and successful people who have not taken that route. It’s a peculiarly Chinese thing to stay very insular and yet to blame other factors - I’ve got many instances of how the Chinese community seems to be in competition with one another. It’s like we think, ‘I see your success as costing me, we can’t all be successful together’. I think that’s a Chinese ‘protect your rice bowl’ mentality.

How will you transfer your British Born Chinese values over to your son? Will it be similar to how your parents did to you?

Well I’ll start off by saying my relationship with my son is totally different with my parents and I. I don't think it’s because I’m Chinese, I think parenting has just changed. But in terms of my son growing up in a Chinese community what I have noticed - and I’m very proud of, but wonder how long it can sustain itself - is that they don't seem to be bound by any form of racial boundaries whatsoever. He was telling me about a kid Marco - I don't know all the names of the kids, and I said which one is Marco? He said, you know, the one with the head, oh come on dad! I said, do you mean the guy with the bag, he said no, and I said, do you mean the black kid? And he said, ‘black skin’? From my generation, that would be the first thing if you were trying to identify someone, to him, it’s the last thing.

He just sees him as a friend and that’s it.

Yeah! He doesn't judge him, he doesn't see him - he knows he's black but he doesn't think of it like that, so when he tried to identify him to me he doesn't say he's a black kid, it doesn't even enter his thought patterns. I think that’s a great thing. I hope in 20 years time the British Chinese have somehow assimilated themselves in a similar way, but I can’t see it happening actually because we’re so far behind the other ethnic minorities that its going to take 30 years just to catch up. But in terms of how I think it will be in 20 years time, I think it will be better because these kids are better. He's very interested; he likes being from China even though he obviously isn't at all.

Could you tell us about your experiences on trips that you made to China and Hong Kong?

One of the things I have noticed - that I think is like a secret that Chinese people keep to themselves - is the racism of Chinese people, because anyone who's Chinese knows the Chinese are racist. Chinese people don't like, to start with, half-Chinese people. There’s a hierarchy. And then within that hierarchy, within that level of half-Chinese people - Eurasians perhaps is the term that they like to use - there are subdivisions, and the most loathed of all of this subdivision is the half-Chinese person who doesn't speak Chinese.

So that has been your own experience?

That is me, and I’ve always noticed this sort of antipathy when I go to Chinatown. When you say, ‘Err, table four on the side?’, they reply ‘HUH?’. I think everyone gets that experience but I feel it more.

When I was touring in Hong Kong, we arrived in the airport, jetlagged, got into a cab, and it was a very long journey in rush hour to get to the Hong Kong Island to an expats venue where we were doing this play. I remember just getting in the cab and the cabbie saying to me - obviously Chinese – ‘where you going to go, huh?’ I said, ‘Fringe Club?’ - hoping that he'd understand. For this eventuality, I had already written down ‘Fringe Club Lang Kwai Fong’ on a piece of paper. He just took it and he looked at me, and he just couldn't believe I looked Chinese but couldn't speak his language - he just said ‘motherfucker!’ He just hated me! So I’m sitting there in traffic actually thinking, this guy called me a motherfucker and I’ve only just arrived in Hong Kong, he's the first guy I’ve met, and he hates me! Many other things happened in my week in Hong Kong where it definitely proved the fact that half-Chinese people who don't speak Chinese are very much discriminated against – it was disturbing then but I can laugh about it now.