I was born in Hong Kong on the 16th of October 1969. Around the age of two, my family emigrated to the United Kingdom where my Parents had been migrant workers, on and off, for a number of years prior to my birth. When I was conceived my Parents were working in the UK but my Mother decided it would be better if I were born closer to home. So from the outset my life would involve and intersection between East and West.
My earliest memories are as a small child living in Clacton on Sea, on the South Eastern coast of England. I lived there for a year or so with my Mother and Father, Grandmother and two older Brothers. We all shared the downstairs section of a normal semi-detached house so things were a bit cramped but life was happy enough. My family didn't have very much money and my Father worked as a waiter in a restaurant owned by a relative. Most of what my Father earned was saved in order to open up a fast food outlet in the future. These were the main aspirations of my Parents at the time, a business of their own and a better life for their children. Life in Clacton was good and I was a happy infant. When I was about four years old we moved again, this time to Ipswich which is in East Anglia. It was here that I would be staying until leaving home.
The Guest People
Some details about my ethnicity. I belong to a certain sub-grouping of the peoples collectively known as the Chinese. My particular ethnic group and dialect is referred to a ‘Hakka’, which means guest people.We make up around one percent of the total of all Chinese people and in China we are mainly found in the South, though we are also widely scattered around about the globe. It seems the ‘Hakka’ are seasoned migrants. It is believed that we originally came from Northern China and steadily moved South many hundreds of years ago hence the label ‘guest people’. I’ve also learned from several sources that the exact nature of our origins are quite mysterious. Through my research I discovered a possible reason why this should be so.
The reason why my ancestral origins should be mysterious is related to the fact that for some reason a disproportionate number of China’s top reformers and revolutionaries over the past few hundred years of Chinese history have come from my ethnic group. In my research I have discovered that many of the ‘Hakka’ people from the areas in the New Territories in Hong Kong where my family are from, are most likely descended from the families of the remnants of the Taiping Rebellion which overran much of China during the 19th Century and which consisted mainly of ‘Hakka’ people. Incidentally the Taiping Rebellion was essentially an Apocalyptic movement led by the charismatic religious figure of Hong Xuiquan who claimed to be the Brother of Jesus after having mystical experiences and visions. Anyway, it seems quite probable that my ancestors were rebels who fled to one of the Southern most parts of China, i.e. Hong Kong, in order to escape the avenging authorities and forces of the then dominant Manchu dynasty, who were themselves nomadic invaders from the frozen wastes of what is now North Eastern China. Because under Chinese laws of this time, the crime of treason or rebellion committed by one person was punishable by death upon the clan of that person up to nine generations, there was a good reason why my ancestors may have had to keep their identities secret. I have come to learn that this is why some of the ‘Hakka’ came to be known by locals in the areas where they settled simply as the ‘Guest people’. Because it was too dangerous for them to tell their neighbours who they really were or where they were from. So probably in order to escape a certain death sentence my ancestors would have fled to one of the remotest areas of Southern China. A little later on, this distant far flung corner of Imperial China now called Hong Kong would become a base used by the Imperial British to sell Opium, or 19th century style Heroin, to China. The opium addicts in China had no objections to this arrangement. However the Chinese authorities didn’t like the idea very much and so you had the Opium wars. Anyway, indirectly through this detail of World history I would find myself living in the United Kingdom. The descendents of the original inhabitants of Hong Kong who were living there when the British came were given the oppurtunity to live, work and settle in the UK after the Second World War. And as a result my family and I came to be in England.
The language that the ‘Hakka’ speak is actually archiac Chinese and would have been spoken in the main cultural and power centres of China around a thousand years ago and before. This is during, what some historians consider, the golden age of Chinese civilization, around the time of the Tang dynasty. It comes to mind that my Parents sometimes refer to Chinese people using an expression that translates as ‘Tang people’. Apparently poetry written in China a thousand years ago only rhymes in the Hakka dialect that I speak and not in any of the modern dialects such as Cantonese or Mandarin.
Another relevant detail about the ‘Hakka’ or guest people, is that they are known for a love of books and learning. And this is in a part of the World, i.e. the Far East where, partly due to the Confucian influence, all people generally already have a high regard for all things scholarly. I have been told that the ‘Hakka’ people do well in the higher education system in China. There is one theory that the Guest people originally descended from imperial courtesans and perhaps the sort of people who would have got to where they were by being good at learning things and passing Imperial exams. This may explain the book loving aspect of the Guest people. Another theory which seeks to explain the bookish element to the ‘Hakka’ is that it is thought because the guest people were migrants into areas that were already settled and farmed, therefore they had to settle in the more remote and less fertile areas of land. As a result the Hakka were never able to get very prosperous from farming and as a result there was a strong tendency in my ethnic group to enter public service or the military. And to be able to enter into and get ahead in these areas the Hakka paid a lot of attention to their education. This emphasis on learning and education was certainly the case in my family and with all my close relatives. Also it seems the Hakka have for a long time had something of an association with revolution and reform. A recent Hakka revolutionary and reformer is Deng Xiaoping who put into the motion the economic reforms that are still underway in China today. Others include Sun Yat Sen the leader of the Republic of China after the fall of the Last Emperor and Lee Kuan Yew the political figure behind the transformation of Singapore.
During my childhood all this kind of information about my background were completely unknown to me. If my ancestors lived in some remarkable or exciting past then none of this had any relation to my life or that of my family. Back in Hong Kong my relatives were like poor hill-billies growing their own food and finding work when and where they could. In the UK my family were low income immigrants trying to become established and settled in a foreign land far from home. Anyway. back to my story, so around the age of four my family moved from the small town of Clacton on Sea to the slightly larger town called Ipswich.
Ipswich Town, Suffolk
Ipswich is a small quiet town which is famous for nothing except for the fact that the town's football team won a major tournament in 1978 called the FA cup. The only other two things worth mentioning is that the 80s pop star Nick Kershaw came from there and also the musician and producer Brian Eno almost came from Ipswich, that is he came from an even smaller town just a few miles away called Woodbridge.
Soon after arriving in Ipswich my family opened up a Chinese fast food restaurant and initially we lived in the apartments above the shop. Life was much better now. We had more money coming in and much more living space. The rest of my pre-school years was a happy time of play and discovery of my immediate surroundings.
The start of my time in primary school was generally happy, but early on I had a handicap which was that I couldn't speak english. However this problem seemed to be overcome very quickly. After I could converse with the people around me I remember I would talk a lot and very loudly, often being sent out of the class by the teacher. But I could also flip to the other extreme to become reflective and much less talkative. This was a trait I would retain into my adult life. As I progressed through infant school I had a very easy time of things. I was good at most topics and learned things quickly. I was a popular child with the other children and also with the teachers as well.
I remember at a very early age, around the age of 4 or 5, my Mother instilled in me a love of books and writing. She did this during our regular shopping trips together before I started going to school when would take me to the childrens books section of the Woolworths department store in Ipswich and allow me to choose a book. This was followed by a load of encouraging words and perhaps other expressions of positive feedback. This was before I could even read, so of course I picked the books with the most interesting pictures, i.e. books with graphic depictions of monsters, space ships and fabulous settings. I think now about the pleasure I get from purchasing a book from one of the many bookshops in London, or when an order from Amazon.com arrives in the post. The pleasure I experience and sense of excitement. I realized one day and now fully believe that these responses were conditioned into me during those trips to Woolworths all those years ago.
Furthermore, around the same time, my Mother also managed to condition me to love writing. Even before I could write, during these same shopping trips, I would regularly be taken to the stationary section in Woolworths. Writing pads or writing utensils, pens and pencils etc. would be purchased for me. I did a lot of drawing and before going to school and learning to write even a single letter. I remember often coping little snippets of writing from books my Brothers were reading. Later on in my adult life, I would always keep a notebook with me and write in it my thoughts and ideas. I would also often copy, word for word, into these notebooks, passages from books or magazines that particularly resonate with me or else that I thought would be useful for me to have a copy of. I keep thinking that the scribblings I was encouraged to do so early on in life, primed me to become such a scribbler in adulthood.
Other than my Mother the other two biggest influences on my life at this formative stage were my two Brothers Kin Ming and Wai Fai, who were eight years and four years older than me respectively. I mention this because the age difference between me and them meant that at an early age I absorbed a lot of information and culture that was more appropriate for someone of greater maturity. I believe this gave me an accelerated development. I watched the same TV programs that they did, listened to the same music as them and also read their books and comics. Perhaps this also meant I was exposed to material not entirely suitable for a junior. I remember watching 70s TV documentaries about the ills of the world and recall the chilling and fearful effect that they had on me.
So as a result of this exposure to adult media my eyes were opened very early on to the dark side of life. In retrospect this hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. I remember seeing the pictures in a book about a Nazi concentration camp and also the 70s TV mini series Holocaust. This together with documentaries about War, famine, racism and other social problems, the nuclear stand off at the time and illnesses like rabies and cancer; were probably instrumental in developing a mindset that somehow the purpose of my life was to make the world a better and more secure place. I was quite at an early age aware and concerned about a lot of the problems of this world. The angst today that I feel as an adult when I think about what's happening in the world is the same angst I felt back then as a child. This early awareness of human suffering and evil certainly influenced my early development and would again be a feature of my later life. From a very early age I remember I had a strong desire to right the wrongs of this World and to be able to do something about human suffering.
Something worth mentioning about my early which is very relevant to my later life is that I was very religious in a quite peculiar way. My family were not really religious in any real sense except that we had ornamental Buddhas in the house though this was more through custom than any sense of religious obligation. I guess a religion spontaeneous formed within me, involving my own rituals and invented notions of God. I read in the science magazine New Scientist, that this phenomenon of young children inventing their own religions is not totally uncommon. Apparently it is a feature of the childhoods of many people. An Atheist would probably see in this an arguement that religion derives from an immature frame of mind. I believe that as children we start out with something precious and life reaffirming. A sense of wonder, an affinity for the transcendent and an openness for the mystery. As we progress through infancy and are then processed by a rigid school system that is an instrument of an unenlightened society then we lose our default state of sensitivity and perceptiveness for the sacred.
Generally speaking my religion was a synthesis of bits and pieces from all over the place, i.e. ideas from sci-fi, world religions particularly Christianity and Buddhism, TV shows and Films and there was also a strong nature component. The festivals in my religion were borrowed in adapted form from the real world. For example, one of the most important dates of the year in my childhood religion, coincided with the Chinese Harvest Full Moon Festival, which traditionally consists of laying out a symbolic food offering to the Moon and the lighting of candles. Fire was involved in the ritual I created for this particular night, and it was the only time of the year I was allowed to play with matches. Fire always fascinated me as a child and I recall getting in trouble on several occasions for setting things alight. So on this night I made the most of it. This full moon night was to me an important time of meditation and prayer. The Moon and also the Sun generally played important roles in my religion and were imbued with secret meanings. Other festivals that became incorporated into my religion were Christmas and the Chinese new year.
My God was called ‘Future’ for the simple reason that the future was in its control. I felt a special connection with my God though at this early stage God or Future was very much something outside of me and completely differentiated from who I was. In my religious system I was an agent of God and God was my helper. My inherent religiousity gave me a great source of strength and comfort. Looking back on things, it seems to me how similar my outlook then is to mainstream religion as I understand it now. This was partly due to the religious influences I absorbed but also probably due to the basic human yearnings with give rise to some of the aspects of mainstream religion. In other words, that aspects of mainstream religion and also a lot of my made up religion derived from the same source, the need to make sense of the World, the desire to deal with our fears and anxieties. Perhaps also a need to gain a sense of empowerment and a feeling of mastery or control over things which seemed chaotic, challenging or threatening. I believe that in a sense I recapitulated in my childhood the same processes through which certain features of the Worlds religion had their reason for coming into being.
My early exposure to real World religion would have come from school which would have consisted of sitting through a lot of Judeo-Christian Bible stories. But a wider view of religion was obtained from television. I remember that back in the 70s there seemed to be many more TV programs that covered religious subjects. I remember there was a weekly BBC religious documentary programme called ‘Everyman’. I remember watching it avidly as long as there was nothing better on the other channels. All the religious sights and sounds I found very interesting and utterly relevant. The things I saw and learnt would stimulate a lot of thought. I remember around the age of 9 or 10, seeing a TV show about Islam and learning that pork and dogs were considered things to avoid within that religion. This led me to think that the reason for this was that pork would give people tape worm and that dogs may infect people with rabies. It doesn’t matter whether or not these two conclusions were correct or not, these examples are only meant to illustrate the way I thought about religion even from quite an early age.
I particularly remember seeing a documentary about the Gnostics in or around 1980 when I was 10 years old. The programme explained that the Gnostics ‘knew in God’ as opposed to people of other religions who have ‘faith in God’. Though I was still a junior, I quickly decided that this was what I was and I remember explaining this belief I had of myself, that I was a Gnostic, to my best friend at the time who was from a Christian family and who went to church every Sunday. It seems uncanny to me now, as this minor childhood musing seems now like a mysterious foretelling of events and circumstances that would affect me in powerful ways, decades later in my adult life. I would truly become in adulthood the Gnostic that I whimsically believed myself to be as a child.
The Influence of Mythology
In late 1977 and early 1978 when I was aged 8, something came along which really caught my imagination and had a massive influence on my early life. This was the film Star Wars. The storyline, the characters, the setting and the action in the film, so excited me. It really made a huge impression. I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember getting the toys, the sound track and the comic books etc. Everything and anything to do with the film was for my young mind imbued with a special significance and meaning. The effect that this film had on me was tremendous. Not only did it excite my imagination, it seemed to awaken in me a whole new way of looking at myself and my world. Much of childhood was already imbued with a sense of the magical and spiritual. It is as if my life also became touched with a sense of things epic and indeed things mythological.
However I do understand better, later on now in life, why the movie Star Wars had such an effect on me and it has to do with the power of Mythology. Here was a modern re-telling of an ancient and indeed timeless story about the battle between the forces of Good and Evil, and journey of the hero from a state of innocence and powerlessness to one of mastery and accomplishment. It had a very powerful effect on me. My early life in my pre-teens can be meaningful divided into two stages. The first stage is my early life, before the coming of Star Wars and the second stage involves my early life after I had seen the film and became so entranced by it. I believe the film influenced my early development in subtle and deep ways. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, the film was helping to nurture my sense of the sacred and transcendent. As an adult I would come to more fully understand the meaning behind it.
I had actually had my first taste of Mythology a fews years earlier when I was 5 or 6, when at school they made us watch a serielized adaptation of the Greek classic Odysseus made for childrens television and shown at schools. The format of this series was very simple reflecting the state of much of children’s TV in the UK back in the 1970s. The story was read out by an actor and what was shown on the TV screen was a slow succession of artwork which illustrated the narrative. Even so, I remember I was totally captivated by the things I heard and the pictures that I saw.
The story was about the sea voyage of Odysseus and his men as they try to make their way, back from the Trojan war, to their homes. During this arduous trip they visit various islands along the way. On each island they would come across some strange mythological character, creature or creatures and some sort of challenge would be posed by each of these encounters. The tale of Odysseus is so well known that many of the characters featured in the story are a part of the common vernacular, for instance the one eyed Cyclops, the Sirens and the Lotus eaters. In the unfolding of the myth, as Odysseus and his sailors overcome each challenge they meet on the various islands they get slowly closer to their homeward destination. However along the way Odysseus’ travelling companions are gradually either lost of killed until finally only Odysseus is left. He eventually arrives back at his own house, there is one final battle at the end with rivals who would take for themselves what is rightfully his. Then at last he is reunited with his wife and the story ends. I still remember it vividly, but it was nothing more than an entertaining bit of infant school TV. It certainly didn’t have the same kind of effect that Star Wars would have on me a few years later.
Other than that my early childhood was fairly normal. As I progressed through primary school I did well. I had made a good start early on, despite my language difficulties, and found school work easy. I often sensed that my fellow pupils struggled more than I did. So I developed the attitude that I didn’t have to do a much work as everyone else and still get better results. This attitude made me lazy and held back my development during my teens. At the same time these early experiences probably helped to give me confidence in my academic abilities and intellectual powers later on in life. Also being popular as a child would help to insulate me from the loneliness and isolation that I would experience during various periods in my adulthood.