Lilian Tan

Lilian travelled from Malaysia in 1959 to train to be a nurse at Edgware General in London. She then became a midwife, a staff nurse, before working at the Western Ophthalmic, the Chelsea Hospital on Gynaecology and out in the community.

She is interviewed by her Granddaughter Tan-Yi Stringer. It is left as it was told by Lilian, with her often referring to herself as Po-Po (maternal Grandmother)

What was your motivation for coming?

I wanted to be independent. My cousin had already came over, and suggested it. I didn't realise it would be such hard work!

My eldest brother managed to get me onto HMS Corfu. He booked first class for Po Po from Singapore, then Penang, then Port Klang, 28 days! Po Po was just 19.

Were you scared or worried about leaving home? Did you plan to come back?

My purpose was to finish all the training, and then go home.

Then I met Kong Kong [maternal Grandfather] and that's it! That's the end of going home!

What were your very first impressions on arrival?

I arrived in Tilbury dock, in October, very gloomy, very dull.

The British council were there to receive us and send us to our hospitals.

Were you homesick?

Yes…but before I came, my Aunty, she looked down upon Po Po and said I would never complete my course because I had never done any work. And that upset Po Po a lot. I was so determined to finish my course. She always looked down upon my father for being poor. I was so determined to prove to her that I am not that stupid, I am not worthless.

What has been the journey that led to you still being here right now? Do you go back home to visit?

We never talked of going back to Malaysia. I think Kong Kong rather stay in this country. And once you're married of course you just have to follow.

How long did it take before it was really home, if it is for you?

Well don't forget, more three quarters of my life is here, isn't it?

When my sister was alive and I got home I feel very at home, but since she and my mum pass away, I don't feel I will settle in Malaysia.

Because first and foremost, I don't like mosquitos, I don't like snakes, cockroaches, I hate lizards, the gecko that run around! Oh, and rats! I don't think I can stay with all this around.

Now, when I go back, straight away they know I'm foreigner. When we went to buy durian, it cost so much. My brother was saying 'of course they know!'. Straight away they will suss you out, Malaysian people.

How did you find your self integrating into British life, was this met with any resistance?

One patient had fought with the Japanese in the war so he didn't like me. I didn't realise. One day the other nurse came back and told me he doesn't want me to visit him. I said 'why?', she said 'he thinks you are Japanese!' But I couldn't care less, If I can help you, I help you. If I cant, I can't.

Of course, some try to bully us, being that I'm Chinese. One lady call me like that (makes beckoning gesture with one finger). Instead of calling 'nurse' she would always use her finger. I said to her 'Don't be rude! We got names you know!'

They didn't realise that I keep quiet, but when I shout, I shout! I really put my foot down.

Your best era working for the NHS?

During the training we used to go lot of parties, it was so funny, in Hampstead Heath, that's where the nurse's quarter were and then opposite is a cemetery. At night time we all get scared because of the 'wooo', those days all four of us would squash together and say 'mo-gwai!' [devil]. We had fun, we were young and don't know what we're doing!

Community work is nice. You see all types of life. To me whether you're rich or millionaire or poor I don't care. No point in saying 'oh I'm rich I don't want to know the poor ones', no. If you're poor, good luck, I will help you. If you're rich, you want me to worship you, no, it's just too bad.'

I used to work with a GP who is gay, and he is involved in Lighthouse, where Princess Diana went. Oh I loved all the AIDS patients. At the time a lot of people wouldn't nurse them. A lot of them were very scared, they wouldn't go in. To me they didn't ask for it. It's just that the virus is there what can you do.

I used to go to this one patient with a beautiful fish tank in his house. I'd go in and I looked at all the fish and chat, sometimes twice a week, to see that he was ok and not in pain. Every time I sit there, half an hour or so and look at the goldfish. And then when he passed away he left me that fish tank. He knew I love it you see.

And your worst?

When you come from Malaysia, you are superstitious. People say if someone dies and a cat jumps over it the body will come alive and all these superstitions. It was so funny, during my training I was very scared, I remember the staff nurse were so mad with me because a patient died in the cubical and as a junior you're supposed to unload their belongings. And instead of staying in the cubicle with the dead body, I pushed all the things out into the corridor. He was so cross! I said 'no, no, no I'm not going to do that in there with the dead body'. Every time someone died I got very scared!

Are you proud of your journey?

Well, I wouldn't say I'm proud. It's just the work isn't it? You've got to make a living isn't it?

What is your legacy here?

It's good that you all grow up here. At least you know the culture between the West and the East. I'm glad you and your brother accommodate both. That helps in life, where ever you go, you can adapt yourself. Because if you just keep straight and won't bend, your life will be very miserable.