I left Bridgend in the late 1990s for an internship in Hong Kong, and have remained here ever since. Despite all that time passing, and being ethnically Chinese, I still call Wales home. It’s why I’m known to friends as Jenny Jones, or by the locals as gwai mui, ‘the ghost girl’.
Dad was a double immigrant, born in Vietnam, moving to Hong Kong, then landing in London in 1962. By the time he married my Mum he was a waiter at Cardiff’s first Chinese restaurant. They decided to start a family away from the sprawling capital, and opened Bridgend’s first Chinese takeaway in the 1970s. That’s where I was born and raised until I left for university in Cardiff.
Acts of kindness
We stood out in Bridgend as local people were mainly Caucasian then. Most people around town knew my parents as they owned “the Chinese”. Likewise, my parents recognised them as “the fried rice and curry man” or “the prawn crackers girl who orders every Saturday”. People were friendly and the community was welcoming.
Customers would drop off fresh eels or live chickens, as “the Chinese will know what to do with them”. My parents were always grateful and touched by those acts of kindness. I give credit to them, as such generosity was in return for their genuine desire to melt into the Welsh community and make friends, not easy for a couple speaking basic English. They held onto Chinese traditions and beliefs but wanted to learn and embrace what it is to be Welsh.
This was aided by Nana and Grandpa, my Welsh grandparents, a couple in their sixties who lived next door and took my parents under their wing. They were cautious at first of the new “foreign” neighbours, but as time went by we were one family. They brought me up as their own granddaughter and so the Welsh in me is all from Nana. Grandpa was from the East End, “ach-y-fi English” we would joke.
We’d write poetry for local Eisteddfod competitions, bake welshcakes, and sing Sosban Fach. Nana used to say that I was Welsh when I slept at her home as I’d sleep talk in English, but at home I was Chinese as I’d sleep talk in Cantonese. That seems to me the epitome of being truly Welsh-Chinese.
One of my earliest memories of being ‘different’ was my first day at primary school. My teacher announced: “Children, we are lucky to have a special person in our class, it’s Shoe Ling,” trying hard – but failing – to pronounce my Chinese name, although I had a western name. I suppose it was her way of being inclusive and making sure other kids were kind to the “foreigner”, or was it to make sure they weren’t scared of this alien?
We must have been the “special class” as it contained the only two kids in school who were ethnically different. But throughout my school days it never occurred to me that I was different to my Caucasian friends, and they didn’t treat me differently.
In recent years, a friend told me her Nana always referred to me as “your little Chinese friend”. Understandably, I wasn’t Welsh to her. Myself, I never had an identity crisis or questioned whether I was Welsh or Chinese, as I felt I was Welsh-Chinese, and still do. I had the best of both worlds, and didn’t need to choose or behave in a certain way.
Don’t get me wrong, there was racism and bullying, if infrequent. Cruel taunts from the odd kid never upset me as I didn’t think it was aimed at me. I was Welsh-Chinese, not the “chinky chonk” they were chanting about. My parents also got bullied by the odd customer who would run away with their takeaway without paying.
When I was four or five years old, I was sleeping in my usual spot atop a stack of crates of canned drinks while my parents worked long hours. The cook disrupted my sleep, bundling me up in his arms. I could hear very loud shouting which faded as we got closer to the allotment behind the takeaway. The cook tucked down to hide, one arm around me and the other hand clutching a cleaver, fearing things might get nasty.
But on the whole, my family was blessed to have been welcomed by our community, allowing us to blend into Welsh life. I was immersed in Welsh culture from birth while maintaining my Chinese roots.
Dad recently visited Hong Kong, and complimented a passerby’s dog. The Caucasian owner turned around and said: “Oh, you’re a Taff!” My Dad laughed and proudly said: “Yes, I am”.
I love the rain in Hong Kong, perhaps because it reminds me of home. I’m forever grateful my parents had the wisdom to choose Wales as the place to call home. Cymru am byth!