Kui Eng (Doris) Lau

I came from Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia to train in general nursing at Lewisham Hospital in 1966, after secondary school. I came from a family of 12 children. There was no way my family could afford to send me to go overseas, so studying nursing was the only solution to go abroad to explore. You got a little bit of pocket money, and all your accommodation and food was provided. My father had to give me the money for the air ticket, and in those days it was a lot of money to fly from Malaysia. It was so difficult to travel, there were so many connecting flights! But after training you were guaranteed a job.

The process was quite straightforward: I went to the British consulate who said they needed nurses. Why I was sent to Lewisham, I’m not sure. I wasn’t scared about leaving, but I was more sad to leave the family. I came with a schoolmate – her last name is Yip. We both had gone to a Seventh Day Adventist school. She was a nice person to travel with. She stayed three years but some people came and couldn’t stand it. Both of us stayed and finished our course. After that I don’t know what happened to her.

I don’t think my family had any emotional sadness. They never used to show emotions anyway, as there were too many children! Perhaps they thought, it’s OK – she can go, we still have 11! They just felt it was very far.

We arrived in early morning in the middle of April - it was freezing cold for us! In those days you only flew on two engine planes. There was a lot of turbulence. We were greeted warmly by representatives from the British Council. They took us straight to the Lewisham Hospital nurses' home. The next day we were greeted by the matron and nursing sisters. We only had one day to get sorted and straight away we started our course! We were provided with the uniform, hats and capes.

I had no problem fitting in because I could speak better English than the locals! In my exams my English and English literature results were so good! To be honest, when you’re in a nursing career, you only mix with that group. It was not too much of a cultural difference. We only had one day off per week and on our day off we went to Lewisham High Street. Back then everything was so small and quiet. The trainee nurses were mainly immigrants: African, Jamaican, some Malaysian. There were seven of us Malaysians – five girls and two boys – renting a large Victorian house in Lewisham.

I was too busy to be homesick! But I hated the weather and I had to adjust to the food, so I suppose I was a little homesick. Nursing home food was awful: potatoes and fish fingers. But I survived. My father didn’t have to give me any money! Every month our pay was less than £10 but in those days it was a lot of money. I even had savings!

Training in General Nursing was three years. After that I had saved enough money to go on a European tour with my schoolmate Yip. I was also able to save enough to go back to Malaysia to visit my parents. They were very happy. After that I went back to Lewisham and applied for midwifery – and the second part was in Glasgow. Back then, Glasgow was a slum and a run down city. It was the poorest place in Scotland, and terribly cold and wet. I spent 18 months there. After that I wanted to specialise in neonatal nursing, so I stayed another year in Scotland where I made friends with one of my oldest friends, Cordelia Chan. It was a very special and delicate course – there were a maximum of 4-5 students per year. And two of us were Chinese. We were the top academic students!

After I qualified I decided to go back to London to serve my hospital and pay back my loyalty. I spent 5.5 years in the special baby care unit where I met my husband. At first I was a staff nurse but soon I was promoted to sister. Lewisham Hospital were very proud of me. Back in those days the matron controlled everything and ran the ward with the ward sisters, which was much better than how it is today. I then retired when I had my two children, Anthony and Jenny.

I’m very proud of my journey. When I was in the special care baby unit – we saved a lot of tiny, tiny babies. There was one case that my husband was very proud of too – we had to exchange the whole baby’s blood. In those days there were some Mediterranean mothers who had rhesus negative blood. If they happened to give birth to rhesus negative babies, the entire blood had to be exchanged.

I have no regrets, nor would I do anything differently: the knowledge I had helped me with my own family. Of course it’s a lot of hard work and dedication!

This story is part of Ingat-Ingat (, an exhibition curated by Becky Hoh-Hale about Southeast Asians who came to work for the NHS between 1959-1979.