Helen Chuah

I made the journey to Severalls Hospital, Essex, from Penang, Malaysia in 1971 to seek a better life. I wanted the nurse training that I couldn’t get in Penang despite going to numerous interviews. I applied directly to various hospitals in various parts of England. I told myself that I would go to the first one that wrote back and accepted me and that was Severalls Hospital in Colchester. I didn’t know that it was a mental health hospital. I wanted to do general nursing. When I arrived and found this out I thought, “Well, if others can do this, so can I!”

I was scared to leave home because I would be on my own in a new and strange country with a different climate. I wasn't sure if I was able to cope. I did plan to go back but that didn't happen!

My father was all for me coming to the UK. My mother, in the usual Chinese mother way, was not happy about me going so far and having a career as such. My father said I could go as far as I wanted in terms of education and anywhere I wanted to go. They were teary but my father said, “Let her go.” He was an educated chap but when the Japanese came all his qualifications and existence was burnt. He understood what education meant and how it could improve your life, and that is why he was all for me going. My brother Kean Huat, who was working in a cinema in Kuala Lumper, paid for my plane fare. I earned the money and I gradually paid him back as well as sending money back to my parents.

I felt that I was able to integrate as I was spending time with lots of other Commonwealth nurses. People were getting used to having foreign nurses here. There was some from some people saying things like, “You don’t understand this.” But understood it we did. Finding food from home wasn’t easily available and I had to get used to having some English food, but we adapted it. Instead of having fried egg and chips we had fried egg and rice with soy sauce!

Homesickness is very real, because you are on your own. You have friends around you but you're not with family. Communication was not like it is now. You had to go to the telephone box and that cost money. It was mostly letters and my family sent me parcels with curry powder in! When I qualified as a nurse, I went home to visit. My parents had moved and I had a new house to learn about. I found the weather suddenly felt so hot in a way that it never had before. Life had changed, I had changed. 

I started as a staff nurse, then a ward sister, then charge nurse and a ward manager across various hospitals. I was encouraged to do my diploma in nursing and then I did my degree. I did this part time whilst working and raising a family. I also did my certificate in education. I didn’t seek these things out but others asked me to apply which was very encouraging. I became the education facilitator between the Trust and the Institute for Nurse Training which included a postgraduate certificate. As well as this, I was the first ever non-British-born Mayor of Colchester, the town that welcomed me and where I have made a home, and have been a local councillor for 24 years. I have also been president of my Rotary Club and have a daughter called Choo Chean, who is currently doing a MSc in Psychology.

I am still living in the same house that I have lived in since the 70s. I’m retired and I have joined some voluntary organisations, through which we raise money for local charities in the UK, Colchester General Hospital as well as a children’s home in KL and a hospice in Penang.

It still feels like both places are my home. I miss the food terribly and the family obviously. I tolerate the weather when it’s cold here. I always choose to go back to Malaysia when it is cold in the UK to get some sun on my skin!

I am very proud of my story. I didn’t think I was going to embark on this long journey.

I am especially proud that I’ve managed to change the attitude of specific people over the years, who were looking after the elderly. I taught them to treat them with compassion and empathy. We worked hard to encourage family to visit on long stay wards and to ensure they are involved in their care. This was not always the norm in the 70s and 80s. I enjoyed planning entertainment for the patients and running garden parties with music of their era. It’s important their families don’t forget them just because they’re in a long term stay in hospital.

I have no regrets, I would do it all again. I've enjoyed what I have done. Not just for me but it gave my family back home a better life. I have been able to to travel and see so much of the world because I had my own career. This was not a path that would have been open to me had I stayed in Malaysia in the 70s.

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.