Lilian Tan

I travelled from Malaysia in 1959 to train to be a nurse at Edgware General in London. 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 me from Singapore, then Penang, then Port Klang, 28 days! I was just 19. My purpose was to finish all the training, and then go home. Then I met my husband and that was it! That was the end of going home!

I arrived in Tilbury dock in October: it was very gloomy, very dull. The British council were there to receive us and send us to our hospitals. I was homesick, but before I came, my Aunty said I would never complete my course because I had never done any work. And that upset me 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 was not that stupid, I was not worthless.

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

When my sister was alive and I went home, I felt very at home, but since she and my mum passed away, I didn’t feel I would settle in Malaysia. Because first and foremost, I don’t like mosquitos, I don’t like snakes, cockroaches, I hate lizards and the geckos that run around! Oh, and rats! I don’t think I can live with all that around me. Now, when I go back, they know I’m foreigner straight away. When we went to buy durian, it was so expensive. My brother was saying, “Of course they know!” Malaysian people suss me out straight away.

One patient had fought against 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 was able to help you, I would help you. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t.

Of course, some people tried to bully me because I’m Chinese. One lady used to call me by beckoning me over with her finger: instead of calling, “Nurse,” she would always use her finger. I said to her, “Don’t be rude! We have names you know!” They didn’t realise that as much as I would keep quiet, I could also shout! I really put my foot down.

During the training we used to go lot of parties in Hampstead Heath: that's where the nurse's quarters were, opposite a cemetery. At night time we all got 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 didn't know what we were doing!

Working in the community was nice: you’d see all types of people with very different lives. I never cared about status or wealth. There was no point in anyone 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 and you want me to worship you, no, it’s just too bad. I used to work with a GP who is gay, and he was 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 the virus: it was just there and they needed to be cared for.

I used to go and visit 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 doing well and pain-free. Every time I sat there, half an hour or so, and looked at the goldfish. When he passed away he left me that fish tank. He knew I loved it, you see.

When you come from Malaysia, you are superstitious. People say if someone dies and a cat jumps over it the body will come alive: that kind of thing! It was so funny, during my training I was very scared: I remember the staff nurse was so angry with me because a patient died in the cubical, and as a junior, you’re supposed to unload their belongings. 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!

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m proud of my journey. It’s just the work isn’t it? You’ve got to make a living, haven’t you? After my nurse training, I went on to become a midwife and a staff nurse before working at the Western Ophthalmic, the Chelsea Hospital in Gynaecology and eventually out in the community.

I’m glad my children and grandchildren grew up here and that they can accommodate both Eastern and Western culture. That helps in life, wherever you go, to adapt to any situation. Because if you aren’t flexible, your life will be very miserable.

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.