Abraham Tse 謝漢森 (Fulbourn in Retrospection)

Abraham Tse 謝漢森 (Fulbourn in Retrospection)

Magic of Fulbourn in Retrospection (by Abraham Tse)


I was working at Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridge from 1967-1976 and returning to the staff reunion in year 2000 evoked many poignant memories.

I was born into a military but loving family; grandfather, father, uncles and brothers were army officers who had fought foreign invaders in various "resistances" during the first half of the 20th Century (1900-1945) and the tortuous civil war from 1946 to 1950. At the tender age, I experienced the brutality of wars, witnessed the unruly persecutions of the "enemies" of the proletarians by the ruling communist cadres in the 50s. The Great Famine from 1958 to 1961 has been well documented by scholars worldwide as: "The worst catastrophe in China's history and one of the worst anywhere." This calamity caused starvations and deaths of over 30 million Chinese. In order to survive, millions of Chinese resorted to foraging and/or escaping to other countries including Russia, Southeast Asia, Macau and Hong Kong etc.

201403201421 0001 3 smallAt the age of 16, after my father's untimely passing, I tried fleeing to Hong Kong, but was captured many times and sent to a labour camp for months of "re-educations" from 1960 to 1962. Despite being shot at, ripped to shreds by the canine (Alsatian) and broke my arm from jumping out of a fast moving bus, I safely crossed the China-Hong Kong border twice but was captured and repatriated to China on both occasions.

Undaunted, I patched my broken arm, packed my bag and finally reunited with my mother in HK in 1962. Leaving the 500 years ancestral home (I am the 19th generations) was a dramatic experience especially I could not even speak the predominantly Cantonese let alone English (my dialect is Hakka). It was hard for a country pumpkin in the colonial enclave as I could only take a variety of menial jobs. In order to improve prospects, I studied English part time for a couple of years before the infamous Cultural Revolution which spread from mainland China to HK in 1966. Fearing for the future, I decided to flee again.

I got a job at Fulbourn Hospital, a Victoria mental institution which was probably desperate for staff, a Labour Permit was duly issued in 1967. I was grateful for the lifeline, but nothing had prepared me for the shocks of those early years!

Arriving at Fulbourn in a midsummer night, I was met by the Nursing Superintendent Les who took me to the Rose Bank Male Nurses Home. The knocking on the door next morning woke me up, when I opened the door, there stood a Chinese who introduced himself as Eddie, and he said Les told him to look out for me after night duty. I was frightened by the unexpected visit and thought he was the Chinese Secret Police! I could not communicate much with Eddie who is a third generation ethnic Chinese from Mauritius (we are still in touch). I however cautiously agreed to breakfast (first smoked kipper) with him before reporting to the Matron Miss Legg.

Miss Legg enquired about my journey; my responses were mainly monosyllabically yes, yes and more yes! She sensed that I did not understand her and thus wrote me a note, stating where to get my uniform, when and where to work. I took the note nervously from her, smiled politely, bowed and left in a hurry.

photo1I was issued with six smallest size 38 white coats. I am only a small frame of 5'6" and weighted about 110 lbs with a chest size of 35; I could see myself in the mirror looking hilariously ridiculous!

I reported to duty the next day and met Don, the charge Nurse (ward manager) and his Deputy John on Street Ward, an acute admission unit. I could not comprehend what was going on and could not make myself understood. I trembled whenever Don called out for me, once inside his office, he would stare at me for a few seconds, and these few seconds seemed eternity. I was too anxious to take in what he said and had to ask someone to find out before I could carry out his instructions. My ignorance of the British society and the sub-cultures of a mental hospital had reduced me next to almost useless! The new life in England was not as I had hoped for; I could not even tell my mother that I was going to train as a male nurse!

The senior nursing staff were all very authoritarian, but worst of all, I was in constant fear of the imaginary Chinese secret police. I developed an acute sense of paranoia especially Eddie was keeping meticulous notes after quizzing me about China. I did not discover until much later of his fascinations about his ancestral roots.

I was transferred from Street to Hillview Ward after a few months. Hillview was an integrated ward (male and female patients living together) for grossly disturbed patients with severe learning difficulties. On my first day, Sister Emily gave me what I thought was a tin of biscuits as a welcoming present and I was overwhelmed by her kind gesture. She asked me to open it; my bewilderment prompted her to say: "It's not for you, and it is for the female patients". The biscuit tin contained the makeup stuff and my realisation of having to beautify the female patients was hard to bear!

Emily would also tease me from time to time to fetch a bra or a pair of knickers for the patients. I would run around the ward shouting for "bla", "lickers". On my first Christmas day, Emily said it was a tradition for all male staff to give her as many kisses as the number of berries on the mistletoe branches hanging in her office. There were hundreds of them crying out loud!

I learnt lots of swearing words and plugged up enough courage one day, asking the difference between "bugger you" and "bugger me", I was firmly told to "bugger off"! I did not know there were more buggers.
For the first few months, I descended into deep depression notwithstanding that my father had instilled in me the importance of courage, honour and integrity. Despite the unrelenting raging turmoil, I soldiered on, smiled broadly whenever I went to work.

I often went to the American Military War Cemetery near Cambridge where several thousand WWII servicemen are honoured with white marble headstones neatly lay out in beautifully manicured fan shape lawns. There is a Memorial Chapel decorated with maps on the walls, depicting graphically air sorties, convoys across the North Atlantic and other battles in the Pacific. Though a nonbeliever, I would knell before the altar and pray for my father's soul and world peace, deriving much comfort from these "morbid" routines in momentary tranquillity. I retreated into a world of self-imposed solitude, seeking solace in Chinese literatures and poetries. I wrote poems mostly in Chinese, few in English:

Please don't die, dear father, don't die.
Raised my head, I asked the Divine:
Tell me why?
Vanquishing the Japanese was not a crime,
Why must you take him?
Leaving me behind?

I am only a child,
Now he has died,
Who will protect and guide?
I wailed, I pleaded and I cried!
Dear God, don't you understand, I want him revived?

Please don't cry, dear mother, don't cry,
We need to stay alive,
Fight against the Communist swine,
Fight against injustice, and their lies.

They don't care about humanity,
They don't care about life.
No one stands in their way,
Will survive!

Bade our sad farewell,
We set off at night,
Waded through dense bushes, mountains we climbed,
Until day light,
Starving and exhausted,
We sought shelter and hide.

Freedom was within a striking distance,
Happiness is hard to define.
Dreams will soon be realised,
We heaved a relief sigh.

Under the illuminated southern sky,
We forgot fatigue and hunger,
Hearts bounding rapidly,
Charging towards the frontier.
Tumbling down from cliff tops,
Absolutely petrified!

Border guards chasing from behind,
With their ferocious canine!
Grabbing hold of the barbed wires,
With all our strengths,
We climbed and climbed and climbed.

There was no use,
The canine caught me from behind.
Shredded my trousers, pinned me to the ground.
Unable to fend for myself,
Unable to run,
Beating rained down,
I thought my time had come.

Oh, dear God,
Why did you turn a blind eye?
Why did you not intervene?
Having witnessed my shattered dreams,
Can you now hear me scream?

Please don't cry, dear mother, don't cry,
I will take my place in Laugai (forced labour camp),
I will not be broken, however hard they try.
I will survive,
I will fight,
Fight against all unjust plights,
Fight for a new China,
Fight to bring back your smiles!

It was a different world when I was eventually admitted to the roll of nursing training in 1968, although my command of English was still very poor, I was nevertheless feeling happier after 8 weeks of Preliminary Training School (PTS).

Main entrance of Fulbourn hospitalThe learning processes accelerated after I successfully completed and qualified as a registered mental nurse in January 1971. I was then seconded to a Day Centre in Cambridge where I learnt a great deal about care in the community. At the same time I enrolled with the Open University studying Social Sciences. I also involved helping many overseas students with studies and preparations for their exams.

The reputation of Fulbourn attracted many students of Social Psychiatry from all over the world. Those were exciting times; I was emotionally and psychologically enriched by the experiences of working with all those professionals. By now I had exorcised the ghost and broken free from the shackles of my past!

Fulbourn restored my faith in humanity, helped me to regain self esteem. I was ready to take on new challenges and the desire to seek a new life propelled me to take up a Nursing Officer's post (senior manager) in 1976 at the Whittington Psychiatric Unit in London.

I am deeply indebted to former colleagues for providing the supports and encouragements so generously. Fulbourn has indelibly left much joyful memories, I was fortunate to have been swept by the tidal waves of changes. May the magic and dynamic of Fulbourn long reign into the next century!

May 2000