Interview with Sew Em Tan, 2008
Level: Category
Sound Archive
Level: Fonds
Level: Series
Empire of Care oral histories
Scope and Content:
Sew Em Tan interviewed about coming to England from Malaysia to train as a nurse in Colchester. Describes her experiences of working in the NHS and living in Colchester.

[00:00:03] Sew explains that she came to England because of the nursing shortage. Nursing was a good job, and she wanted to help people. A friend, Maria, had come nine months earlier. Some friends had brothers in Cambridge. Used her own savings. Flight costs helped by a Lee Foundation scholarship

[00:04:75] First time on a plane. Travelled with three other girls. Arrived in autumn. Had warm clothing and a coat. Brought family photographs. Mother unhappy about her leaving home; thought that girls should be at home, and worried about who would marry her.

[00:07:40] Met at Heathrow Airport. Travelled from Liverpool Street by train. Shared a taxi to Colchester Hospital. Met by Sister Jones and shown to her room. Lived at 7 Oxford Road with six other girls. Did miss home. Found weather cold and food bland. People spoke fast; found it difficult to understand. Had to learn new long English words.

[00:11:06] English culture very different. Strange to see couples kissing in public. Dressed quite smartly. Wore tight miniskirts. Ester [Jankey] was her senior. Wrote home regularly and sent photographs to reassure her family. Telephone very expensive; phoned home once a year, at Chinese New Year.

[00:14:22] Found Colchester a small, nice town. Meat was cheap. Difficult to get Chinese ingredients and herbs. Had to learn to cook. Aunts took care of all the food at home in Malaysia. Did not like mashed potatoes. Recalls having beans on toast during night duty. Paid £36 a month. Saved for holidays in Europe. Went home in second year.

[00:18:35] Mother strict at home; did not go to parties. Friend Maria a good cook and seamstress. Went to International Club and listened to pop music. Not very adventurous; watched TV on days off. Did not mix much with local girls. A lot of foreign girls in the group.

[00:22:34] Comments that lots of nurses came from Jamaica and Africa. Patients interested in where you came from. Junior staff did a lot for patients, who stayed longer in hospital then. Talked a lot of romance on the ward. Once proposed to by a patient.

[00:25:21] Training was difficult. Had to learn new parts of the body. Sister was strict and wards run well. Had to be quiet when consultants visited medical wards. Did a lot of domestic work. Enjoyed meeting different people. Communication poor and junior staff not treated well. No problem with patients.

[00:29:28] Met her husband at a party in Cambridge. Was training to be a psychiatric nurse. After finishing training, trained as a midwife in Kent. Returned to Malaysia for three years. Married and came back to England. Worked in Hull for 18 months and then returned to Colchester in 1979 to work in midwifery.

[00:32:16] Students wore a thick paper hat, like domestic servants. Midwifes use a plastic apron; not smart. Patients now empowered with a lot of say in their care, and all mothers have a labour care plan. Had to wear black shoes with laces and black stockings; expensive. Did not know many people. Met foster parents only once but did go with others for tea and food.

[00:36:00] Busy morning shifts. Had to give patients tea and a wash on night shifts. Brought her watch for Malaysia. Had to measure temperature and pulse. Uniform was provided and cleaned in the laundry. Came with few aspirations; have achieved more than expected by becoming a sister. Malaysian accent will not go away. Family speak Chinese at home. Very happy that she came to England.
Dates of Creation:
40 minutes 31 seconds
Creator Name:
Colchester Museums
Admin History:
Sew Em Tan (née Lin) came to England from Malaysia, aged 21, to train as a nurse in Colchester. She then trained as a midwife in Kent and returned home. After her marriage, she came back to work in Hull and then Colchester as a sister in midwifery.
Archivist Note:
Physical Characteristics:
1 MP3 file created from original WAV file
Dates of Description:
28 April 2022
Not Available:
Digital item(s). For access please email ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk