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Donkin's World: A Man Called Chan

Richard Donkin brings us a guest blog by Wing-Nin Chang.

This is a guest blog by Wing-Nin Chang. I met him serendipitously when he contacted me on LinkedIn, thinking I was his old university friend, Richard Donkin (mentioned below). I enjoyed his story and hope you do too. Read on:

When I was about nine-years-old at Portsmouth Grammar
School, I had my name as Wing-Nin Chan. Which is my name. As school boys do, they give each other nicknames and I had a collection of the standard derogatory names. They were quite mild in comparison to some of the ones my friends had.

An afternoon on the school playing field, it was football. One of the teacher's, Mr Lyons, was referee and coach etc. I have always had a “have a go approach”, even from that age. I would run at and try and tackle everyone. Due to my small size and lack of speed, this was usually by means of a direct frontal assault before the opponent could speed past me.

Mr Lyons had watched all the films of his wartime generation. So he called out to the boy who I was about to rob of the ball "Watch out! It's Charlie Chan and his Chinese knife."

We young boys did not know of this fictional movie character created by Earl Derr Biggers and his cultural impact on western perceptions of the oriental race. The other young boys did not really give a toss. They had found a new nickname for me. I deeply resented it for many years. But then I realised it was a much more bearable nickname than some of the others I could have had. It was certainly better than Spud Fenner, or Big Bot Christianssen (whose younger brother ended up as Little Bot). I give Big Bot that name, but that is another story.

So I soldiered on being called Charlie Chan by all of the schoolboys. I was hoping the novelty would one day wear off. I tried to adopt the name Georgie, after George Best my favourite football player, but it did not catch on. Then a TV cartoon series in the early 1970's called "Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan" appeared (1972 - I just checked on the date) and I was doomed.

The teachers, of course, twigged onto my new anglicised appellation, although it would be a slip for them to call me Charlie Chan to my face. The school had about 1,200 boys, but I was the only Chinese lad for nearly all the time I was there and so I was known to all as “that boy Charlie Chan."

The name followed me or even preceded me, because all my friends would call me Charlie. Few bothered to find out my given name. They would introduce me to their parents as Charlie.

An interest in girls came to pass. The Girl's High school was the nearest repository of posh totty. And yes, even they knew me as Charlie.

At the age of 16, I went to sea. But I went with a large group from my school. Doomed again. Despite being on the crew manifest as "Chan Wing-Nin ", it only took one friend to call me Charlie within someone else's earshot and my name would then be unforgettable.

In October 1982, I arrived at College. I was a day late because I had been at sea, while the letter telling me when I should attend tried to catch up with me across many ports of Europe. My friend “Smeg” Cummings, who had gone up the year before, had told me when term started. But he forgot that date was when his term started and that freshers went a week earlier.

The very formal letter informed me that I should attend on Friday 1st October 1982. What day is it? I asked around. "Friday." What Date? "October 1st."

Oh Shit.

I walked the mile or more from the train station, through the dark, empty streets towards college. I had caught a train from Hull where the ship had docked. I had a fiver in my pocket that the ship’s cook had lent me, after he had blessed me, as we parted company at Peterborough Station.

As I marched onwards, in my scruffy green combat jacket and shagged out, salt- stained boots, I was only mildly concerned with having already broken a written instruction from the Provost of the College before I had even got to the door. My mind was more distracted by my concern over the lack of any personal possessions except my sailing gear, which was stuffed in my large rucksack.

I had my guitar slung over my shoulder, rifle style. I would have been wearing one of my numerous silly hats that I have had over the years, but I can't remember which one. It was late. It was very dark. It was probably gone 8 pm. I stared at the great Gothic edifice of the main entrance to King's College, Cambridge, totally awestruck.

Fuck Me! I'm here. How the Fuck did I get here, both physically and academically? I stumbled through the little door within the BIG DOOR.

I thrust my shoulders back and faked a confident entrance to the Porter's Lodge. There was a tiny cheeky porter on duty. I would know him later as Fred (I think it was Fred).

In an affected Oxbridge accent, I informed him "Hello, I believe I am expected" (Yes, in a pompous portrayal of Lord Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited, which I had seen on telly).

The little porter looked up at me from his side of the counter. "Hold on, 'ere are you Charlie Chan?" Doomed. The game was already up. My reply was given in the Standard Portmuffffff Grammer Skool accent: "Er yes, I am, er Charlie Chan." I was bemused. How did this tiny porter, in the depths of the Fens, know that I was fictitiously called Charlie Chan? I had been careful not to allude to that name in my applications to College. Even at my previous entrance interviews, I was called Wing - Nin.

"Wait for a bit, I'll show you your rooms. 'Ere Bert, I've found Charlie Chan. I'm just nipping over to Spalding Hostel wiv ‘im." I followed the little porter out of the little door. I made small talk. My mouth was explaining the reason for my delayed arrival, whilst my mind was calculating how the fuck he knew to call me Charlie Chan. We crossed the cobbled Parade and turned right a bit, turned left, and left and left and into the courtyard of the hostel, which contained 10 extra sets of rooms outside the main college buildings.

I was introduced to Melvin, the Hostel Keeper. In a gay voice (and he was, but this was King’s College after all) he said with genuine delight in his voice “Ah, Charlie, we thought you had got lost. Have you had anything to eat yet? I’ll show you to your rooms and introduce you to some of the others.” So this balding poof also knew me as Charlie.

Up some stairs, turn left (or was it right ?) down some little stairs, round a corner, and other, and more stairs “Mind your head, are you alright with all your gear, Charlie? Oh Hello Ken. Ken, this is Charlie”

One more flight of stairs “Here we are. This one is yours.”

All the rooms in College have the occupant’s name hand-painted above the door frame. Well it is bloody King’s College Cambridge. One could find the rooms of Professor Lord Khan. Said so on his door. Or Ken Bell. His door, which I had just passed, said: Bell Kenneth. Mine said: Chan W-N (Charlie). Doomed.

The next day as I roamed around various college offices, I discovered that on all the college documentation, I was known as Chan W-N (Charlie).

I later found out from the senior tutor, the ravishing Dr Tess Adkins, that some secretary at my school had forwarded academic and other biographical information to the college. She had mentioned that I was known in the school as Charlie Chan and had always been called such, as if it was a name that I, myself, had chosen by preference to facilitate communication.

All the freshers knew about Charlie Chan. Made more mysterious by his non- appearance for the first day, noticeable by his absence from the matriculation photograph. It had become a new college game: find Charlie Chan.

There were about 120 of us. There were actually three other Chinese. One from Singapore and two from Hong Kong. One of the HongKongese was called Chester Tun-Ho Kwok. Above his door it said Kwok Chester. Dear Reader, would you not agree that it sounds like a First Century Romano-Chinese military garrison somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall. It probably had a very good take-away to cater for Mongoloid legionnaires who had lost their way across the Steppes and expediently decided to sign up to fight for Caesar. That has always been the problem of choosing an English first name without consulting someone with a sound knowledge of British Culture. Chester was brilliant with numbers, but could not really do much with the European alphabet.

Many freshers had gathered in the junior combination room. In other academic establishments, this area is called the student’s bar. I spotted Chester standing in the middle of the room with no one to talk with. He spoke English as a second language and was quite a lost panda during my first day (his second) at college. I initially conversed with Chester in my appalling Cantonese and he replied in his atrocious English. We switched to his excellent Cantonese and my impeccable English. We made no more progress with this futile method of communication and so I moved off to meet others.

I had overhead laughing chit-chat about the hunt for Charlie Chan. I was approached by Richard Donkin – a great friend from days to come. “Are you Charlie Chan?” “Not me mate, that’s him over there.”

I pointed out the bemused oriental apprentice scientist (who might have been wearing a bow tie). I then wall-flowered myself and wickedly watched the vultures descend upon the bespectacled Chinky; bombarding him with questions about his comical name – not the one which sounds like a quaint tourist destination; the one which is from the rubbish Hollywood detective films.

It took me many years and many more humorous incidents to bury my old nickname. I have many friends who still call me Charlie. But I stopped referring to myself as such when I had own accountancy practice. Silly as I am, I could not write letters to the Inland Revenue commenting on my clients applications under section xx of the Taxes and Management Act 1985 and sign it:

Yours Faithfully,

Charlie Chan

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