On April 1st, 2019, our one-of-a-kind father, Raymond Nim-Wah Chan, passed away. We are heartbroken. I gave this tribute at a celebration of his life at Loughborough Crematorium on April 12, 2019.
Not long after VC and I got the long-dreaded call from our brother, Ben—at 1.15am California time—to say that Dad had finally slipped away, it dawned on me: it was April 1st.
How typical of Dad, with his sardonic sense of humor, to pick April Fool’s day to leave us. Because we all know, he was never anybody’s fool.
I’ve always said that Dad is the smartest person I’ve ever known. Many of us have been on the other end of his frustration when we’ve failed to keep up with the speed of his thinking, the depth of his knowledge, or the range of his intellect.
His smarts were a blessing, and a curse for him, I think. And certainly for us. How many times did we hear him say: “Don’t be so stupid!”… and let’s be honest, that could sting.
As for the blessing?
He took his intellect and regularly turned it to wit. His razor-sharp, often inappropriate sense of humor, would typically elicit a cry of “D-a-d!” from one of us, especially in public when he might comment on someone’s appearance or actions in a loud voice. Benjamin would find this especially amusing.
And there were so many other facets to him…
We all know he didn’t fit the mold – and he would be the first to tell you: “I’m not like other people”. Um, yes, we had noticed.
To begin with his appearance and his personality, made him stand out from the crowd.
Chinese. Not so common in the U.K. in the 1960’s.
Short in stature. With the presence of a lion, the creativity of an artist and a fierce loyalty to those he called his friends—many of you here have known him for numerous decades.
In his younger years, he was dapper. Sharply dressed. Clean cut. As an orthopedic consultant he wore fine suits, a tie and a bright handkerchief in his breast pocket. And of course, his glasses.
On retirement he became a tad eccentric—wearing things he liked, perhaps a woman’s silk blouse or linen shirt—seriously—just because it appealed to him. He didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought.
He even grew a ponytail!
For the last ten years you’d find him in baggy cords, held up by red braces, paired with a holey cardigan. Often wearing sandals. Comfort was key.
But before I get to the end, let me take you back to the beginning…
Dad was born in Hong Kong on July 28, 1939, although for many years, so the story goes, his birthday was incorrectly celebrated by his family on July 31… too many children for Ma-Ma to keep track of apparently!
With the onset of the Second World War, and the evacuation of Hong Kong, Dad and his mother and siblings spent a number of years as camp followers around China. From what we can tell, these were miserable, deprived and unhappy years. I won’t dwell on them.
On their return back to Hong Kong, because all the kids’ education had been put on hold during the war, he, and a posse of boys: his brother, Willie, cousins and friends, all ended up in the same class despite their age differences.
High jinks ensued and a lifetime of friendships were formed – this time, ones that spanned across the continents, as well as the years.
It wasn’t until Dad had a medical as a teenager, before leaving for Northern Ireland to attend sixth-form college, was it discovered he was in dire need of glasses. He would describe the first time he sat in the classroom and could see the blackboard as magical. He literally couldn’t believe his eyes. His math grades improved overnight.
Perhaps it was that pair of glasses that accelerated his pursuit of knowledge.
He ended up at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to study for his MB BChir – degrees in medicine and surgery to us commoners. There he made more lifelong friends, including Fred Jackson, Victoria’s godfather. Fred wrote to us the other day, that even though they weren’t the best of correspondents… “it was always as if we had been speaking the day before and we just carried on the conversation”. Isn’t that the definition of true friendship?
Back to standing out in a crowd… take his profession of orthopedic surgeon. Seeing him among colleagues, you’d spot a diminutive, yet imposing character, ready for action and sharply dressed… dwarfed by the predominantly strapping rugby player-types, who appeared built to wrestle recalcitrant bones back into their rightful place. Yet he held his position in the line-up, no problem.
My uncle Alister, wrote to me the other day:
“I first met your Dad in October 1962 when we both arrived at university college hospital… Ray was very gregarious and we got on very well. The great difference between us was that I played rugby for the hospital at weekends, and he played mahjong. Your mother came up to UCH to study nursing in 1963 and joined us; and so it all began.”
And indeed, so it did begin. Married in 1968, my Mum and Dad had the four of us over a span of nine busy years. AC, OC, BC and VC, as my Dad used to call us. Much more efficient than trying to say, or remember, our names.
Over the years, three or more of us moved from London, to Oswestry, then to Bath, before landing in Leicester in 1976 when Dad got his job as an orthopaedic consultant at the Royal Infirmary and we moved to Pine Cottage.
Dad was the first Chinese surgeon in his department and as such, both memorable and exceptional. Wherever we went someone would stop him to express gratitude for how he had helped them or a loved one.
He dedicated his working life to healing others and teaching the rest of us. Literally thousands of people benefited from his dedication to mending them. And he taught hundreds to be the best doctors they could be.
One word that has come up, time and again over the past few days, as people have recounted their interactions with him is…. “Kind”.
An ex-colleague wrote in the Leicester Mercury:
“He was… a lovely man to work with, he always treated everyone as an equal & had a great sense of humour.”
And I have been grateful to let that sink in because, frankly he often terrified us as kids! Work came first, he wasn’t the type to sit and play a game with us—unless it was poker or chess—and he could be abrupt and even harsh. Many of you have probably seen a glimpse of that.
And yet… he ensured that we all had a great education and demanded academic excellence, certainly of me. He set us up for the journey of life, and there is no doubt he loved us deeply in his own way.
For me personally… as the father of a girl, he never, ever, made an exception or treated me differently from the boys. The world was my oyster and he made sure I took advantage of that.
I am running out of time.
I want to tell you all about the amazing talents Dad had. The things you might not know. That he played the violin really quite well. That he could hang wallpaper like a master. That he could cook a 12-course Chinese banquet single-handed. That he adored his little cat, Blackie, and was heartbroken when she disappeared.
That he traveled far and wide for as long as he could, and once slept in the ruins of Knossos in the early 60s.
Did I mention that he was also a talented artist? I clearly remember beautiful pencil etchings he made of Victoria as a baby on a family holiday in Tuscany.
Most of you you already know he loved to drive fast, until he didn’t. That he knew wine like none other. That he enjoyed sports, classical music and good-looking women. And, that he missed Maureen intensely after her sudden death in 2011.
You might not know that he loved One Foot in the Grave, The Two Ronnies, and Only Fools and Horses.
Truthfully, there simply aren’t enough words or hours to sum up the life of this complex, one-in-a-million man, who transcended the confines of race in 1960s Britain. I know he would be bowled over, and quietly, well maybe not quietly, pleased by your outpouring of appreciation and love.
Where do you begin to sum up the life of a man such as this?
I don’t know why, but in writing this, the word that kept coming up for me was leonine: he was the head of our pride. A king to his patients. Proud, fierce, handsome, often mischievous, and powerful.
You know we already miss him dreadfully.
Keep him alive in your hearts, okay?