Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

In 1959, months after having arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai, Nelson Tsui hated sitting on sofas and cake made him feel nauseous. 'As soon as I sat on a sofa, it reminded me of the whole boat rocking,' Tsui says.

Half a century later, he recalls how his family was smuggled into Hong Kong. The journey began on a train and a nine-year-old Tsui spent the sea voyage that followed being sick. One passenger fell overboard and was lost. 'When we started our journey, my auntie gave me a box of cake. For the longest time after we got to Hong Kong, I couldn't stand the sight of cake.'

Tsui's father was already in Hong Kong, working as a tailor. The family, which included Tsui's older and younger brothers, lived in Wan Chai. Their cramped flat was 'heaven', Tsui says, compared with their living accommodation in Shanghai, but Tsui soon took a disliking to Hong Kong.

'I didn't enjoy my elementary and high-school years. I attended grade one for three years,' Tsui says. 'In China, they believed in delayed education, so I didn't go to school until I was nine. I resented schooling in retrospect because of the way the education system wanted me to learn.'

At 20, Tsui found himself in Toronto, Canada, after the family borrowed money to fund his further studies. After a tortuous but cheap series of flights, he'd landed in the middle of a snowstorm at midnight and the airline had lost his luggage. Tsui took a train from Toronto to the prairies and a small Mennonite community school in Saskatchewan, where the principal came to meet him at the station.

'As soon as he lifted my luggage, he fell right down. All my earthly possessions were in there. He asked me: 'How come it's so heavy?' I said, it was my books. I had a lot of books.'

After having finished a bachelor's degree in psychology, Tsui knew he wanted to go to law school. Before he could achieve that goal, he worked in jails, counselling inmates.

The first time Tsui returned to Hong Kong, he came because his father had fallen ill; the second time he came to introduce his new wife to the family.

After Tsui's father died, he arranged for his mother and younger brother to join him in Canada and it was around this time that he landed a position at Davis & Company, one of Vancouver's most prestigious law firms. He'd had to adapt to do so, though, because he'd been approaching job interviews with the wrong mindset.

'They would say: 'Do you think you can handle this job?' And I said, 'I will not be worthy but I will try my best' - and they looked at me in shock. I answered them in English but I was thinking in Chinese.'

During the interview with Davis & Company, Tsui was asked how he would distinguish himself among the 100 lawyers already working there. Tsui suppressed his humility and looked the interviewer in the eye, saying: 'With respect, I work for corrections and have dealt with 500 inmates. In comparison, your firm is a small organisation for me.'

He got the job.

Nearly a quarter of a century after he was called to the bar, one of Tsui's two daughters has also become a lawyer; the other is studying to be a speech pathologist.

'I love law because it can be very philosophical but at the end it must also be practical. You have to find your own way. I found mine and I consider myself very lucky,' Tsui says.