Shop work A few years before I was born, my parents left their home in Guangdong and moved to the UK, to seek a better life. They settled in the northern city of York and opened a Chinese takeaway on the high street. I grew up above the shop and worked there throughout my childhood, serving customers and helping with basic cooking. We sold Chinese food adapted for the English palate: sweet and sour pork, egg fried rice and spring rolls were popular. Local favourites like curry, chips and mixed grills were also on the menu. As I got older, I became more involved in the management side, ordering supplies and helping with the accounts. It was a fantastic business education, from the ground up.
Running a shop is hard – the hours are long, the rewards are marginal, and you’re on your feet all day. My parents wanted something better for me. Like most Chinese families, they saw education as the solution. I loved school. I worked hard, got good grades and won a place at Cambridge to study law. As a kid from a northern immigrant background, I felt quite intimidated when I first arrived, and it took some time to adjust to the oak-panelled, rarefied environment. But everyone was welcoming and I thrived academically and made lifelong friends. I’ve made the journey from the floor of our shop all the way to the floor of the House of Commons. I hope I’ve made my parents proud.
Upwardly mobile My passion for politics is rooted in the years I spent working in the shop. I met and got to know people from all walks of life there. Over the years, our regular customers watched me grow up. Some would bring me birthday presents, others would ask after my exam results, and I had regular games of chess with one gentleman. I was an inquisitive, gregarious child, and I’d ask about their lives and their experiences. These encounters fuelled my natural curiosity and raised a lot of questions – why did some people work much longer hours than others? Why had some grown rich while there were kids in my class who came to school without having eaten breakfast? The answers to all those questions were either political or economic, and that’s what sparked my interest. Margaret Thatcher is a hero to me. She came from a similar background – she was a shopkeeper’s daughter, and I am a shopkeeper’s son. And I was given the opportunity to attend a top private school, for free, on a government scheme that was initiated by her to help bright, working-class children fulfil their potential. Her vision for Britain as a socially mobile society transformed my life.
Real world I joined the Conservative Party when I was 16 but wasn’t actively involved in frontline politics throughout my 20s because I was very busy with my career as a corporate lawyer, and with charity work. Aged 30, I left law to set up a small consultancy business. Being my own boss gave me the freedom to start pursuing a political career. When a Tory seat became available in Havant (in Hampshire, on Britain’s south coast), in 2014, I thought I’d be a good fit. I was selected via a US-style open primary. Usually only party members can choose candidates but, in this case, all the constituents had the right to vote. It’s a much harder system for candidates, because they have to appeal to a broader range of people. I think I won the vote because local people wanted someone with real-world experience, rather than a career politician. They knew I hadn’t come from wealth and privilege but that I had worked my way up and built a successful career.
Pounding the streets In 2015, there was a general election. Although Havant is seen as a safe Tory seat, I was a new candidate, so I had to campaign hard. My aim was to get to know local people, and for them to get to know me. I pounded the streets for 12 to 15 hours a day, knocking on doors, talking to residents and distributing leaflets. I set up stalls in streets and supermarkets so people could come and talk to me, and visited schools, businesses and community groups.
When I was elected, I became the first British MP of Chinese heritage. I see that as a positive not just for me, but also for the country, because it increases diversity in parliament and reflects the fact that the UK is truly a society of opportunity.
House of Cards My first day in Westminster was incredibly exciting. I had to hit the ground running – getting to know the building, which is very old and labyrinthine, setting up my office, getting stuck into constituent casework and writing my maiden speech. There are 650 MPs but only around 400 seats in the Commons chamber, so you have to arrive early if you want to secure a spot during popular sessions. The best strategy is to attend parliamentary prayers in the morning, before Parliament opens. The queue starts forming around 7am. When you attend the prayer service, you fill in a prayer card and put it above the seat you want, which you can then keep for the rest of the day. Those that don’t make it on time stand at the back or sit in the gangways. For me, the highlight of the week is Prime Minister’s Question Time. To perform well, you need to be well-informed, good at debating, quick on your toes and witty.
Helping hand I spend half the week in Westminster, and the other half in the Havant constituency. A big part of my job is helping people. Whether it’s supporting local businesses bidding for funding for a new enterprise or persuading the state bureaucracy to back off, it’s something I love to do. The biggest challenge is meeting people you simply cannot help. As an MP you have a certain amount of influence and power, but you can’t fix a failed marriage, cure people of illnesses or get them off drugs. If a parent has neglected a child, you can’t reverse that. It can be upsetting and frustrating, but even if I can’t help an individual, it does drive me on to try to make an impact at the national strategic level.
Should I stay or should I go I’m a lifelong Eurosceptic but I voted to remain in Europe because I didn’t think the Leave campaign had clearly elucidated what the alternative would be, and they hadn’t developed a clear plan as to how to get there. It has been a very intense few weeks since the referendum, but there’s a recognition that whichever way an individual MP voted, we have a collective responsibility to make the best of Brexit. And that’s why I’m here in Hong Kong, promoting Havant businesses to give them better opportunities to trade with other parts of the world.