Transgender transcendence: RTHK presenter's memoir of transition after leaving Hong Kong
Some 10 years ago, Nicola Jane Chase departed Hong Kong and began leaving behind life as a man, eventually having sex-change surgery. It's a journey she's documented in a book, Tea and Transition. The former RTHK DJ tells Clare Tyrrell-Morin about the anguish and achievements along the way.
There is a passage in Nicola Jane Chase's memoir, , that has a particular resonance for Hong Kong readers. It is the spring of 2013 and she is sitting in her home-recording studio in Queen's, New York. She is about to play the last track in the final episode of her long-running radio show for RTHK's Radio 3.
"The civil servants in Hong Kong were surprised at my seemingly irrational decision," Chase writes of her decision to stop broadcasting. "Especially as I had fudged the specifics of why I needed to do this. I said that I needed to take an extended break, but that maybe I could work for them again at some time."
The show had played every weekday night on the government broadcaster from 1995 to 2005, and then reappeared on Saturday nights in 2007. For that final night, she played The Cure, The Charlatans and Teenage Fanclub - the kind of pioneering bands that had won the show something of a cult following back in the 1990s, before the internet, before iTunes.
"I signed off on air and closed the mic for one last time. I wasn't emotional but I felt the finality. There was relief, too, at not having to maintain a part of me that had left the building a long time before.
"A final track from New Order [ from their still scintillating 1989 album ] and I was gone."
What Hong Kong listeners may not have been aware of as they tuned in to that final show was that Neil Chase, the male host, had almost dissolved by that point. In his place sat Nicola Jane, a woman with long blond hair who lived in an apartment that contained only women's clothing. And this radio show, based on a male voice, had become her liability.
Chase's intimate, self-published memoir was released last May while Caitlyn Jenner - who had competed for the United States as a male Olympian - was making headlines and covers, and propelling the "trans" debate to new levels in America's consciousness.
opens with a panic attack. It's a few weeks before Chase is booked in for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) in Thailand and she is freaking out. In the hours before the sun rises, she battles a sense of absolute, debilitating fear in her New York apartment. Later that week, she goes to see her therapist. A decision is made to postpone the surgery.
Then we head back in time to the 1960s and the Wirral, close to Liverpool, northern England, where Chase was born and raised with a sister by a single mother.
Chase had an early hankering for music and, by his 20s, had made it to Egypt, where he worked as a DJ. His travels took him to Guangzhou for three years in the early 90s, where he spun records in the city's hippest hotel clubs, from the Holiday Inn to the Ramada Hotel and the Guangdong International Hotel. This was followed by a short stint in the United Arab Emirates, where he played at private parties and nightclubs. He would hang out with friends who had radio shows there, and produced a demo tape in a bid to move on air. When he saw an advert for a job at RTHK, he sent in his tape and was given the 7pm to 9pm week-day slot.
He moved to Hong Kong and bought an apartment in Ma On Shan and a rusting black Saab convertible.
Throughout those travels, he lived the life of a fairly normal heterosexual young man; with no inkling of the coming transformation.
It was in 2007, when Chase was living in Queen's, that he first began dressing as a woman in public. Having moved permanently to the city, he continued to make shows for RTHK, now called , mixing music with interviews and news from the Big Apple. He also continued to work for an online CD retailing company, CD-WOW, that was warehoused in Hong Kong. It was here, while doing remote work, that Chase began to seriously experiment.
"As I started the 15-minute walk of anxiety to the subway station my adrenaline was pumping," she writes of the first time she stepped out in a dress. "I put on earphones and chose an album by Underworld to help blot out reality. In the gaps between music tracks, the walk to the station was eerily quiet; all I could hear were my heels clacking on the sidewalk."
The reader moves with Chase through all the firsts. We're in the room as Chase starts seeing a gender therapist, as "he" begins to feel very much like a "she". The casual banter of Chase's radio show is evident in the light-hearted voice that narrates the story as we watch Neil gradually becoming Nicky.
First, the name had to change.
"After I started going out in female mode I needed to adopt a female name," writes Chase. "There was no point going out in my finest wig, heavy-duty liquid foundation, heels and padded bra if I still answered to a male name.
"I'm not exactly sure why I chose Nicky as a name … There had been times when I was with an ex and we used to play around with alternative identities when out socially in Hong Kong, so it may have stemmed from there.
"Several months after adopting [the more formal] Nicola I realised a middle name might be useful, and something quintessentially English might be nice. That is where Jane came from. Back then I never anticipated that Nicola Jane Chase would become my legal name."
Chase embraced an electrolysis habit and embarked on hormone therapy - and underwent a very real physical transformation, wherein testosterone levels plummeted and new emotions were discovered.
"I knew my female side was in the ascendency and she was steering me forward," she writes.
a twilight and a daybreak," Chase explains of the transformation process when we speak, via Skype. "It's not completely night; it's not completely dark. There are parts of male-ness that are still lingering and there's a preponderance of femaleness that is there and growing. For me, and it is different with different people, that transition was a gradual process."
Dressed in a tight white shirt with a jacket and earrings that look like large feathers, Chase is an attractive woman. She sits on a chair with a straight back, poised and speaking in a slow voice that is definitely not the one I remember from my teenage days in Hong Kong.
After hearing Chase's show as a high school student in Hong Kong, I then met Neil in the early 2000s, when I was promoting Hong Kong music. He used to judge our Battle of the Band gigs, usually arriving late, with a big cheerful smile and rusty blond locks bouncing. Despite our time together, though, I never really got to know Neil Chase.
"Things were definitely not clear when I was in Hong Kong, there was something bobbing about my head and I think I probably put it to the back of my mind because I wasn't quite sure what it was," she says. "There were times when I played around with cross dressing and make-up, and I wasn't quite sure why I did it or why I wanted to do it. It wasn't for a kink, it wasn't something sexual, it was just something I did and I enjoyed it without getting off on it. But I wasn't sure why I enjoyed it."
She pauses and adds, "I wonder, to this day, whether I left Hong Kong to come to New York to be the person that I am, and whether I could have transitioned in Hong Kong. I don't know. It's one of these questions that can never be answered. But there is something about self-expression here in New York that is kind of singular.
"I consider May 2010 as the, roughly, chronological start to my life as a woman, as from that time, my day-to-day life was spent entirely in female mode (with the exception of making radio programmes from my home studio). I wasn't all-male before that but a tipping point had been reached as opposed to some grand unveiling."
Reading her book, one begins to appreciate, through Chase's eyes, the way a transitioning person is always reading the world around them for reactions - how so much of our sense of self is based upon how we are perceived by others. Perhaps one of the most important lessons that emerges from the memoir is the need to be mindful of one's language.
"Pronouns are extraordinarily important," she says, nodding. "Because they are some of the most simple things in language and yet some of the most pertinent things for a transgender person to hear. Especially in the early days, when I was very much lacking in confidence. When I would hear 'she' or 'her' directed at me, it was a very beautiful feeling. Whatever they thought of me - as a man in a dress, a transgender, a transsexual, a transvestite - the fact that they said 'she' or 'her' meant the world to me. Conversely, when I feel I'm looking like a woman but then somebody calls me 'he' - that is like having a rug taken out from under you."
In the book, Chase recounts her trip back to England to tell her 80-year-old mother she was transitioning from male to female.
"Mum had been listening intently; and I could see that she had absorbed what I said, even though it hadn't made sense to her," she writes. "She paused for an instant that seemed like hours before she started to ask questions:
"Have you got breasts?"
"So are you changing gender?"
"Well, the term is transgender. I mean I feel like this is the way I am … Who I am … What I am."
"Well, these days, many men and women look the same anyway - long hair on men, women with skinny figures."
"Yes, that's true."
"Do you wear skirts?"
"Did you bring clothes with you?"
"I did bring a change of clothes, yes - just in case."
"Do you wear make-up?"
"I don't think I want to see you wearing make-up."
"Many girls don't wear make-up these days anyway."
But then the floodgates opened; her mother wept openly.
Chase returned to New York with the sense that she'd ruptured the most precious relationship in her life. Yet, as the book progresses, we move through that transitioning relationship and we witness acceptance evolving within her mother.
A particularly interesting shift in the family dynamic is the relationship Chase has with her sister. Having not been close as children or adults of different sexes, they find themselves bonding as sisters.
As Chase moved ever deeper into her transition, it became clear that her voice - once her money-earner - had to change.
"I was a DJ, a voice-over artist. For all these things, my voice was my tool … but it was a tool for a man," she says. "I wasn't a man anymore. So that tool that I had, that I was earning a living from, had become this liability."
Recording her final radio show as Neil for RTHK meant she could finally let go of that public persona - even though it meant giving up the "media visa" the broadcaster had given her. She dived into voice classes, first in an office in Manhattan and then at New York University's Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. She practised for hours at a time.
"I had to unlearn and relearn and try to encourage this female voice," she says.
The issue of dating is broached in the memoir - and she takes us through several intimate moments. Chase hadn't anticipated that, as she started to identify as a female, she would begin to feel attracted to men.
"It's like planets around the sun that never meet: sexual identity and gender," she says. "Sexuality was changing, gender was changing, but they were kind of going at the same time. There was never a time when, as a woman, I was attracted to women."
She discussed dating men with her therapist: when to disclose? There are a few tense moments in the book, when Chase takes us with her to hotel bars, to intimate moments, when she tries to pinpoint that moment at which she has to tell the truth.
Dating hasn't become any easier in the months since the book came out, says Chase.
"I often feel it's like the third date rule. Often in straight dating, come the third date and you might be discussing sexual partners or lifestyles or history; you've gone past the level of superficiality and you're into the meat of things. That's when I have to disclose my past, if they haven't figured it out already.
"I have tried being very upfront," she adds. "And it's like, 'Bye!' It's not accepted. I've put it on online dating profiles and … I don't want to attract people who want to date transgender people. I'm not saying it's a fetish; I just want to date as a woman. I am making a rod for my own back by trying to date in 'normal' circles, but that's where I see myself. But it sucks!"
She eventually decided to go ahead with surgery. In the book, she takes us with her to Thailand: "I had the pleasure of sitting next to a lovely couple from Mexico on my flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok. We were talking general pleasantries, and then they asked me why I was going to Thailand. For some reason I wanted to tell them my reasons and so I did. For complete strangers, they were totally unfazed and charmingly supportive. One thing the woman said to me really struck a chord: 'So you will be like a phoenix; the same person but reborn through your own type of fire.'
"I have considered many metaphors for this process I am going through, but the concept of the phoenix is the one I like best. A new life but with the values, memories and history that remain. I, the phoenix, shall rise again."
On the page, she goes into graphic detail about the SRS, publishing the notes she took day-by-day after the surgery, and discusses the complications that arose afterwards.
"Essentially, it was a one-time deal, but I did go back about three months later for an 'aesthetic tweak'," she says.
Before the book came out, Chase travelled back to Hong Kong and was a guest on Phil Whelan's RTHK morning talk show. For the first time, she revealed herself as a woman in Hong Kong.
"It's this monolithic building on Broadcast Drive, perhaps with some monolithic attitudes. But to go there and walk through the same gates as I had done for 10 years as a man, to go through as a woman was partly terrifying and also incredibly endorsing and refreshing," she says. "I was frankly surprised and amazed and very grateful for the amount of support I received from colleagues. You're dealing with quite an old guard in many respects and, with somebody who has been quite clearly a guy for 10 years, for them to have to say, 'Well, actually, that person's a woman now,' was a big deal for me."
Chase had another bout of cold feet ahead of the book launch; she was about to reveal the most intimate details of her life - was that a good idea?
It was a late spring afternoon last May when a gathering took over the Podunk tearoom, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Plates of cakes and pots of tea had been laid out for the small crowd and a hush descended as Nicky Jane Chase stood up to deliver a speech. Her mother was standing by her side. Chase says she felt an inner confidence finally emerge.
"This was the time when I was the most open about who I am and what I've been through. The fact that my mother - who, when I told her the first time, probably thought the world had ended - not only came around to understanding who I am, but now is virtually my biggest supporter. To have that person who once didn't want to be seen with me, to be now standing right beside me, was a very magical moment."
reveals how it feels to walk the transgender journey - and how that journey isn't that of just one person.
"The people around the person: the husbands, the daughters, the fathers, the cousins, they do as much transitioning as I have done," says Chase. "Because they are dealing with somebody who once was a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, and they're not the same anymore. Other people have to come to terms with it as much as I've got to figure it out."
Since May, Nicky Chase has continued her life as a single woman in New York, pottering around her garden in Queens, growing rhubarb, tomatoes and raspberries. She continues to work as a secretary in an electrolysis clinic, a job she began in the autumn of 2011, and she continues to attempt to date men ("no success stories") .
And she has a new mission: to help foster a deeper understanding of transgender issues. She has written about one issue in particular, the nature of T's presence in LGBT.
"I am quite eager to separate the T from the LGBT," she says. "The LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] are all about sexual orientation, the T [transgender] is about gender. The public gets quite muddled about the differences between these."
Last June, Chase wrote a blog piece for , a leading gay and lesbian fashion and entertainment magazine: "Of course I admire and respect lesbian and gay campaigners over the years who have laid the groundwork for the level of acceptance that there is now," she wrote, "but I am neither gay nor lesbian. I am a straight woman - with a past." She points out that while she is a strong advocate for LGBT causes, two very different issues are being muddled under one acronym.
"Lumping the four initials together only enhances the misperception that they are interchangeable terms," she wrote. "They are not."
She says now, "While, of course, every person of every sexuality, of every race and creed should be equal, I'm more about allowing people to understand why being transgender is what it is. That it's OK; we're not crazy people, we didn't choose to be like this, it's who we are. I didn't wake up one day and think, 'I want to be a woman.' Which is, I think, one of the misperceptions; that it's a choice. It's not a choice."
As our conversation draws to a close, I tell her I've been struck by her sense of confidence, the ease with which she embodies this new female role. It's almost as if there was something missing in Neil.
She points out that she doesn't refer to her former self by name any longer.
"I have spoken to people who knew me 10 or 15 years ago, and I have said to them, 'Well, I never saw this coming,' and a couple of them said, 'Oh, I don't know … there was something there.'
"I don't think I was particularly good at being a man!" she adds, with a chuckle. "I was talking to a friend the other day; he said, 'But your mannerisms, your posture, are you working on it?' No, it's just who I am. These things are just natural to me. The sense of calm and peace and everything being right as a woman, is fabulous.
"It's almost overwhelming."