Jon Shum 1930-2011

Final blog post of the year, so I’m marking the life of my father, who passed away a month ago. His story, from his childhood in Hong Kong, disrupted schooling under Japanese occupation during WWII, and the way he made a life here in Britain from 1951, is sketched below.

But here is his professional life in academia summed up in two photos. From machines, to people.

I followed him into people, and then found my way back to the machines.

In 1961 Dad joined what became the  prestigious UCL Space Research team, directed by Prof. (later Sir) Robert Boyd, father of British space research, and later, Director of the Mullard Lab. Dad worked as a technician processing telemetry data from the early British satellites. Here’s a classic photo of him examining that telemetry data on tickertape spewing out of a wardrobe-sized computer! (In fact this was a promotional photo for EMI, presumably advertising their shiny new TADIC computer — I haven’t managed to find out more about these).

I followed him to UCL in 1988, when I did the Ergonomics Masters, marking my transition from Psychology into Human-Machine interaction.

However, Dad had already realised that he in fact wanted to work on human, social affairs, and having experienced university life, knew he wanted to be an academic. With the wonderful availability of part-time study at Birkbeck College (U. London), he studied Psychology. I also studied at Birkbeck as part of my Ergonomics, including being taught by Paul Barber, one of Dad’s peers from that Birkbeck course! And now of course, I am at the Open University, founded in 1969, which took the Birkbeck part-time study model and made it a global distance e-learning phenomenon.

Eventually, Dad achieved his goal of becoming an academic, becoming a senior lecturer at what is now Glasgow Caledonian University, the stage I’ve reached in my career:

The rest is well… history. Below is what I read at his funeral, which tells some of the twists and turns on that journey, plus the photos I have compiled…

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We all need to have our story heard, and we all need to know that by the end, through all the peaks and troughs, we’re still loved.

So, I want to tell you the story of Jonathan Chung-Hin Shum.

“Jon” to most people. “Dad” of course to Pete and me. In time also “Uncle Jon” and then “Grandad Jon”.

For some of you, a friend for over 40 years.

For others, the old man you got to know only in the last 20 months, as you cared for him with great commitment, for which we’re so grateful.

As you’ll hear, what you experienced of Dad at the care home was not solely down to Alzheimers: he was always ranging from funny, witty, considerate and engaging, to stubborn, proud, infuriating and sometimes plain rude!

For many years Dad threatened periodically to write his autobiography and reveal dark secrets from his past! But when we probed for details, he would give little away. Very recently, however, we came across two yellowing pages of typed notes, marked CONFIDENTIAL, which give us key snippets up to 1965!

So let me give you a biographical sketch, some of it in his own voice.

In 1930 Dad was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, big brother to younger brother Fai, and two sisters Anna and Nancy. His mum moved back to China when he was only 2, though we see from photos that she joined at least formal family celebrations. His father, like many Chinese men in those days, smoked opium, and became addicted, which could have been disastrous for the family. However, Dad’s step-mum, known by everyone as Ma Ma, brought a very strong personality and keen business sense, and the family was well looked after.

In 1941, Dad was finishing primary school and proudly reports he was Head Boy. At that point the Japanese invaded and he lived under occupation for 4 years. His job was to do whatever he could to bring in money, including very basic farming, and buying and selling old clothes. He only started secondary school at 16, and left with no School Certificate. Aged 20, he was set on a technical trade, and started work at HK Airport radio school.

In 1951 Dad arrived in Britain with his brother, to start radio school near Southampton, and then his first job at Decca Radar which as he puts it,

“…enriched my life with the British by adding industrial (shop-floor) experience to that of suburban politeness”!

A few years later, he writes: “Oct. 1954 was a great landmark in my life” – he got into Birmingham University to do Electrical Engineering:

“At the age of 24 my world opened up at last on account of all that university education stood for. Life adjustment was sudden and consequential, as new values, social, religious as well as intellectual were acquired.”

For Dad this really was a new dawn: University Life became for him the pinnacle profession to aim for — to the point where this revelation probably blinkered him to the many other livelihoods that are worthy of pursuit, but there we are!

However, he found degree study very tough and had to drop out, which would have been a massive blow. He also records:

“At about the same time it was made clear to me from home that they could no longer give me any financial support.”

So you can imagine the challenge: he’s 27, dropped out of school but found a technical trade, emigrated and found work, but then dropped out of university. He only has himself to depend on if he is to survive in his newly adopted homeland.

But he got other qualifications while working, and in 1961 joined what became the  prestigious UCL Space Research team, directed by Prof. (later Sir) Robert Boyd, father of British space research, working as a technician processing telemetry data from the early British satellites.

But he reveals that after Birmingham, he realised:

“I had entered the wrong profession, and sooner or later I had to be directly involved with human, social problems.”

He mentions several things that shaped this change:

“Apart from my wartime experience in my adolescence, refugee camps in the 1950s; the Hungarian Uprising; the race riots in the US and UK; and  my reading of racial issues in Africa and Asia.”

On the spiritual front, he writes that it was 1960 when:

“I took the sober and definite step in what all true Christians would understand as ‘committing oneself’. The writings of CS Lewis and JB Phillips, more than anyone, prepared the way, as had the shining examples of a few friends.”

Shortly after, he made the big career switch, from radar to people, studying a part-time Psychology degree at London’s Birkbeck College, graduating in 1965.

In 1961 he met Mum and writes:

“…after a not uneventful friendship lasting about 2½ years we were married in the Autumn of 1963.”

“Not uneventful friendship”?! —  I asked mum yesterday what she thought this cryptic clue meant. The likely answer is the resistance to a marriage across ethnic boundaries, in both families. This was still quite unusual in the early 60s (and think about their poor children… after all might not “mixed-race” offspring be disadvantaged?) But once the parents grew used to the idea, there was full support for them.

They were married in All Souls Church, Langham Place by the vicar — a certain John Stott — who as some of you will know became an international theologian and preacher, and whom Dad held in very high regard for his reasoned approach to faith, and for his hospitality and gentle personality. Mum and Dad were very active in All Sould during those early married years, working with overseas students.

Meanwhile in 67 I arrived, and then Pete in 69. Having worked so hard to reach this point in life with stable work and a young family, with all that was happening culturally in Britain back then, I wonder if Dad must have wondered what kind of future awaited us.

Armed with his Psychology degree, Dad became a Maths teacher in London for a couple of years at one of those ambitious new institutions called Comprehensives! That qualified him to reach his goal of becoming an Educational Psychologist, and he worked in schools in Durham and then Colchester.

It was in 1972 that Dad moved into academic research, foreshadowing what Pete and I now do. He got an M.Phil. from Birkbeck College London, researching the difficulties that ‘problem teenagers’ had in finding work.

It’s only through writing this bio, that I see how his early life shaped his desire to work with troubled young people in schools, and then to research this topic. Strangely, we never had a conversation about this aspect.

By then he understood where the next move should be: he really wanted to work in a university. In 1974 we all made the big move north to Scotland. Dad had applied for a Lecturer post in Psychology, at what is now Glasgow Caledonian University. However, I learned only this week that he so impressed the Head of department at interview that they offered him a Senior Lectureship instead!

Until retiring in 1994, for 20 years he taught psychology on vocational courses. He also worked with the British Psychological Society on professionalizing the emerging field of Counselling Psychology, now very large. It was in this role that he relished the chances to travel and attend conferences in China, the US and Europe. He always urged us to travel, something he longed to do all his life, even after it was no longer practical.

After retiring he couldn’t completely give up as an academic, teaching Glasgow University evening classes on contemporary China.

I know that Dad would have wanted you to hear a little of his story, and I hope that filled in a few gaps for you.

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For me, I can still hear Dad saying “broaden your horizons” from an early age — and when Tom was born, Dad’s gift was a piece of Chinese calligraphy, now above Tom’s bed to remind him every morning!… “Stay open to new ideas and ways of thinking.”

Dad was passionate about the ideas and culture that he so thrived on when he arrived in the UK in 1950s, and particularly from university life. This is what he wanted for us, and which I want for Jo, Jas and Tom. There was the weekly Saturday trip taking Pete and me to the library. He loved Glasgow Film Theatre – we’d seen Harold Lloyd, The Seven Samurai and Blue Velvet long before our friends! Add to that opera and drama at the Theatre Royal, and visits to Glasgow Art Gallery and the modern art Third Eye Centre. Trips to London would invariably include the South Bank.

He hoarded papers and magazines since I can remember — covering every vacant space (and I learnt last week that this was already the case in the 60s!) It was as though he was worried that this feast of ideas he had stumbled on might evaporate any moment, so the best plan was never to throw anything out… Right from when Pete and I left home, and up to a few years ago, he was the eternal fountain of clippings and job adverts (some them rather off-topic!) — his quirky way of saying he was thinking of us and didn’t want us to miss any opportunity in life.

In his later years, he seemed to return to his roots, immersing himself in Chinese poetry, philosophy and politics. He had come full cycle from the total commitment to assimilate into British life — to the point that he never taught Pete and me Cantonese, in case it impeded our academic progress. Ironically, a very Chinese priority.

Of course he wasn’t the perfect Dad. His Chinese upbringing made him a bit distant and authoritarian, so he wasn’t the kind of Dad you talked to about your girlfriend! And how shall we say this — he wasn’t exactly Mr Sporty Outdoors Action Man! He lasted one night at the Scout Father & Son camp, and then left for home…

But he was who he was, he did his best, and as you’ve heard, in every sense he came a very long way from his roots in Hong Kong.

4 Responses to “Jon Shum 1930-2011”

  1. I’m sorry for your loss, Simon. I found this tribute very moving, and I also appreciated hearing more about your family and your upbringing. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you and your family the best this New Year.

  2. I’m sorry for your loss, Simon. Thanks for sharing the story of your dad’s life with us all.

  3. Dear Simon,
    Please accept my sympathies on Jon’s death – I only just learned of it on accessing your website for another reason. Jon was a valued colleague for me in my first lecturing post at Glasgow College, and a most courteous and kindly man. Something else that we shared was both being Birbeck graduates, we only just failed to overlap, as I enrolled in 65 just after he graduated. I lost touch with him after I moved to Ulster, but saw him occasionally after coming back to Glasgow Polytechnic in 1990 as a Reader in Computing. It was fascinating to read about his early life and also about his family life with you – thank you for sharing that with us.
    Best wishes
    Julian Newman

  4. […] since after months of planning this trip, unfortunately I could not be there in person after my father passed away last […]

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