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Chinglish: Sue Cheung’s story of being young, homeless and pregnant

Sue Cheung's book Chinglish mixes diary entries and doodles to look back at her childhood in Coventry, when she lived above her parents' Chinese takeaway. But after she left home life took an unexpected turn...

I moved to London in the late Eighties when I was 17. An exciting opportunity had cropped up and I was free at last. 

Up until then I’d been working in my parents’ Chinese takeaway since the age of 11. I’d come home from school, prep food, clean floors and serve customers, effectively missing out on a whole chunk of my youth. 

At college I studied hard and partied hard. During my last year I met a fella while out clubbing (let’s call him Jez) and we started seeing each other. Things were ticking along nicely when one day something unexpected happened, which unbeknown to me at the time, would be the start of a future that was way off my game plan. 

A blaze had started in the shared house I was staying in. It damaged most of my belongings and caused the building to be a write-off, so the tenants had to vacate. I had nowhere else to go, so I moved in with Jez, who was living in a squat in King’s Cross at the time. It wasn’t exactly The Ritz, but it was free and there weren’t as many unidentified stains as I’d anticipated. 

Sue Cheung Chinglish 1373

I finished my course and started looking for work. Everything was back on track, or so I thought. Coming from a home where foo yung was far more important than family, topics such as contraception just weren’t acknowledged or discussed, so it wasn’t long before I accidentally fell pregnant – surprise! When I told mum about her unexpected grandchild she told me to get rid of it or get out of her life – I chose the latter.

So there I was up the duff, holed up in a squat with a bunch of rough-arse builders. The open-door policy meant that all sorts invited themselves in whenever they liked: drug dealers, drug users, criminals on the run, the mentally ill. Once a fight broke out and I had to negotiate squeezing my expanded gut through a tiny second-floor window in a bid to escape. I knew I couldn’t stay in that madhouse, so I waddled off to the housing office to see if they could help us find somewhere a little more tranquil.

Meanwhile, Jez ran out of work so we signed on for benefits. We were pretty destitute by then and while waiting for our cheque to arrive, I was reduced to scrabbling around in gutters for pennies (admittedly to fund my prenatal craving for doughnuts!).

Sue Cheung 1373 Chinglish
The squat 1990

After a few weeks of paperwork and gnawing of fingernails we were offered a room in a homeless B&B in Acton, while they sorted out something more permanent for us – hurray, salvation! It was full of alcoholics and refugees, which would have sent some running straight back to the squat, but they were sound people. Plus there were no questionable stains and the mattress was on a bed frame and not the floor, so it had my approval. 

At seven months pregnant we were transferred to housing association accommodation up the road. It was a ground-floor flat with a living room and garden, a veritable palace compared to our previous places. What a relief to bring my newborn back to somewhere resembling a home, even though he still had to sleep in a cardboard box (because a bag of nappies was a luxury at that point, never mind a cot!).  

Mum insisted on visiting, so I agreed and she talked me into moving back in with her. I was blinded by promises of secure, well-paid work in the takeaway and forgot all about the past traumas of living with her and dad, so I said yes – DUR! It was only a matter of weeks before events culminated in us being kicked out on to the streets again. 

After that I was determined to turn my life around, I was fed up of falling down holes everywhere I turned. If anything, at least the work ethic my parents instilled in me paid off. A kind family member took us in while I knuckled down and completed a Higher National Diploma, found a good job with prospects and got my own house. That was 26 years ago – now I’m footloose and mortgage-free!

It was a long and winding road, with a few other potholes along the way, but with enough determination, focus, belief and sheer hard work, I found peace and happiness in the end.

Chinglish: An almost entirely true story by Sue Cheung is out on September 5 (Andersen Press, £7.99)

Illustrations for The Big Issue by Sue Cheung