A little inspiration

Dr Sylvia Sham, 1960-2016

On 10th December 2016, the world lost someone truly special in Dr Sylvia Sham.  She died of breast cancer, but she fought with every ounce of her being.  That was Sylvia, though.  She was a fighter through and through.  She fought for what she knew was right, she fought for what was good.  If someone was being mistreated, Sylvia would be one of the first people there to stand up for them, and she’d make sure that they got to speak up for themselves in the process.  When she went for chemotherapy, so I have been told, she would almost leap onto the bed and cheerfully say “Let’s get this done.”  She didn’t resign herself to defeat.  Judging from the stories I have heard about her and the time I knew her, I don’t think she even knew what “defeat” meant.

I met Sylvia when she was the Director of what was then Wai Yin Chinese Women Society, a community centre in Manchester that helps disadvantaged people in the city and the surrounding area.  What had started in 1988 as a support group for Chinese women grew shortly after to support Chinese children, then Chinese men and the entire Chinese family unit, and then eventually everyone in the local community.  She wasn’t just the Director of the organisation, she was the physical embodiment of everything Wai Yin stood for.

The Chinese name “Wai Yin” roughly translates to “strong and beautiful woman”: “慧” meaning “intelligent, knowledgeable, bright” – to be strong of mind, I suppose – and “妍” meaning “beautiful, feminine”. She was a strong woman, an intelligent woman, a beautiful woman, a powerful woman, a wondrous woman.  I was proud to call her my friend, honoured, privileged even.  For her to consider me her friend, I cannot put that feeling into words.  I cannot even begin to put into words how important Sylvia was to me, how important she continues to be to me.  How on earth could one summarise a person who was not only a dear friend and colleague, not only a confidant but a member of my extended family?  Sylvia was a sister to me, and to place her entire essence into just a few hundred words won’t do her any justice whatsoever.

Sylvia moved to the UK from Hong Kong in 1986, coming from a large family of six sisters and a brother.  She came to Manchester to start a new life, but she spoke very little English.  In Hong Kong, poorer families attended Chinese speaking schools and richer families attended International schools, and it was in these schools that English education was more prevalent.  The richer you were, the greater access to education you had.  In true Sylvia fashion, this proved to be only a small hurdle for her to overcome as she quickly enrolled herself on to an English language course in Manchester, and then later a Nursery Nursing programme at Stockport College.  In the space of a decade, she completed her degree, and then her PhD, gaining a doctorate in Education.  While she had a PhD, she would always say she wasn’t a “real doctor”, seeing medical practitioners as different to her and deserving a distinctive style of respect.  She never devalued her achievements.  On the contrary, education was important to her, and she held her doctorate in high esteem, but she didn’t want to oversell herself.  She knew what she could do and she knew what she couldn’t, but she made sure to value everyone around her and what they could do.  Everyone had something important to bring to the table and she respected that, no matter their qualifications or background.

I started working at Wai Yin in 2005, as a very young, White British man. I mention my race and my gender here because, whenever I mentioned my employment with Wai Yin to someone, or I visited exhibitions as a representative of Wai Yin, or I went to promotional events for them, I was asked some variation of the same question every time:

“So, why do you work for a Chinese Women’s society?”

I never had a good answer to that.

It never really bothered me that my choice of employment was regularly brought into question.  I couldn’t think of a better place to work, and much of that was Sylvia’s doing.  She would greet every person that came into the building with a smile, regardless of who they were and why they were there.  She had the right balance of a professional and personal nature, which went very well in the community sector.  She seemed to bridge the gap from the community to business and government with ease, as though it was something she was born to do.  She spoke up for the people, she cared about the people, and she worked hard to not only empower the people but to give them real power, tangible power.  But like every great diplomat and politician, she knew how to speak to those in power.  She knew how to get those in power on her side and to see why it was so important to genuinely care, rather than just paying lip service.

People would say she should enter into politics, because she had that presence and talent about her to say what needed to be said, when it needed to be said, in a way that made everyone feel good.  Looking back, I think she was too honest and good to be a politician.  She was the type of person who would call a spade a spade but did so in a way that made even the smallest of spades feel important.  Politics could have benefitted from many voices like hers, for sure, but people like her were too few and far between to make a sizeable force in that House.  To be a truly talented politician in this day and age, you had to be fluent in a sort of double-speak, you had to speak to the truth while saying nothing of the sort, and Sylvia most definitely could not do that.  She never did enter that amphitheatre anyway, but she held a great interest in all things political – she was the only person I knew who was an avid watcher of “Question Time”.  Instead, she became a de facto community leader, a person other CEOs and Directors in the community sector admired and revered.  She dedicated so much time and energy to her community endeavours that “Sylvia Sham” became very much synonymous with “Wai Yin”.

In 2015, Sylvia won the Spirit of Manchester Award for her Contribution to the Charity and Community Sector.  Looking back, I don’t think Sylvia won that award because of her work.  She won it because she was the Spirit of Manchester.  She embodied everything that I love about this city.  The strength, the community spirit, the attitude, the love, the compassion, the willingness to help one’s neighbour.  Everything that made Sylvia such a treasure could be seen in the city itself.  During some of our most harrowing moments, I could see Sylvia doing her part to help.  Now that she has passed, I’m sure she still does what she can to help, somehow.

Sylvia had more than a “can do” attitude.  It became somewhat of a “will do” attitude.  She and Mark Greenwood, a fellow Senior Manager of Wai Yin, would often come up with ideas that even to me seemed a little far-fetched, although I know that if he were left to his own devices, Mark would have made them even more so.  Yet Sylvia knew how to take this idea and make it feasible, make it possible, make it doable, and she also knew how to get the community involved in its development and sustainability.  She wasn’t reckless, though; she knew when to cut her losses and step back from the table.  She took “no” for an answer.  Most of the time.  If something was completely unreasonable and unworkable, she held her hands up and deferred to those she was speaking to.  If it wasn’t, she would leave the table and find someone else to work with, someone who could see the genius in her idea, someone who could make it become a reality.

She always had a smile, even without effort.  She had a sense of humour, even if she didn’t always get our jokes.  She was fun, she was vibrant, she was hopeful.  And she didn’t mind laughing at herself.  There’s a story that I was told, which had happened before I started to work there: we ran a Women’s Construction project, to help women gain skills in construction and DIY, and to help some women enter the construction industry.  At the start of the project, the project worker gave her presentation about the project and the outcomes and what would happen and the lessons.  By all accounts, it went well.  Then it got to the dreaded section of any presentation: “Does anyone have any questions?” And Sylvia raised her hand to ask hers.

“So what is DIY?”

When the project officially opened, Sylvia was invited to reveal a commemorative plaque.  This was a prestigious moment in education for women within Wai Yin and needed to be given the gravitas it deserved.  Because it was a Construction project, it was decided that Sylvia would be given the photo opportunity to “attach” the plaque to the wall – it was already mostly done, but it would make for a great photo opportunity.  So Sylvia took the screwdriver in hand and, as shown, twisted the handle and tightened the screw, thus affixing the plaque to the wall and marking the official opening of the project.

The plaque read “This plaque has been screwed up by Dr Sylvia Sham”, a hidden joke with the double meaning of “screwed up” – to be affixed to a surface by a screw and also to mess things up badly.  She missed the joke, and she didn’t care.  People could make fun of her, but nobody – absolutely nobody – could question her loyalty and resolve and dedication to the community.  Regardless of what the plaque said or even meant, without her input, her insight, her drive, her passion, her commitment, the project would never have seen the light of day.

She loved her staff.  She loved her colleagues.  Wai Yin was very much a family, and it was because of her.  She brought everyone together.  She kept people together.  I would often joke that Wai Yin was very much a Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”  Even now, after leaving Wai Yin, I still have not really “left”.  I resigned in 2010 to go to university, and was still there as a volunteer and to help out every so often.  Then in 2012, I became a volunteer full time, and in 2016 signed Wai Yin as my first official client.  I submitted my resignation in 2010; eleven years later, I’m still here. And even though Sylvia does not walk among us, she too has not left.  She couldn’t.  She wouldn’t.  Wai Yin was as much a part of her life as everything else.  She loved her staff, she loved her community, she loved her family, and we love her in return.

She did more than love, though.  She respected.  She respected her colleagues.  She respected the Council.  She respected the Government.  She respected her adversaries, her contemporaries, her partners, her competitors, her friends, everyone was respected equally and fairly by her.  It was amazing to watch and I struggle to name any other person who loved and respected everyone and was loved and respected by everyone in equal measure, especially in a society where judgement is so quickly passed against our fellow human beings.  Everyone had a past, she would say.  Everyone has done things they may not be proud of, but everyone can do better things.  If there was ever a problem, she would allow people to vent and cry and scream as they needed, and then she would ask “How will you get out of this?  What’s your plan to get out of this?”

Sylvia (fourth from right) and Crystal at the Goldstar Volunteer Awards in 2009.
Sylvia (fourth from right), celebrating one of Wai Yin’s volunteers at the Goldstar Manchester Volunteer awards.

She knew how to get the best out of people.  People achieve their potential when they were at their best.  She knew how to coach people.  She knew how to make people think and see things from her perspective.  This made it almost second nature to her to negotiate.  She was renowned for her ability to haggle.  Probably the most famous was with the purchase of our Swan Street office.  To this day, I am astounded at how she knocked the vendor down to just over half the asking price, especially for a business property in the city centre.  This was the building she wanted and she was going to get it.  Second place would have to go to the old Learning Centre in Mosley Street, at the time next to the developments of St Peter’s Square.  We occupied the entire ground floor, building temporary classrooms and office space.  I think we were there for about two or three years, maybe even longer.  Somehow, Sylvia managed to get the entire ground floor of another city centre property completely rent-free for a substantial period.  The buildings were earmarked for demolition, she argued, and we’d take care of the bills and rates and any maintenance work.  And if you want us out then just give us one month’s notice and we’ll leave, no problems.  I’m still astonished the landlord agreed, but Sylvia was always able to get what she asked for.

She never took advantage, though.  Whatever she wanted, she negotiated and she compromised, and she fulfilled every part of her bargain, but she somehow played a full house with each hand she was dealt.  I’m almost certain she had a stack of aces up her metaphorical sleeve.  It would have to be metaphorical since Sylvia wasn’t a gambler.  The idea of betting on particular outcomes for some kind of payout seemed almost offensive, it seemed.  Each time we thought it was a risk, somehow it would succeed and would do so with ease.  Sylvia could see things we couldn’t.  She could see shifts we were not able to.  I never did ask her the secret to her talent.

I remember a small joke I had with some of the reception staff at Wai Yin.  Sometimes, no sooner had I walked into the office, there would be a phone call to the front desk: “Tell Nathan I need him, it’s urgent.”  I had barely signed my name in the register before she would call me to her office.  We would joke that she had psychic powers or that she was tracking me or something else equally outlandish.  The truth was that the CCTV system was kept in her office and there was a camera in the reception area, so she could see me walking in on the monitor.  Yet somehow, it seemed almost God-like of her to command my presence in that way, and whilst there may have been sighs of fatigue or facetious cries of frustration, I never really tired of it.  In all honesty, when she left for her treatment, I missed it.  Knowing I will never get to experience that again genuinely hurts.

Sylvia did a lot for me.  She never really wanted me at Wai Yin.  Not because she had anything against me, far from it.  She loved me as a brother and would often tell me so.  She just saw that my potential extended far beyond the desk that sat five meters from her office.  She wanted me to go to University, to start a business, to find a partner, settle down, to have a life that she could see I was deserving of.  And she refused to allow me to believe that I wasn’t deserving of it.  She didn’t want me at Wai Yin because she believed that I was destined for better things.  My work there was to be merely a stepping stone in my journey, and she saw it as her role to help me grow and move on and to be better.  She gave me a strength I never knew I had.  She did that to everyone.

She never stopped.  She kept going, even when she was ill with the flu, even when she was undergoing her treatment, she never once stopped.  She never complained either. She saw light in every bit of darkness.  Any procedure or process was just a barrier until the positive light at the end was reached.  She knew that acorns need time and a process to grow into an oak tree.  She knew that a strong tree grows with care and nurturing.  She was patient.  She took each barrier in her stride and walked proudly through each one.

Sylvia at Manchester Art Gallery, celebrating Wai Yin's 20th Anniversary
Sylvia at Manchester Art Gallery, celebrating Wai Yin’s 20th Anniversary

Whenever Chinese New Year came around, or we had another function where we invited important people, we could be guaranteed three things. 

  1. Sylvia would be asked to make a speech, but she would never prepare one. Instead, she would make notes throughout the evening and talk off the cuff.  She could talk.  She knew what to say, and she knew how to say it.  Her English wasn’t fluent but nobody cared, because we understood.  We understood what she meant.  We understood her humour, even if she couldn’t understand ours.  She could talk.
  2. Not only could she talk, but she could talk loudly.  We would often joke about how a sound system was never required when Sylvia took to the stage.  She could project her voice and fill the space with her words.  No, that’s not it.  Not her words, her presence.  She didn’t need a microphone to project her voice because she made her presence known.  She was a powerful sight to behold, commanding the attention of hundreds of people.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it since.
  3. Because she never prepared a speech, we were flexible to cut her talking time down or give her more time to fill if she needed it.  That was often invaluable when food was running late or when we were running over the scheduled time.  We would allocate fifteen minutes to her and often on the night tell her that she only had five.  But she could still tell fifteen minutes of her story in five minutes without losing any detail, and she could make the most mundane of images into a masterpiece.  Often, presentation slide shows were nothing more than a few photographs or a couple of phrases, but watching her speak was like watching a one-woman improve show.  One single person weaving together an entire narrative, telling the backstory of a staff away day and the beauty of the office space we held it in.  She would make a day of team-building exercises sound like something intrinsically important to any organisation because it brought everyone together.  It gave everyone a chance to talk.  They say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and I think Sylvia could easily say a thousand words about any picture.

She knew what to say.  She knew how to say it.  She knew why to say it.  But she didn’t just say it.  She felt it.  She embraced it.  She lived it.  And if she needed to, she did it. When Wai Yin participated in the Great North 10K Run, Sylvia encouraged as many people to run to raise money for us.  She entered Glamorous Restaurant to the sound of Chariots of Fire, carrying a rolled-up paper cone to represent an Olympic torch, and had about 20 or so people signing up that night to run.  And she ran with them.  10,000 meters.  She ran with dozens of people from Wai Yin, and thousands of people across the country.  And she did it with an injured knee.  And she never complained.  She smiled.  She laughed.  She talked the talk with the best of them, often better than.  She walked the walk and ran the race with them too. Often better than.

There will never be another like her again.  But as much as it hurts to know she has gone, it is an honour to know that she was once here.  We can mourn her passing, and we should remember her.  But the only way I can honour her memory and her life is to ask myself “What’s my plan now?” and to make sure I get there.  The only way I can show her the love and respect she showed me is to stand up and move forward and not look back.

In life, Sylvia was by my side, coaching me, championing me, cheering me on.  Now, she’s to be a part of me, a part of my soul.  For any person who knew Sylvia will attest, once she touched your heart, her mark remains forever.  Four years ago, we lost the source of her light.  But much like the stars that shine in our sky, even millions of years after they have been extinguished at the source, we can still see the light they give off.

Sylvia Sham, celebrating Christmas at Wai Yin's Older People Project.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Posted on: