'I'm so grateful for what this country has taught me'
Albert Choi loves a challenge. At 57 he still bubbles with drive, determination and ambition. It is in his DNA.
As a teenager he wanted nothing more than to travel, broaden his horizons and improve his language skills.
So at 16 he left China, ended up in Paris and learned French while working hard in a variety of jobs.
English was next on bucket list of life skills. ‘If you get on a ferry from northern France, where do you invariably end up? Portsmouth,’ he says.
So as a 19-year-old in the city at the end of that ferry crossing he found himself applying for and being accepted on to a construction course at Highbury College, Cosham ‘with just a few words of English’.
Nearly 40 years on he says: ‘It was remarkable I suppose, but I was lucky in that I picked up the language pretty quickly, but I was absolutely determined to succeed.
‘At 19 I was the oldest one on the course because I’d spent that time in Paris, but being with a group of 16-year-olds really helped me learn the language pretty quickly.’
He moved on to study architecture at Portsmouth Polytechnic, one of the few Chinese students there. He says there are now about 1,600 on various University of Portsmouth courses.
‘But I realised architecture wasn’t going to pan out for me. I thought there were more opportunities in the hospitality industry.’
So he started knocking on the doors of what he considered the best way to immerse himself in English culture – pubs.
‘When I finished at the poly I became a publican – well, not quite at first,’ laughs the chairman of the flourishing Portsmouth Chinese Association who is now a British citizen.
‘I have a very strong work ethic so I literally went around pubs asking for jobs.
‘I remember my first night behind a bar. I was so confused because I was still looking for shillings and old pennies. I also didn’t understand that there was a difference between bitter, lager and Guinness; light ale, pale ale and mild. To me they were just beers.’ So he was relegated to the role of potman, a collector and washer-upper of glasses.
‘Those were the days when the pub was the hub of English society. They were still like community centres. I loved them, was made to feel very welcome by the regulars and everybody was helpful, but best of all they were where I really learned English and it’s because of that that I’m so grateful for what this country has taught me.
‘It’s so sad that so many of them have gone now and that focal point for the community has vanished.’
But the potman role was not to last for someone with a burning ambition to climb the ladder in his new country.
‘Eventually I became a publican and ran pubs in Basingstoke, Cardiff and Bournemouth before returning to Portsmouth.
‘This was 25 years ago and I was one of the very few Chinese pub landlords around and was probably one of the youngest licensees at the time, ’ adds Albert who was born in the former Portuguese colony of Macau across the Pearl River delta from Hong Kong.
He owns the highly-respected Noble House restaurant in Osborne Road, Southsea, and after decades in the trade has become a prominent member of the city’s business community.
‘At my age it would be easy to think about winding down, but there are always new challenges,’ he says in his quiet, gentle way, a manner which does not entirely obscure his tenacity.
And it is that ambition coupled with his business acumen which has landed his biggest scoop.
For to mark Chinese New Year, the year of the monkey, Albert has managed to persuade the powers that be back in China that the Cultures of China: Festival of Spring show should come to Portsmouth.
It arrives in Britain at this time of year each year, but usually plays to full houses at the 02 Arena in London and in Manchester and Edinburgh.
Albert used his contacts at the Chinese embassy to persuade organisers to ditch the Manchester and Edinburgh shows and come to the Kings Theatre, Southsea instead on February 17.
There is an economic spin-off for the city for the 40-strong troupe will be staying here and bringing a high-ranking delegation with them including the equivalent of the Chinese foreign secretary.
‘Yes, it is a coup for Portsmouth,’ says Albert, ‘but it reflects the reputation the Portsmouth Chinese Association has built and the work we have done integrating Chinese people into British society.
The association has an enormous catchment area running from Bognor Regis to Whiteley, the Isle of Wight to just south of Guildford.
It also runs a Chinese Sunday school for 150 children which meets weekly at Miltoncross Academy, Milton, Portsmouth.
‘All the teachers are volunteers, including the head teacher and we have been voted one of the best Chinese Sunday schools in the country. Even though we want to and do integrate into British society, it keeps our culture alive. We are very traditional people. Our culture, language and customs are important to us which is why we place so much emphasis on our new year celebrations.’
Although Albert welcomes the more diverse ethnic mix in 21st century Portsmouth, as a traditionalist, there are changes he regrets.
‘I must say that although I’m now British, I am still a migrant. But I’m from the old school and preferred British society as it was 30 or 40 years ago. When I first came here I found it charming, very English and much more polite than it is now.
‘I remember walking to Highbury College through Cosham and passing people in their front gardens who would always say good morning to me. It was the same when I lived in Fareham and Southsea. Everybody was so polite.
‘Today that doesn’t happen, but when you travel through Europe it is noticeable the British charm does not exist anywhere else. That’s why I love it here and why I stay here. This country has been so good for me.’
CHINESE NEW YEAR SHOW AT KINGS THEATRE
The winner of China’s version of The Voice, Lei Zhang, heads the all-star cast appearing at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.
Lei won the singing competition in 2015 and will perform alongside fellow finalist Dage Zhao, ventriloquists, acrobats and nationally-renowned soprano Jing Tie on February 17.
Cultures of China: Festival of Spring comes to the Kings after performances in Trafalgar Square and the London Palladium, with further dates in Belfast, Luxembourg and Milan.
The Kings nabbed the final tour date in the UK from Manchester and Edinburgh because of Portsmouth’s strong links with the Chinese community.
Albert Choi led the bid by contacting the Chinese embassy in London. He has organised the city’s Chinese new year celebrations for 15 years and says this show will be the biggest yet.
‘The tour is funded by the Chinese government and will be nationally promoted in China,’ says Albert. ‘In reality, shows of this size don’t come to cities like Portsmouth. It’s very exciting.’
To accompany the tour, six members of China’s State Council will visit Portsmouth, including the deputy director of the overseas Chinese affairs office.
Tickets for the show marking Chinese New Year are £15 and are available from kingsportsmouth.co.uk or (023) 9282 8282.