Simon Tan in search for old school chums who made friends despite his ‘grotesque’ look
- Credit: Simon Tan
Simon Tan was born with benign tumours that badly distorted his whole face as he grew up.
He arrived in Britain with his parents as immigrants from Shanghai unable to speak any English—but went on to make it to university and a career in Whitechall, despite his badly disfigured look and what life had later thrown at him such as a serious incurable chronic disease of the colon.
The 37-year-old former Whitehall civil servant, now living in London’s East End, has begun a quest to find the three classmates from his old primary school in Southampton where he grew up.
The memory of their friendship, he says, kept him going through his lonely years as a social outcast.
“I looked grotesque,” Simon told the East London Advertiser. “People were scared of me when I was a child—they took one look and ran the other direction.
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“I looked like a character from a horror movie.”
Simon had to wait many years till he finished growing before undergoing “very painful surgery”—four major operations to take out the tumours that disfigured him.
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““I almost died in the last operation three years ago,” he added. “I lost tons of blood.”
The former civil servant, who lives in the shadow of Canary Wharf, wants to find those three classmates from Southampton’s Townhill Junior and Infants school who befriended him.
He lost touch after his parents moved away from Southampton when he was little and only knew them by their first names—Ben, Daniel and Andrew.
“I couldn’t speak any English because we just moved here,” Simon remembers. “I didn’t even know the ABC and couldn’t communicate with anybody and was extremely lonely.
“But against all odds, these kind-hearted kids came up to me and said ‘hello’. I was shocked.
“To this day, I’ve had no luck tracking them because I don’t know their surnames. It was Daniel who first noticed I was lonely and upset.”
Simon got on with his life and made it to university, then won a post-graduate scholarship to do a Masters degree in social research and eventually got a job in Whitehall as a researcher.
“This was a challenge with my disfigurement as I had to meet people to conduct interviews,” he recalls. “It was frightening because I didn’t have the social skills with that kind of face. I just had to be brave.”
It was his aunt, Professor Lillie Shan, who persuaded Simon to contact his local newspaper to broaden his search to find his three childhood pals.
She explained: “Life for Simon has been a constant struggle since the day he was born. It was extremely difficult for other children to form friendships because of his disfigurement.
“But three children were able to look beyond his disabilities and were willing to be his friends.
“Sadly, due to a twist of fate, my nephew was transferred to another school far away when the family moved.”
There were no mobile phones, emails, Facebook or Twitter in the 1980s—so Simon lost touch with them.
He has since gone from social disadvantage to mixing in government circles, working with Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007 and with the Mayor of London and the Lord Chancellor and has been invited twice to 10 Downing Street.
He has now set up his own counselling charity to help others facing life alone.
“My nephew was diagnosed with another incurable chronic medical condition in 2000,” Prof Shan added. “The prognosis is not good, since many die from colon cancer after 10 years.
“He has had the illness for 14 years—so every day is a blessing.”
Even today, he is living on borrowed time with his colon illness.
“My clock is ticking,” Simon confides.
“A lot of patients with the same illness develop colon cancer after 10 years. I have had it 14 years, so am at high risk.
“I live one day at a time and try not to worry too much.
“My one wish is to find Ben, Daniel and Andrew from Townhill School.”
The memory of their friendship, Simon tells you, is what kept him going in the last 27 years—“they had the courage to be my friends when I looked like a monster.”