In 2007, Nicola Jane Chase left Hong Kong where she had been living for a dozen years. With it, she left behind life as a man. This journey is documented in her book, TEA AND TRANSITION, published in 2015. In this edited interview with the South China Morning Post, first published in 2016, the former radio DJ talked with Clare Tyrell-Morin about the anguish and achievements along the way.
It is the spring of 2013 and she is sitting in her home-recording studio in Queens, New York. Nicola Jane Chase is about to play the last track in the final episode of her long-running radio show for Radio Television Hong Kong that she’s recorded from there for the previous five years.
Previously, Nicola had presented a similar show every weekday night from 1995 to 2005 when she had lived in Hong Kong. Only at that time she was a he. For that final night, she played The Cure, The Charlatans and Teenage Fanclub the kind of pioneering bands that had won the show something of a cult following back in the 1990s, before the internet, before iTunes.
"I signed off on air and closed the mic for one last time. I wasn't emotional but I felt the finality. There was relief, too, at not having to maintain a part of me that had left the building a long time before. A final track from New Order [ Dream Attack from their still scintillating 1989 album Technique] and I was gone."
For that final show, the male host, Neil Chase, had almost dissolved. In his place sat Nicola Jane Chase, a woman with long blond hair who lived in an apartment that contained only women's clothing. And this radio show, based on a male voice, had become her liability.
Music had always been a part of her life, and by his 20s, he had made it to Egypt, where he worked as a DJ. His travels took him around the Middle East and to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s, where he spun records in the hippest hotel clubs. In 1995 he moved to Hong Kong and bought an apartment and a rusting black Saab convertible. It was there that he made his name as a radio presenter and writer. Throughout that time, he lived the life of a fairly normal heterosexual young man; with no inkling of the coming transformation. It was only in 2007, when Chase had relocated to New York, that he first began dressing as a woman in public.
"As I started the 15minute walk of anxiety to the subway station my adrenaline was pumping," she writes of the first time she stepped out in a dress. "I put on earphones and chose an album by Underworld to help blot out reality. In the gaps between music tracks, the walk to the station was eerily quiet; all I could hear were my heels clacking on the sidewalk."
Thus began her gender transition. She embraced the process of electrolysis and embarked on hormone therapy, undergoing a very real physical transformation, wherein testosterone levels plummeted and new emotions were discovered.
"I knew my female side was in the ascendency and she was steering me forward. There were parts of maleness that lingered yet the preponderance of femaleness grew. I consider May 2010 as the, roughly, chronological start to my life as a woman, as from that time, my day today life was spent entirely in female mode (with the exception of making radio programs from my home studio). I wasn't all-male before that but a tipping point had been reached."
Reading her book, one begins to appreciate, through Chase's eyes, the way a transitioning person is always reading the world around them for reactions how so much of our sense of self is based upon how we are perceived by others. Perhaps one of the most important lessons that emerges from the memoir is the need to be mindful of one's language.
"Pronouns are extraordinarily important," she says. "Because they are some of the most simple things in language and yet some of the most pertinent things for a transgender person to hear. Especially in the early days, when I was very much lacking in confidence. When I would hear 'she' or 'her' directed at me, it was a very beautiful feeling. Conversely, when somebody calls me 'he' that is like having a rug taken out from under you."
Reading her book, one of the most emotional moments is when Nicola recounted her trip back to England to tell her 80-year-old mother she was transitioning from male to female. It didn’t go well. Nicola returned to New York with the sense that she'd ruptured the most precious relationship in her life. Yet, as the book progresses, we move through that transitioning relationship and we witness acceptance evolving within her mother.
The issue of dating is also broached in the memoir and she takes us through several intimate moments. Chase hadn't anticipated that, as she started to identify as a female, she would begin to feel attracted to men.
"It's like planets around the sun that never meet: sexual identity and gender. Sexuality was changing, gender was changing, but they were kind of evolving at the same time. There was never a time when, as a woman, I was attracted to women."
She discussed dating men with her therapist: when to disclose? There are a few tense moments in the book, when Chase takes us with her to hotel bars, to intimate moments, when she tries to pinpoint that moment at which she has to tell the truth.
"I often feel it's like the third date rule. Often in straight dating, come the third date and you might be discussing sexual partners or lifestyles or history; you've gone past the level of superficiality and you're into the meat of things. That's when I generally disclose my past, if they haven't figured it out already – and if we’ve even made it to the third date.”
"I have considered many metaphors for this process I am going through, but the concept of the phoenix is the one I like best."
It was a late spring afternoon in May 2015 when Chase launched Tea and Transition at Podunk tearoom, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Plates of cakes and pots of tea had been laid out for the small crowd and a hush descended as Nicola Jane Chase stood up to deliver a speech. Her mother was standing by her side.
"This was the time when I was the most open about who I am and what I've been through. The fact that my mother who, when I told her the first time, probably thought the world had ended not only came around to understanding who I am, but now is virtually my biggest supporter. To have that person who once didn't want to be seen with me, to be now standing right beside me, was a very magical moment."
Tea and Transition reveals how it feels to walk the transgender journey and how that journey isn't that of just one person.
"The people around the person: the husbands, the daughters, the fathers, the cousins, they do as much transitioning as I have done," says Chase. "Because they are dealing with somebody who once was a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, and they're not the same anymore. Other people have to come to terms with it as much as I've got to figure it out."
As our conversation draws to a close, I tell her I've been struck by her sense of confidence, the ease with which she embodies this new female role. It's almost as if there was something missing in Neil. She points out that she doesn't refer to her former self by name any longer.
"I have spoken to people who knew me 10 or 15 years ago, and I have said to them, 'Well, I never saw this coming,' and a couple of them said, 'Oh, I don't know … there was something there.'
"I don't think I was particularly good at being a man!" she adds, with a chuckle. "I was talking to a friend the other day; he said, 'But your mannerisms, your posture, are you working on it?' No, it's just who I am. These things are just natural to me. The sense of calm and peace and everything being right as a woman, is fabulous. It's almost overwhelming."
The original version of this interview "Transgender transcendence: RTHK presenter's memoir of transition after leaving Hong Kong" was published by the SCMP on January 8th, 2016.