Growing Up Tibetan in 1980’s England

This article was written for the booklet celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Community in Britain. It was wonderful to see it in print, thank you to Pema Yoko and the whole TCB Council for all your work surrounding the anniversary.

Growing Up Tibetan in 1980’s England

(Photo Caption: My brother Jigme and I at Woking Fairground in 1982)

There are not many people who could write about growing up in a Tibetan family in Woking, Surrey, in the 1980’s. There were so few Tibetans in the UK at that time in general and in Woking we were two or three Tibetan households at the most! My older brother Jigme and I were both born in St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey and many years later, my cousin Riga was born there too. Although it has been a long time since we moved from Woking, I look back on my childhood with very happy memories, it was both very ordinary and at the same time, unique.

In some ways, it was a typical English upbringing that many will recognise, our green school uniforms, our Friday afternoon trips to the sweet shop with 10p at the ready and holidays involving camping in the rain and stopping at Happy Eater. Entwined with those memories however are the many times we boarded the train to Waterloo to attend 10th March demonstrations, Losar parties, Tibetan language Sunday school lessons and also those exciting days we were taken out of school when His Holiness might be in the UK giving an audience to the tiny Tibetan community.

Being Tibetan wasn’t something we actively discussed or talked about, but it was embedded within our everyday lives. It was just natural that we would speak Tibetan at home, eat Tibetan food at home, and be involved in Tibet related activities that were happening, usually in London. During the summer holidays we could catch up with our relatives in Germany and extended family in Switzerland that had much larger Tibetan communities. During those days it wasn’t so easy to travel to India and Nepal but we were able to go on family trips there in the 90s and be exposed to the exile communities there.

My parents told me that when I started going to school, I didn’t speak any English at all but I soon caught up. My brother and I were the only Tibetans in the school and I would regularly be asked if I knew how to meditate to which my answer would be, no. I think the first time that people seemed to have heard of Tibet was when it began to make some early appearances in pop culture. When “The Golden Child” starring Eddie Murphy came out in 1987 we went on a family outing to the cinema to watch it just because we had heard that it had a Tibetan theme. Prior to that the only cinematic claim to fame we had was that we could understand what the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” were saying!

Ever since I was little, I loved books and I loved reading. Woking Library kept me stocked with all the Enid Blytons and Roald Dahls that filled my free time. I can’t say that I remember reading much in the way of Tibetan stories apart from perhaps a Milarepa comic book that had somehow made its way from India. I’m fortunate that my family supported my interests in literature and language from an early age. I went on to read English and German at University College London and am now the founder and editor of a translations website called High Peaks Pure Earth which translates essays, poetry and music videos from Tibet into English. The website was started at the end of 2008 primarily to give an English language forum for Tibetan writer and poet Tsering Woeser, one of our most important contemporary Tibetan voices. 

Included below is one of my favourite poems by Tsering Woeser that she wrote in 2018, inspired by a surveillance camera she saw in Lhasa that was disguised as a Tibetan prayer wheel.

Image by Tsering Woeser

“Eye of the Empire”
By Tsering Woeser
Translation by Palden Gyal

What kind of eye is that?
Yet, it must be an eye of utmost desires:
An eye of greed, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and pride –filled with wisps of blood.
Among the Six Paths, this eye of all beings neither save itself nor saved by,
And such is then accordant with the image of a powerful empire!
That day, he arrived without any invitation, the pale-faced scholar.
Keeping an overtly chastened smile
Yet his movements are not at all that modest,
As he quickly occupied the seat in the center
Exposed his fangs like the glittering of frost and snow,
Revealed his claws like that of an eagle’s sharp claws.
I dare not look into his eyes anymore,
His eyes are blazing with the five poisons
And it can easily control and capture souls.

January 19, 2018, Beijing

Translation published on High Peaks Pure Earth

My Second Piece for Huffington Post: Shangri-La or Tibet Without Tibetans

Shangri La Poster

Poster from the play taken from their Facebook page

I’m averaging one article a year for Huffington Post, I can’t believe it’s been so long since I published Kundun: The Presence of an Absence!

I published my second piece this morning, it’s my thoughts on a new play in London called “Shangri-La” and the lack of Tibetan involvement in it, check it out here:



Photos from the “Banned Expression in Tibet” Event at Kings Place and Thanks Yous!

I’m happy to report that the “Banned Expression in Tibet” event at Kings Place on 20 June 2015 went very well! Thank you to everyone who came along and made it a memorable night!

We had such a great team of performers and crew so that on the actual day, it wasn’t stressful at all but really fun and everyone played their part beautifully.

I just wanted to post some of the amazing photos of the event which were taken by our good friend Luke Ward at Kings Place. If anyone re-posts the photos from here, please be sure to credit him as the photographer and mention that the photos were taken at Kings Place, thanks.

Programme Sheet-page-001

The Programme Sheet for the night


For everyone who came and enjoyed the visuals we used as background on the night, here they are below. Many thanks to our talented graphic designer who offered her services and did all the artwork for Banned Expression, often to tight deadlines!


I’m also glad that Tibetan media picked up on the event, here are two radio reports online:

Voice of Tibet: (From minute 19:26)

Voice of America report: (From minute 33:20)

Finally I’d like to thank everyone who gave their time and effort to making “Banned Expression” a success. It’s going to be a long blog post but I wanted to take the time here to thank everyone who contributed and also make their contribution known!

My website High Peaks Pure Earth has enjoyed an extremely fruitful partnership on Banned Expression with Voice of Tibet and Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and their support has been unwavering these past three years.

Thank you to FreeMuse for supporting Tibetan musicians and for sending a wonderful message of solidarity to us. Several Tibet-related groups helped with spreading the word, so thank you to Students for a Free Tibet and Tibet Society. A special mention must go to Tibet Society and Tibet Relief Fund for bringing their whole crew to the event and especially to Philippa and Riki for supporting the work of High Peaks Pure Earth.

Thank you to co-host and co-organiser Kunsang Kelden, a natural on the stage and a prolific blogger at Lhakar Diaries:

Thank you to our performers! Thank you Ngawang Lodup! Ngawang is an emerging artist on the world music scene here in UK, don’t miss his session for BBC Radio 3: and catch him at the end of July at WOMAD for a full 45 minute solo set:

Ugyen Choephell thrilled us all with his rock and roll heart and passionate words. Ugyen is always there to lend his support for Tibet, no matter how big or small the event, thank you for coming all the way from Bristol for us! Visit Ugyen’s website here:

Thank you to Palden, someone who is somehow able just to turn up on the day and effortlessly pull off two songs amazingly!

Thank you to Sonam who conquered her nerves and reached new heights! Thank you to Bhuchung D. Sonam for letting us premiere his translation of “Today, I wish to offer three prostrations towards Lhasa” by Tashi Rabten at the event. Sonam read it well and the full power of his words could be felt in the room.

And thank you to Youdon Aukatsang who managed to fit Banned Expression into her already packed programme and effortlessly graced the stage like a true pro! A thank you must also go to A.E Clark at Ragged Banner whose translations of Woeser la’s work are so beautiful, the two poems that Youdon la read, A Vow and Scream are both to be found in Tibet’s True Heart, a highly recommended book.

And where would we be without our amazing crew members? Eli, thank you not only for your genius make-up and beauty skills but also for your support over the years for everything that we do. Eli was with us on Banned Expression from the start and looks after us all! From the Green Room to the Dressing Room to the way home, Eli had it all covered so that we were hydrated and had plenty to snack on, she thought of everything, even bringing flowers and scented candles to calm our nerves.

Shu-Ting, thank you for your AV assistance and sorry you got stuck in the booth all night! Thank you JD & ND for lending a hand whenever we needed it and thank you to Luke Ward for his photos.

Several businesses in London promoted Banned Expression by giving out our leaflets and having our posters up, including the Tibetan owned businesses Vintage Basement just off Brick Lane and in Camden and Kailash Momo Restaurant in the Tibetan hub of Woolwich. The lovely Nepalese couple at Rising Green Coffee Shop were similarly helpful, anyone in the Old Street area should check out their delicious momos every Wednesday!

The Kings Place crew were a God-send and made us look professional, thank you Andrew, Delfina, Michael, Alex, Matt and all the Front of House staff.

As this post shows, it takes a lot of people, planning, patience and support to put on a 90 minute show! I hope that events like this will continue to be supported so that the incredible creative resistance taking place in Tibet today can be honoured and given a fitting space.

Food, People, Stories and Everyday Objects from Tibet at London’s Horniman Museum


I stole this photo from the Horniman Museum’s Instagram account, I think. Sorry I can’t find the original link but copyright belongs to Horniman Museum, obviously.

First of all a very happy new year to all readers! It’s been a long time since I last blogged for which I apologise. I meant to write up my last trip to Oslo in October 2013 to speak on a panel discussion about internet censorship in China but I never got around to it… But I’ll be headed there again next month for some more events and I’ll definitely post an update afterwards (!)

In the meantime I’ve been thinking about how often last year Tibet in museums came up as a topic for me, quite randomly and not through any real effort on my part. First up last year came the interview with Clare Harris, author of “The Museum on the Roof of the World” which I was asked to do by Cerise Press. I was very kindly sent a review copy of the book and spent my Christmas and New Year 2012/2013 making my way through it which was a lot of fun, as was subsequently attending the book launch at the super quirky Pitt Rivers Museum in January 2013 and then actually doing the interview and talking at length with Clare.

Being made to think about Tibet in terms of objects and how Tibet has been represented in museums through the years was new for me and then, out of the blue, in early February 2013 my parents and I were invited to take part in a one-day workshop at London’s Horniman Museum on Tibetan food. The workshop was part of a “Collections People Stories” project that was being carried out by the curators at the Horniman Museum and their theme was ‘Food and Feasting’.

What was so great about this project was how the Horniman Museum were really intent on bringing their collections to the people and in particular to the Tibetan community in London. In fact, a fortunate coincidence is that the Tibetan population in London has been steadily growing not so far away from the Museum at all – in and around the Woolwich area in south-east London. That’s how the film crew from the Horniman found themselves at last year’s Losar event in Woolwich!


Checking out the objects in the Horniman Museum’s Tibet collection related to food

The workshop itself had a fantastic format with the participants being a mixture of local Tibetans and Himalayans, curators, academics and also a monk and nun from the Kagyu Samye Dzong Buddhist Centre, also in south London. In the morning we heard talks from the organisers and in the afternoon we got to see a selection of everyday objects from the Horniman’s Tibet collection all related to food.

I think that Tom said it really well in his blogpost when he wrote: “For many Tibetans in London, Tibet is somewhere which cannot be returned to. For those born outside of Tibet, it is somewhere which they may never know.” The impressive range of tangible objects were from various expeditions to Tibet by people such as Otto Samson and Colonel F.M Bailey and they took us right back to a different time. Rummaging around our bookshelves at home later, I also dug up an edition of Colonel Bailey’s 1957 book, “No Passport to Tibet” which was quite exciting, here is a photo of the cover below.

No Passport to Tibet

Cover of Colonel Bailey’s book “No Passport to Tibet”, written in Tibetan

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love food and find the topic of food really interesting in general. One thing I was able to contribute to the workshop were some thoughts about Tibetan identity and Tibetan resistance as related to food, based on the blogpost I had written in early 2011. For the best way to know what the day at the Horniman was like, take a look at the great video they made of the day, they did a wonderful job of putting it all together whilst also making it look really nice!

What was so nice though was that after learning that my father was born in Yatung, in April 2013 Tom from the Horniman invited my parents and I to their stores to look at more objects, this time all from Yatung.

Even though it’s taken me months to write up everything that happened with the Horniman Museum, I felt that it was important to highlight the kinds of initiatives that put people in the centre and inspire you to learn and read more and pay attention to the past, and especially to the funny way that your own history ends up literally on your doorstep!

The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

Below is a blogpost that I wrote for the Committee to Protect Journalists Blog. The original can be viewed here:

The article was kindly re-published by The Comment Factory, that page can be viewed here:

Many thanks to CPJ for their work publicising Dhondup’s case, thanks to The Comment Factory for publishing me once more and, last but not least, many thanks to a talented momo-maker for their feedback, it made my article a lot stronger.

The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

By Dechen Pemba
On the same day that historic protests started by monks in Lhasa began and were to sweep all over Tibet in the subsequent months, Dhondup Wangchen was nearly 3,000 kilometers away in Xian, in China’s Shaanxi province. It was the last day of filming for his documentary film project that sought to give voice to Tibetans in the run-up to the Olympic Games. As was the case throughout China, Xian was caught up in an Olympic fervor. Big red banners were hung all over the city, the Olympic mascots peered from shop windows in unspeakably bright colors. None of this however, seemed to have the slightest connection to Tibet or the discontent of the Tibetan people.

For many around the world, the protests that began March 10, 2008, were a surprise. International media were suddenly giving unprecedented coverage to a struggle that had been going on for more than 50 years. Journalists, NGOs, governments and even exiled Tibetans were given a stark reminder that a conflict was unresolved and that, in the run-up to the Olympics, Tibetans were still risking everything to be heard. It hadn’t taken months of protests and a military crackdown in Tibet, however, for Dhondup Wangchen to be aware of the suffering of his people. It was something he had lived, and it was this that he was seeking to convey through film and simple testimony.

I had travelled 1,200 kilometers from Beijing to Xian to meet Dhondup Wangchen and learn about his film project. It was to be the first and only time that I would meet him. On arrival at the train station, I bought a local Chinese paper; I wanted to remember this day. Later on in the day, we even filmed Dhondup Wangchen with this newspaper as a record. Within minutes of our meeting, I was struck by his determination and drive to accomplish something that he felt was important—to depict the injustice of life as a Tibetan under Chinese rule. As one of his interviewees so eloquently said, “We Tibetans living in the PRC are like stars on a sunny day, we can’t be seen.” Just hearing the sheer scale of Dhondup Wangchen’s project was impressive, traveling through remote areas of eastern Tibet in the Tibetan winter of 2007-08 and recording under the harshest imaginable conditions the views of more than 100 ordinary Tibetan men and women, amassing more than 40 hours of video footage. All this with just a cheap video camera, no professional training in journalism or film-making, and constantly in fear of being detained for his citizen journalism activities.

Despite painful toothache that day in Xian, Dhondup Wangchen told me that he, together with his friend Jigme Gyatso, a monk, had come up with the idea to make a documentary as early as 2006. The year and a half before beginning filming, Dhondup Wangchen planned how he would make the film, even taking his parents, wife, and four children to India to safety so they would not be at risk when he returned to Tibet to make the film. Having a cousin in Switzerland meant that once the footage was safely out of the country, the documentary could be edited and prepared for an international release in time for the Olympic Games.

On August 6 2008, his documentary film, now edited into 25 minutes and titled “Leaving Fear Behind”, was screened to a select group of foreign journalists in Beijing. But Dhondup Wangchen, along with Jigme Gyatso, had already been in secret detention since the end of March. On completion of filming, they had gone back to their respective hometowns only to find the places in turmoil with almost daily Tibetan protests occurring and a huge military deployment under way. On Jigme Gyatso’s release in October 2008, it was learned that they had both undergone severe interrogations and torture in detention that included electric shocks. It wasn’t until a well-known Beijing human rights lawyer took up his case early this year that Dhondup Wangchen’s sister in Xining even learned of her brother’s incarceration, another outright violation of China’s own detention laws.

Dhondup Wangchen’s trial reportedly started behind closed doors in September this year. According to Amnesty International he is being charged for “subversion and incitement to separatism” and has contracted Hepatitis B in prison for which he has received no treatment. After his Beijing lawyer was forced by the Chinese government to stop representing Dhondup Wangchen, local lawyers were appointed, leaving little hope of a fair trial.

I spent less than a day meeting Dhondup Wangchen. When we parted back at the train station, he told me to take care of myself and gave me a little bag containing some drinks and snacks for my journey. A few months ago on YouTube, I saw a video clip of pictures of Dhondup Wangchen in his teens, a casual-looking young man eager to leave behind the constrictions of his village on a quest for adventure greater than he could have known. The Dhondup Wangchen that I had met was older and thoughtful. The many months of constant traveling had clearly been physically exhausting. I had always thought of him as a kind of Tibetan hero, a citizen journalist and human rights activist but last month I was walking down the street in Dharamsala, northern India, with a friend who stopped to talk to the woman who sells bread there early every morning. The bread-seller was Dhondup Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso. After spending time talking with her I suddenly thought about their separated family and of Dhondup Wangchen as a husband, a father, and also a son—and their own personal sacrifices.

Since August 2008, “Leaving Fear Behind” has been screened in more than 30 countries worldwide and translated into five languages, including Chinese. The worldwide campaign for his release continues. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Dhondup Wangchen, with just a small camera, a motorbike, his blue backpack and the help of trusted friends, found a way of expressing himself truthfully.

The simple truth is that just spending 25 minutes watching “Leaving Fear Behind” gives all the background necessary to see that some kind of uprising was surely inevitable in Tibet. But truthfulness in a state like China is always an act of defiance and can‘t survive without a struggle.

Dechen Pemba has been the spokesperson for “Leaving Fear Behind” since she left Beijing in July 2008. She is based in London.