Hong Kong migrants find joy and heartache in Northern Ireland

July 06, 2015 12:02
This former Presbyterian church in Belfast is now a Chinese restaurant thanks to a migrant entrepreneur. The exterior remains unchanged. Photo: Mark O'Neill

It was evening in the late 1970s in Belfast, at the height of the Troubles. The streets were silent but for the clank of the steel soles of British soldiers on the pavement and the sirens of police cars in the distance.

Where to go for dinner? Most restaurants had shut for want of customers or refusal to pay protection money to local militias.

But there was one exception -- Chinese restaurants run by Hong Kong people who offered both sit-down and takeaway.

“You are not afraid?” I asked a manager.

“No, our skin color protects us,” he said. “We are not orange or green and so are not a target. Business is good.”

Now, 40 years on, the children of these restaurateurs have branched out into other sectors; some have become doctors, architects and lawyers. Others have gone into business.

According to the most recent UK census in 2011, there were 6,303 Chinese in Northern Ireland, of whom 76 per cent come from Hong Kong, out of a population of 1.81 million.

According to the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA) of Northern Ireland, this number has now reached 8,000, accounting for 51 per cent of the ethnic minority population. About 80-90 per cent speak Cantonese.

They first arrived in the early 1960s and their number is growing at a faster rate than the general population.

“Entering for employment is the most common reason for moving, followed by requests for student visas and as spouses of British citizens,” the CWA said.

The most famous is Anna Man-wah Lo, 65, who married a Belfast man while working in London and returned home with him in 1974, at the height of the Troubles.

She is a member of the Alliance Party, the largest non-sectarian party in the province.

A qualified social worker, she worked for the CWA in Belfast and received an MBE in 1999 for her work with the Chinese immigrant community.

In 2007, she was elected to the Northern Ireland assembly for Belfast South, the first person from East Asia elected to any legislative body in the UK.

In the European Parliament election of 2014, she was her party’s candidate for Northern Ireland and won the best ever score for her party in such an election.

During the Troubles (1968-1998), few outsiders wanted to move to Northern Ireland.

Hong Kong restaurant owners had started moving there in the 1960s, as they had all over the United Kingdom, opening every day of the week and serving all customers.

Their skin color and low profile kept them out of trouble. If people asked them if they were Protestant or Catholic, they smiled and said "Buddhist" or "Taoist".

One entrepreneur took over an empty Presbyterian church in Belfast and turned it into a Chinese restaurant. The exterior remains unchanged.

Another avenue for Hong Kong people has been Queen’s University in Belfast, which has 1,200 foreigners out of a student body of 25,000.

According to its website, Queen's is an "international university ranked in the world's top 1 per cent of universities and international students are given priority for a place in university accommodation for at least their first year”.

After graduation, Hong Kong people found that they enjoyed the quality of life, scenic beauty and low population density and property prices.

They decided to take jobs and settle in Northern Ireland. Competition for jobs is less intense than in other large cities in the UK.

One pillar of the Hong Kong community is the Belfast Chinese Christian Church that traces its roots to a group of students meeting in 1975.

The church, which is evangelical and non-denominational, is based in a church building in southern Belfast, in what used to be the Ulsterville Presbyterian Church.

It started with services and Sunday schools in Cantonese and English, adding Mandarin later for new arrivals from Taiwan and the mainland. It has 200 regular attendees.

Its chairperson is Dr. Simon Au Tat-bun, a Hong Kong man who studied medicine at QUB and decided to stay in Northern Ireland. He is now a consultant and endocrinologist at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn.

But not everything has gone smoothly.

Last year, Anna Lo said that she would not run for reelection in 2016 because of racist attacks by Loyalists.

In one incident, a mob chased her out of a shopping mall and screamed abuse at her. Her two sons tried to persuade her to join them in England, out of concern for her safety.

“I have just bought a house,” she said. “I have so many friends here. I am seriously considering it [leaving].”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.