The Chinese Community in Northern Ireland

The province’s largest minority ethnic group

The Chinese community in Northern Ireland is the province’s largest minority ethnic group. However, the size of the community is a matter of dispute, with estimates ranging from 3000 to 8000. Most members of the local Chinese population live in Belfast, although there are significant numbers in Craigavon, Lisburn, Newtownabbey, North Down and Ballymena. Over 50 per cent of the Chinese community in Northern Ireland are aged between 16 and 44 years, and there is a high proportion of school age children.

The majority of Chinese people in Northern Ireland originate from the New Territories, the rural area of Hong Kong where Hakka and Cantonese are spoken. The New Territories have remained underdeveloped economically, educationally and socially following a period of decline in the 1950s.

Chinese people began arriving in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s in search of work. Ironically, given the recent marked increase in racially motivated attacks, Chinese immigrants perceived Northern Ireland as a place of lower racial tension than many inner city areas in Britain.

The majority of these first arrivals set up trade in the catering industry: the first recorded Chinese restaurant, The Peacock, opened in Belfast in 1962. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 and the implementation of the employment voucher system limited further immigration into the UK to certain professions and to those workers whose jobs were already secured. This provided for ‘chain migration’, where those who had set up catering businesses in Northern Ireland were able to provide jobs for families and friends. As a result, the Chinese community became further embedded within the catering industry. Restaurateurs were also attracted by cheap property prices and the wide geographical spread of towns and villages. At the moment, there are well over 500 Chinese catering outlets in Northern Ireland, with almost all Chinese residents engaged in the catering trade.

Cultural traditions and religions practised by the Chinese community in Northern Ireland include Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Although religion is not institutionalised, most Chinese festivals are religious in origin. The most important festival for the Chinese is the lunar New Year, which falls between mid-January and mid-February in the western calendar. From early childhood, Chinese people are also traditionally taught to respect and revere the good deeds of their deceased ancestors by performing set rituals. Many Chinese homes include a ‘god shelf’, where a wooden plaque representing Jo Sinn is placed alongside other popular deities, such as the three gods of long life, happiness and prosperity.

In terms of representation, the Chinese community is served by both the Chinese Welfare Association and its parent organisation, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (Northern Ireland). The CWA provides advice, information and support to the local Chinese community: it aims to mediate between the Chinese population and the social, health, welfare, educational and legal services.

Research has revealed that the majority of Chinese residents in Northern Ireland have lived here for ten years or less. One of the most intractable difficulties associated with first generation immigration is the language barrier, identified by many Chinese residents as the largest obstacle to full integration with local communities. In particular, language problems have inhibited many Chinese people from accessing vital health, social and educational services. At a conference focusing on the needs of minority ethnic groups, the CWA highlighted the main issues which affect the Chinese community, including social isolation and exclusion, and racist attitudes among local people. In addition, there was a strong sense that statutory providers lacked coherent policies to address the particular needs of the community.

The strict immigration laws mean that many Chinese people have no extended family nearby. The lack of familial and social networks has a large impact on childcare for Chinese workers. Catering businesses are usually small family concerns, demanding long intensive hours. This can prove difficult to balance with parental roles. This situation has forced some Chinese parents to send their children to Hong Kong to be brought up by relatives.

In addition to the issues attached to first-generation immigration, difficulties encountered by the increasing number of British born Chinese people centre around similar problems of social exclusion. Patrick Yu, director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, has observed that young Chinese people are still not accepted by their local peer group because of their colour. He remarks:

’This is a group which feels even more alienated and confused in this society, because they have not only lost most of their original Chinese culture, but the Western culture which they have adopted in its place is not being easily accepted by their parents.'

Racial harassment is an increasing rather than decreasing problem for the Chinese community in Northern Ireland. Racial harassment includes attacks on persons, attacks on property and racist graffiti. Incidents of these kind are a regular occurrence for many. In June 1996, three months after a marked increase in aggravated burglary, a young Chinese man was murdered in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.  In 2003 and 2004, there has been a further upsurge in attacks on the Chinese and Pakistani communities in South Belfast. These have often involved pregnant women. The involvement of loyalist paramilitaries is suspected.

In general, the Chinese community in Northern Ireland has remained a low profile presence, associated most often with the catering trade. Yet the stereotypical image of the ‘silent minority’ is beginning to change as the Chinese community grows more confident and established, despite the ingrained racial prejudice they face. This is best summarised by Shek Yung Lee, of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (NI):

’In the past, owing to the limitations of human and material resources, we only placed emphasis on the provision of services to Chinese people. We did not participate much in local community activities and charitable events. From now on, we shall proceed in this direction, in accordance with the Chinese saying, "What you take from the community, you shall plough back into the community".'