Lifestory Telling by the Chinese Community

Did you know the weather in NI is better than Shanghai?

Imagine travelling halfway across the world to live in a foreign country, knowing only a few words of the native language. This was the daunting prospect faced by some of the members of Northern Ireland’s Chinese community, who shared their stories at the Linen Hall Library.

The Library, The Chinese Welfare Association and the Mandarin Speakers Society joined forces to present Lifestory Telling by the Chinese Community, an event to mark the Chinese New Year of the Dog. The 8000-strong Chinese community is Northern Ireland’s largest ethnic grouping, and some of the older generation were amongst the first emigrants who chose to settle here in the 1960s.

Introduced by Anna Lo of the Chinese Welfare Association, five Chinese residents took to the stage at the library to describe their individual experiences of life in Northern Ireland. The perspectives were diverse, with representations from young and older generations, students and business people, those who travelled over to settle and those who were born here.

Wong Meng Seng came to Northern Ireland in 2001, to study for a Masters degree at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. His Malaysian schooling stood him in good stead. The English language had featured prominently on the curriculum, so Wong did not face the problems of isolation and loneliness that non-English speakers may initially face.

He recalled being pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of local people whilst on a sightseeing walk from Portrush to Portstewart – not one but two cars pulled up beside him to ask if he and his German friend required a lift.  Wong had a very positive experience in the North West and has embarked on further studies at Queen’s University Belfast, to get a flavour of the city lifestyle.

However, settling in Northern Ireland often brings with it many pressures and difficulties. Methodist College pupil Jessie Chen moved to Belfast at the age of twelve, with very few words of English. She recalled that her first few months at school were very frustrating. She found it difficult to make friends until she picked up the language. She has also been subject to racist insults. She revealed 'I used to get annoyed by being shouted at in the street. I used to ignore it but now I challenge it.'  

Jessie went on to praise the Generation Y project,  because her involvement  in this initiative enabled her to share her culture and it also enhanced her sense of belonging in Northern Ireland. Run by the Chinese Welfare Association, Generation Y  provides a basis on which young people can meet and socialise. It is made up of young people from the Chinese and other ethnic minority communities, those with mixed race parentage and young people from the wider community. 

Now studying for her A levels, Jessie has enjoyed her time in Northern Ireland, but she misses China and aims to return there.

Stella Tsang also found her early days in Northern Ireland to be something of an endurance. She came to Belfast from Hong Kong, with her husband 22 years ago. Initially the relocation proved to be a tough experience. Due to the pressures and hard work involved in establishing a Chinese Takeaway business, the couple had no social life and no time to learn English and make friends. They needed to generate enough income to support their families back home.

It was also difficult for the couple to raise their own children in Northern Ireland. As Stella needed to stay in work, her first daughter was looked after by a Northern Irish family for her first three years of life. It was difficult for Stella as a mother, because her daughter hadn't learnt any Chinese by the time she was 3, and the child felt that she had two mums and dads.

As the years went on, the takeaway business was sold, due to the deterioration of Stella's husband's health.  Stella now does voluntary work for the Chinese Welfare Association, and teaches Chinese culture and Origami in schools. She has begun to enjoy her life in Northern Ireland and has embraced the opportunity to learn and experience new things.

Dean Lee was born in Larne in 1974. He revealed that his mother had a similar background to Stella. Due to the level of work involved in the family's restaurant business, Dean's mum had to find people she trusted to look after him and his six siblings. For the first six years of his life, Dean lived with his cousin's Northern Irish wife, Pauline, who continued to care for him after her marriage broke down. Dean commented:  'In some ways I was lucky having two families, but it was also confusing and could be difficult at times'.

He recalled how Pauline was intimidated out of her housing estate and he himself had been subjected to racist abuse. However, Dean decided to channel his experience of discrimination into something positive. He embarked on a career of community work and has been involved in various projects which seek to promote understanding and respect, including Generation Y,  the Spirit of Enniskillen and the Rainbow project. Dean explained: 'These are small, poorly funded organisations, but they are vital to society. The common thread is that they are collectives of individuals who aren't afraid of difference and they want to make a difference.'

The final speaker, Gao Xhang from Shanghai is currently studying music at Queen's University, Belfast. His father is a composer  and his mother is involved in ballet in China. Gao was inspired to come and study in Northern Ireland, after having bought the Celtic Moon CD. He was struck by certain similarities between traditional Irish and Chinese music. The student had very few words of English upon arrival in Belfast, but time spent with a friend (whom Gao calls his 'Irish mum'),  is helping his vocabulary, and his command of local slang! Gao said he has met a lot of very nice people through church events and he has developed an interest in church music.

Whilst his parents were initially concerned by his decision to study in Northern Ireland, Gao has assured them that it is just as peaceful as Shanghai and the people are very nice. In fact, he even considers Northern Irish weather to be better than that of Shanghai!

Jennifer McMaster