Ireland's links to Hong Kong are apparent from a stroll through the city, with street names like Connaught, O'Brien and Hennessy, and the relationship with the southern Chinese city is about to deepen with the official launch of the Irish consulate in the city.
Boasting more Irish expatriates than any other Asian city, there are more than 3,000 Irish living in Hong Kong, and this is a connected community, working in financial services, law, accountancy, the building industry, high-tech and education.
During its colonial period, Hong Kong has had nine Irish governors, and thousands of Irish people have worked as judges, engineers, teachers and police officers over the years. Now it is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, under Beijing’s rule but with its own rules and regulations.
"The office is small and perfectly formed," quips Peter Ryan, the Consul-General who arrived in Hong Kong in August 2014 after serving in numerous jobs in the region, including a stint on secondment to the Asia-Europe Foundation, and as deputy consul-general in New York.
“There are very big Irish connections here, and we’ve been trying to connect the dots,” said Ryan, speaking in the new consulate office on the 20th floor of the Bank of East Asia Building on Des Veoux Road in central Hong Kong.
Some of those connections are explicit. The mobile operator 3, with 1,500 employees in Ireland, is owned by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, while HSBC has 400-500 workers in Ireland, and tech firm Huawei has 200. The city's Wah Yan College is run by Irish Jesuits and among its alumni is former administration chief executive Donald Tsang.
Ireland's business interests in Hong Kong and Macau are already substantial. Last year, there were more than €120 million worth of Enterprise Ireland client exports and with growth of 32 per cent in 2014, and both markets offer considerable potential. The key targets for expansion are financial services, technology, tourism, education and food and beverage exports, said Ryan,
The consulate was officially launched by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD, who expects the mission to support and galvanise the longstanding, significant and well-connected Irish community in Hong Kong and Macau.
“The consulate is already making a big impact under the leadership of Peter Ryan and is a strong focal point alongside Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and on behalf of Bord Bia and Tourism Ireland in support of Irish interests in Hong Kong,” said Bruton.
“Expanding Irish exports, attracting investment into Ireland, building educational, research, cultural and tourism links between Ireland and Hong Kong are the core of the Consul General’s role. As Hong Kong is the largest financial centre in Asia and given Ireland’s strong position in the global financial services sector, our consul general in Hong Kong is giving particular attention to this area,” said Bruton.
There are many Irish organisations in the city – there are Irish Chambers of Commerce in both Hong Kong and Macau, a St Patrick’s Society in Hong Kong, the Irish International Education Centre, the Celtic Connections Choir and the Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
The Hong Kong economy is slowing down, in tandem with the bigger mainland market, but there are still major opportunities in fintech and tech start-ups, as evidenced by the staging of the RISE conference here in August. There are also opportunities offered by the internationalisation of China’s yuan currency, in which Hong Kong is expected to play a leading role, as well as growing interest in overseas education.
Among those attending the launch were the financial secretary John Tsang, the chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange Sir Chung-kong Chow and Vivien Lee, chairman of Worldwide Seafood, which is the largest importer of seafood, not just Irish seafood, in Hong Kong.
At the launch of the embassy, everything the guests consumed was Irish, except for the wine.
Among the events marked with the launch of the consulate is the arrival of Avonmore Milk into the territory, while the management team from 759 fast retailing will also be attending to mark the signing of a major contract for baby food products.
“Our work is about helping Irish businesses get into the market. While you have 7.5 million people here, much of our work is focussed on helping Irish business looking to target markets of 100-plus million, when tourists are included,” said Ryan.
“Hong Kong is where many tourists from China may taste Western food for the first time. This is a shop window for the Pearl River Delta,” said Ryan.
Among the premium products being imported into Hong Kong from Ireland include razor clams, crabs and oysters - some 55,000 Irish oysters a month are imported into Hong Kong.
“It’s an easy place to do business. We see it as a landing spot into Asia, where people can hit the ground running. They call themselves the superconnector here, which is like what Ireland does for Europe,” said Ryan.
One of the driving factors behind the consulate was the need to boost Ireland’s presence in the highly competitive fund management market.
Ireland was facing tough competition from Luxembourg, which had a representative office in the territory to promote itself as a place to set up funds, whereas Ireland was relying on the goodwill of professionals working in the field and on promotion by the Irish Funds Industry Association.
“On the financial services side, the Irish funds network is very active on the ground. We have people promoting Ireland as a fund venue and we have to make sure Ireland is front and centre as we are competing. We are working here at the consulate on a daily basis with the funds industry,” said Ryan.
Education is also a big area for development.
“We are helping the Irish third level sector make its mark here. We want young Hong Kong students to come to Ireland. We are very happy for young Irish students too to come here and see it as a way into China.