Lure of pastures green

Irish links: Betty Liao, born in Beijing and a University College Galway graduate, now lives in Beijing, working for Irish company Infocell.

Irish links: Betty Liao, born in Beijing and a University College Galway graduate, now lives in Beijing, working for Irish company Infocell.

 

Clifford Coonan reports from Chinese cities where Ireland is the first choice when it comes to emigration.

Teenage boys in the southern Chinese town of Fuqing (pronounced fu-ching) favour tight white dress-shirts and punky hair gel, looking like a billion yuan as they stand outside the door of a local nightclub, blasting high-volume, high-energy disco music into the balmy Fujian night.

The girls go for pierced navels and low-slung jeans, the same look 16-year-old girls love in the West, as they patrol two new McDonald's restaurants in Fuqing, eating sundaes and checking out the boys. The atmosphere is upbeat, exuberant even - but everyone seems to be waiting for something. It's only after a while you realise that they are waiting to leave.

Some will join relatives in Ireland. About 40 per cent of Chinese people looking for visas for Ireland last year came from Fuqing, a city of 1.3 million one hour's drive from Fuzhou, the provincial capital. A western visitor doesn't have to wait long to be asked about what it's like back home. And even though the immigrants' grapevine means people know a lot about Ireland already, the questions flow thick and fast.

"How difficult is to get a visa to work in Ireland? The economy is in good shape?" asks one young clubber, keen to join the estimated 60,000 Chinese living in Ireland.

Ireland is a relatively new destination for Chinese emigrants, who have for hundreds of years fanned out across the globe, bringing with them a hard-work ethos, strong sense of family and community - and great food. Attracted recently by Ireland's strong economic growth, interest is high. For many years Cantonese speakers from traditional emigration areas such as southern Guangdong province, including Hong Kong, formed the backbone of the Chinese community. Nearly all spoke Cantonese or closely related southern dialects.

Today's emigrants are often Mandarin speakers, which sets them apart from the early wave of emigrants. Broadly speaking, the Chinese people who go to the Irish Republic - almost all on educational visas - are from three areas: Fujian province in the southeast, which includes Fuqing, Liaoning province in the northeast and Beijing, the national capital.

With a population in excess of a million, Fuqing is a small city by Chinese standards, but like many a town in Ireland, its well-being is founded largely on remittances sent home by relatives. Word has spread and relatives help each other out, creating a high concentration of visa applicants. To put it in perspective, the nearby village of Youyi,with a population of 2,000, has made more applications for student visas in Ireland than Shanghai, with a population of 18 million.

Youyi is very different to its much larger neighbour Fuqing. Emigration has brought pain, too: some of the 23 cockle-pickers who died in the rising waters on a cold and dark night in Morecambe Bay, in the north west of England, last year came from here. Yet the tragedy hasn't put people off.

Youyi seems a little like a poor Irish town in the 1970s - broken down, traditional housing standing alongside monstrous pink-marbled four-storey houses, built with foreign dollars. These showy buildings are the Chinese equivalent of the bungalow ranch-style housing which blighted the emigration centres of rural Ireland in the latter part of the last century.

And the village seems to be largely sustained by contributions from the diaspora. Driving down the dusty red-brick streets, the visitor comes across a giant pink fake art-deco apartment block, put together with money from a brother or a cousin working in Ireland, Britain, France, or the US.

As in all areas where emigration is a way of life, Youyi is a classic example of chain migration in action, with word of easier visa regulations or less bureaucracy spreading by word of mouth.

Brien Henderson, an attaché at the Department of Justice visa office in Beijing, describes how he receives applications from neighbours in villages such as Youyi. He says applications are often presented by agents who lodge on people's behalf, common practice in the visa offices of western embassies.

"You can see levels of organisation in how the applications are done. These people are paying for this. A study visa gets them into the country and as we have no exit controls, no one knows how many have left the country," says Henderson.

"There are two kinds of people who travel to Ireland: the genuine student and the economic migrant. We always give detailed refusals, outlining why people are being refused, not just saying 'I don't believe you'," he explains.

Henderson likens the - sometimes dubious - attempts to gain entry to Ireland to Ireland's own emigration patterns over the years.

"This is exactly what the Irish did before. Except now we are a rich country with employment prospects. If you're a genuine student, of course you are going to get a visa. But if someone is falsely portraying their reason of travel, our job is to say No.

"The day we opened this office [ in 2002], the application rate halved," adds Henderson.

At the other end of the eastern seaboard lies Dalian, a large city in the northeastern Liaoning province and a fabled economic success story in China because of its ability to woo software companies from nearby Japan, many of which are setting up in the kind of technology park built by the IDA in Ireland in the 1990s.

However, there are still more workers than jobs, and many people from Dalian and Shenyang, the provincial capital, are forced to emigrate. While many emigrate to work, the Chinese put a high value on the Irish educational system and many have made the trip for genuine educational reasons.

Zhou Peng is a fan of the Irish education system. Known to his Irish friends as Pepe, he speaks with a pronounced Dublin accent. He studied English in a Grafton Street school from October 2000 to October 2004.

"It was great fun, I didn't get homesick at all. I didn't really miss the food and what I liked best was the pub. I liked all the chat, it was good fun. The worst thing was all the problems with the visa, you had to keep getting it renewed," says the 23-year-old. "My experiences in Dublin will help me get a better job." Betty Liao from Beijing studied for her MA in University College Galway between 1996 and 1999, having worked on a high-level computer project in Beijing. She now works for Infocell, an Irish software company which is trying to build business in China.

"My husband Yu Ming went one year before me," she says, again with a noticeable brogue. "We were a team of mainland Chinese. The maximum number of us was 16 and generally it was around 10 people - around 10 mainland Chinese in Galway!" she says.

They stayed in university accommodation, then moved into a rental house in Galway city after a few months. She says she had no bad experiences during her stay there.

"People were very kind. Sometimes on the street people would ask us where we were from. When we told them we were from China, they'd shake your hand. I met one guy who'd been a sailor and been to China during the Cultural Revolution. He'd learned a song, which he sang, and the melody was right," she says.

Asked what she missed most, Betty replies without hesitation: "Food. We missed Chinese food."

Prof Zhuo Zhuang, who studied at UCD's civil engineering department from 1991 to 1995, also missed home cooking. "Not the food quality - it was great, excellent beef and milk. But the cooking styles are different. Lots of Hong Kong style food, and for us northerners, that's not really Chinese food," he explains.

He was drawn by the culture and the country's background, but he refers to Ireland's economic success as a factor too.

"It is hard when you arrive. Language is the first thing, you can't really take part in society because the language is difficult. I couldn't get a flat because I couldn't understand the landlord. I didn't know what the word for central heating was, for example. I couldn't understand the landlord, so I couldn't haggle about the price," he says.

When he came back to China he found a job as assistant professor at Tsinghua University, one of the country's top colleges. Now he is a full professor and deputy dean of the aerospace department. "Clearly there were benefits to be had from learning in Ireland," he adds.

Indications are that the busiest days of Chinese emigration to Ireland are over. The visa office has received fewer applications after tighter rules were introduced about how language schools register their students. And China's growing wealth means the rewards are there at home without having to leave everything behind.

A familiar scenario for the Irish.