Rise in NI crimes against Chinese worries agencies
Three weeks ago, a man phoned a Chinese take-away in south Belfast to order some food - but the caller, it transpired, was after more than just chicken chow mein. When the owner of the take-away arrived at the address in Dunmurry to deliver the order, he was attacked by three men who hit him over the head with an iron bar before stealing his car and the small sum of money he was carrying. His 14-year-old son could only stand and watch.
The bogus call and subsequent attack marked the fourth time in six weeks that members of the Chinese community, seen as a particularly vulnerable group by the RUC, had been targeted. In this case, the owner needed 14 stitches. While a general increase in all crime is always anticipated in the run-up to Christmas, attacks on the Chinese community are being viewed, in many cases, as racially motivated crime.
Last Tuesday, the RUC and the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA) held a crime prevention seminar to advise members of the 8,000-strong ethnic minority on how to protect themselves against such attacks. "The intention is to send a message to the wider community that Chinese people are no longer easy targets and that they are protecting themselves against potential burglary," reads a letter by the CWA to its members.
According to Chief Insp Gary White of the RUC's community affairs section, those in the Asian catering trade are more vulnerable to attack because of the late hours and amounts of money held on their premises. "There is also a perception that the Chinese carry more money on them, that they do not use banks as much. Because of these perceptions, in many cases we will treat these types of crime as racist incidents," he says.
Not everyone agrees that the Chinese community is being singled out because of their ethnic backgrounds. Belfast Lord Mayor Sammy Wilson caused offence when, commenting on the latest attack, he said that "short of asking the perpetrators, I don't know how they know these attacks are racist".
"I don't think it helps the situation to attribute racist motives to attacks which are happening in all sections of the community," he added.
Mr Dean Lee, race relations and training officer of the CWA, describes Mr Wilson's comments as "offensive and insensitive in the extreme".
"Mr Wilson did not come to us to ask about the level of fear in the Chinese community or to enquire about the nature of these kinds of incidents. . .the truth is this year has seen one of the most frequent spates of burglaries and one worrying aspect is the apparent increase in violence," he says.
Last August, three men broke into a Chinese take-away in Glengormley and threatened the owner with a meat-cleaver and a knife. During the summer, a newly arrived member of the Chinese community had to be taken to hospital after a break-in at the house in Monkstown where he was staying. One of the most widely reported attacks was in June 1996 when Mr Simon Tang, who had a take-away in Carrickfergus, was robbed and viciously beaten as he closed up for the night. After managing to call an ambulance, he died of his injuries in hospital.
RUC figures show that in 1997 there were 40 complaints of racial abuse from within the Chinese community. The figure grew to just under 200 last year. While Chief Insp White says the spiralling figures are worrying, he adds that the increase should be viewed in context. "Since we appointed ethnic minority liaison officers in 1997, more people have started to come forward with reports of abuse and these complaints are now monitored more carefully," he says.
Belfast restaurateur Mr George Lee was burgled last year and is sceptical as to whether enough is being done to combat these crimes. "There are many victims but not many people being caught. More pressure needs to be put on politicians and the police to bring these people to justice," he says.
The Chinese community began arriving in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s, many through a process of "chain migration", where those who had set up takeaway and restaurant businesses were able to provide jobs for relatives and friends.
According to Dr Paul Connolly, sociology lecturer at Ulster University, Northern Ireland was attractive because of the "relatively cheap accommodation and the many opportunities that existed for catering businesses due to the wide geographical spread of towns and villages". A further influx of Asians came towards the end of the 1970s, when people fled Vietnam fearing persecution by Communist forces.
A recent report on racism in Northern Ireland by Dr Connolly provides a comprehensive and disturbing insight into the problem. Around 65 per cent of schoolchildren from ethnic minority backgrounds said they had experienced racial abuse by their peers, while 19 per cent had been subjected to physical attacks.
The attitude of locals was also studied: 40 per cent of those surveyed said they would not want people from ethnic minorities as work colleagues, while 28 per cent did not want them in their neighbourhoods.
Mr Lee says that while the physical attacks make the headlines, many in the Chinese community are subjected to lower-level racial abuse on a daily basis. He knows of one couple who for three years had stones thrown at their windows by children. "The emotional and mental impact can be harrowing," he says.
Much of the verbal abuse takes place late at night in Chinese take-aways, and can be put down to, but not excused by, drunken behaviour, he says, adding that until recently Chinese people felt it was something they just had to put up with as guests in a host country.
"There are second- and third-generation Chinese people who are born and bred in Northern Ireland but are being told to get back to their own country. With growing levels of awareness, we are hopeful that Chinese people, a community who contribute a lot to this society, will in future be more likely to report racial abuse directed towards them," he says.