When Thomas Ting moved from Hong Kong to Northern Ireland in the 1980s, he was taken aback by the violence of the Troubles.
“Always fighting on the street. You could hear the gunshots. It was very dangerous. You had to take care on the street,” said the martial arts expert, who trained with Hollywood legend Bruce Lee in Hong Kong 20 years before he arrived in the North.
The Chinese community became one of Northern Ireland’s largest ethnic minorities in the 1960s. In more recent decades, Ting has witnessed other nationalities arriving, with last year’s census showing 124,300 people (6.5 per cent of population) were born outside of Ireland or the UK.
Ting, better known as “Sifu” or Master Ting, is estimated to have trained more than a 1,000 people in Northern Ireland in martial arts. While he still runs a class in the Chinese Christian church off the Lisburn Road in Belfast, he describes himself as being “retired now because I am an old man”.
In the past year, thousands of people from Hong Kong have moved to the UK under a new visa scheme, partly in an attempt to escape tensions with the Chinese authorities
He is one of a group of Chinese-born migrants who regularly attend events at the Chinese Resource Centre in south Belfast. A Tuesday lunch club, organised by the Chinese Welfare Association, allows older members of the community to enjoy raffles and a few games of bingo.
Ting said he drives from Bangor to the club so his wife can socialise. “She is retired now, she is very lonely at home. We got married over 60 years ago, nothing to talk about.”
According to the 2021 census, ethnic minorities make up around 3.4 per cent of the North’s population, with people of mixed heritage, Indian and Chinese descent the three largest groups. Around 9,500 people from a Chinese background live in Northern Ireland, 0.5 per cent of the total population.
The 2011 census found that around 6,300 people from a Chinese background lived in Northern Ireland, some 0.3 per cent of the population.
However, the Chinese Welfare Association estimates that the actual total for last year is much higher – between 12,000 and 15,000 people – because not all migrants fill out census forms.
Tommy Lee, who is in his late 60s, has been a member of the Belfast support group for almost a decade and was previously a volunteer.
After originally moving to England around 50 years ago, he came to Belfast to work at a small business run by his parents before opening up his own business in Holywood, Co Down.
Lee said he tries to keep things fun and entertaining for the older members of the group.
“We do a lucky draw, and every week it’s different prizes. Good fun,” he says. “Some weeks it’s vegetables, sometimes we have eggs, lunch meat. Every week is a different thing, it keeps the old people happy.”
Some of the people who attend the lunch club are residents of Hong Ling Gardens, a south Belfast retirement home for Chinese people, which opened in 2004. The name of the 54-bedroom sheltered housing scheme translates as “health and peace”.
Residents Tam and Lam Kiu Cheung are part of a group of residents who regularly come to the club.
“All our elderly friends come here,” said Mrs Cheung (90), who added that she loves seeing other people. “Otherwise it’s so boring to stay at home. Nothing to do.”
The couple lived in England before moving to Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They both worked in the restaurant trade before retiring, and all their children and grandchildren live in Belfast.
Explaining the growth of Northern Ireland’s Chinese community, William Olphert, managing director of the Chinese Welfare Association, said there were “just two Chinese people on the census at the foundation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago”.
Large-scale migration began in the 1960s when thousands of workers moved from Hong Kong, then a British colony, to the UK.
Speaking to investigative news website The Detail, which has been tracking demographic trends in Northern Ireland, Mr Olphert said many of the first migrants were poor farmers from the New Territories area of Hong Kong rather than the more prosperous Hong Kong Island.
In the 1980s, community and business leaders founded the Chinese Welfare Association to help meet the social and health needs of some migrants.
“Back when I was in Hong Kong, all you had to do was have ideas, and the money is there,” she said. “Here though, you have to constantly worry about funding”— Somei Vigo
Migration patterns from China to Northern Ireland have changed over the decades. In recent years, most migrants – ranging from international students to workers to asylum seekers – have come from mainland China. But in the past year, thousands of people from Hong Kong have moved to the UK under a new visa scheme, partly in an attempt to escape tensions with the Chinese authorities.
The Chinese Welfare Association said new migrants from Hong Kong are arriving in Northern Ireland and have contacted the group for help and advice. In recent years, the association has been involved in cross-community work and has offered its expertise to newer migrants including the Sudanese, Polish and Roma communities.
“Over time we’ve reached out and have expanded those services to help people who are perhaps in the same place as ourselves 30, 40 years ago,” said Olphert, who is from Ballymoney in Co Antrim, but has worked in China and speaks Mandarin.
Somei Vigo, the association’s Chinese elderly development officer, said many migrants opened businesses when they first arrived in Northern Ireland.
“Someone comes and they open a takeaway, and they bring all the family,” she said.
‘A lot of uncertainty’
In recent decades, however, the children or grandchildren of first-generation migrants have tended to look beyond family businesses for work.
Vigo, who has been a development officer for 11 years, previously worked for a city councillor in Hong Kong. She said the funding of support services is a major issue in Northern Ireland.
“Back when I was in Hong Kong, all you had to do was have ideas, and the money is there,” she said. “Here [in Northern Ireland] though, you have to constantly worry about funding. Even the funding for our job is year by year. There is a lot of uncertainty.”
In 2007, Hong Kong-born Anna Lo became the first politician from an ethnic minority to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The UK’s first Chinese parliamentarian, she quit politics in 2016 and said racist abuse from loyalists had prompted her decision.
Vigo said Lo had strong support from the Chinese community in south Belfast. But she said that following her retirement, politicians tended not to engage with the Chinese community, even at election time. Many people of Chinese ethnicity do not vote, she added.
In between running the lunch club, and a cooking class every other Wednesday, Vigo’s time is mostly taken up with helping people with their benefits or medical appointments. She said she submitted one elderly lady’s pension credit application two months ago.
“Every time we phone, they say that they are overloaded with applications,” she said.
Unlike many of her compatriots, Vigo moved to the North with her husband rather than joining family members there.
“When I first came here, I was told to be careful because they [the Chinese community] are related to each other,” she said, smiling. “So be careful what you say to anyone, otherwise you can offend the whole village without knowing.”