Irish in Asia: ‘Living costs are very low and salaries good’
From Tokyo to Penang, readers share their stories and experiences of emigrating to Asia
Eamonn Dunne: ‘My wife Jeziel is a Filipina who I met on one of my first trips, and we have twin boys Cian and Zach who will turn two in September.’
The Irish in Asia are generally very highly educated, and very well-connected to Ireland, according to a new survey of almost 800 people by the Department of Foreign Affairs published last week.
While the survey revealed some interesting figures around the industries they worked in, their age profile, and whether they engage in Irish community activities, it didn’t share any personal experiences. So Irish Times Abroad asked readers living in Asia to tell us their stories: when did they leave Ireland, why did they choose Asia, where do they live now and what is life there like? Here’s what some of them had to say.
Padraig MacColgain, Tokyo, Japan: 'Today there is an Irish pub at every train station'
I left Ireland in 1989. There was 18 per cent unemploymentat the time, and few opportunities for new engineering graduates outside of the ESB and Guinness. Most of my class left, mostly to the UK, Germany, and Italy. Six of us came to Japan on a FÁS programme which had been finding jobs overseas for graduates since 1987. In 1989, 65 of us got a one-way ticket to Tokyo and a two-year contract with a Japanese company.
Most went to well-established companies like NEC, Ricoh, Alps, and Fujitsu. These companies seemed to have good training programmes for foreign workers and graduates. The company I joined was smaller. Although they had no experience with non-Japanese staff, they did their best to train me and my colleague from Galway, and integrate us into the company.
The early years in Japan were amazing. It was the end of the bubble economy, but that had not sunk in yet. The Irish seemed to move freely and get better jobs each time. There were lots of Irish groups and activities including a soccer team, an athletics club, a drama society, St Patrick’s Day Parade and a newsletter which were all loosely based around the Irish Network Japan (INJ).
Today there is an Irish pub at every train station in Tokyo, but the first one did not arrive until Paddy Foley’s was set up in 1995. The INJ organized many events and parties in any place that would agree to host us and then let us back. We had many memorable nights in Japanese bars and Indian and Mexican restaurants whose owners also seemed bemused at just how many Irish would turn up at these events and how quickly they jumped on the dancefloor whenever U2 was played.
The initial idea was to come to Japan for two to five years and then head home where hopefully the economy would have improved and I would have enough experience to get a job. But in my fifth year here I met Akiko, and three years later we were married and planning our future in Japan. We have three kids, the eldest has just finished first year in DIT, and the second is getting ready to spend transition year in Midleton in Cork.
My brother jokes that we all should just move back now. But we both know it is too late. Our father passed away in 2005 and our mother in 2011. These are very difficult times in everybody’s life, but for me, it was the final evidence that I would remain in Japan.
Many things have happened in the last 29 years but nothing had a greater impact on me than the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. Fukushima Dai Ichi was in meltdown and we had the prospect of it blowing up and Tokyo being affected. It was a terrible week where every day started with a gut-wrenching fear that we were facing a catastrophe. The good thing that came out of it was that I realised how many people were thinking of me at that time. I got invitations from all over the world offering places to stay if I had to evacuate.
I left Ireland in 2011 due to the recession and a bad relationship break up. I turned 42 that year and my two children, who I had raised by myself, encouraged me to finally travel, as they knew I always wanted to.
I worked in Australia as a nanny, but I didn’t really like Australia, so one of my best friends in Ireland encouraged me to do a TEFL course and head to China to teach small kids, so I did. Family and friends thought I was crazy, but six years later I am still here.
I opened my first English training school here with a Chinese partner, but unfortunately our business relationship didn’t work out. I made plans to protect myself and applied for my own business licence in China. This is something that is very hard to get, especially as a foreigner, but I got it. That day I knew China was now my second home.
Last October I opened a training school in Zigong which is doing amazing. A month ago I opened a daycare in Chengdu, with a second planned before the end of the year. I am known as the Crazy Irish Teacher in China, but this is a compliment, as my classes are crazy and fun.
John Michael Bligh, Southeast Asia: ‘Living costs are very low’
I’m now 60 years old. When Ireland experienced economic downturn in 2008, people like me didn’t have much of a future. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so I left for Southeast Asia. I came initially to Thailand in mid-2009 on holiday, but decided to stay because It was easy to get a teaching job with my degree in economics and geography. I did a one month TEFL course at Chiang Mai University, and since then have taught English and other subjects in eight countries spanning two continents.
Living costs are very low in Southeast Asia and salaries for teachers are very good. I tend to move around as it’s so easy to find work. Travelling can be challenging at times but also exciting. Vietnam is probably my first choice as a place to work. It’s a very diverse country so there are lots of places and people to see. I don’t get involved much with expat communities because I move around so much. Social media doesn’t interest me but I keep in touch with the oul sod through the internet. I read the Irish online news and RTÉ most days. I’m happy enough with my lifestyle here. I won’t be returning on a permanent basis.
Eamonn Dunne, Manila: ‘The Philippines is a friendly, complicated country’
I have been living in Manila for three years. I had regularly visited as part of my previous employment, while based in Limerick. My wife Jeziel is a Filipina who I met on one of my first trips, and we have twin boys Cian and Zach who will turn two in September. We have also just bought a house in Jeziel’s home province, Cagayan de Oro, and I split my time between the two locations.
The Philippines is a beautiful, friendly, complicated country. The cost of living is low, and standards can be high if you are lucky to have a decent salary. But, like much of Southeast Asia, there are also truly awful levels of poverty and living conditions for many, at a level unheard of in Ireland. I am acutely aware that, even being married to a local, I am exposed to very little of that “other” side of the Philippines. Yet, while it might sound like a cliché, the friendliness of the Filipino people truly is a pleasure to experience and live amongst on a daily basis.
In a few years Jeziel and I will have to decide where we want to settle with our two boys. Staying here would seem a better option when you consider the challenges of house prices, childcare etc back in Ireland. But for now I am just enjoying the “Pinoy” lifestyle with my family.
Felix Muller, Thailand: ‘I’m a Buddhist and a lecturer’
I was born in Dublin in 1951 and lived until 1961 in Gorey, Co Wexford. I then moved with my father to Australia, where we lived until 1967 when we moved to South Africa. In 1973 I decided to travel and see the world. I moved to live and work in Hong Kong until 1983. Then I went and lived in the US for a couple of years, but I didn’t like it. So in 1987 I moved to Thailand and I’ve lived here ever since.
I’m a Buddhist and a lecturer at a Buddhist University. My wife is Thai and I’ve had the pleasure of bringing her to visit Ireland a couple of times. Once, she remarked how alike the rural folk of Thailand and Ireland are. When I first moved here many Thai people didn’t know much about Ireland, but I usually mention Irish footballers like Roy Keane and they nod their heads. The Irish football team are known as the “Green Giants” in Thailand.
John Keogh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: ‘I see potential to work with Irish companies’
I moved from Ireland to Holland and spent 10 years there followed by 20 years in Canada. The buzz and excitement of Asia started around eight years ago during business trips. Six years ago at the ripe age of 50, I moved to Asia. I lived in Bali for almost a year, and then fell in love with Vietnam while advising the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. So I moved to Ho Chi Minh City and spent three years here, before moving to Malaysian Borneo (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah). After 12 months in Sabah, I moved back to HCMC and the city seems to have accelerated its growth tremendously in the 12 months I was away.
Forming something from scratch is not new to me. When Ireland was in the downturn I formed Irish Executives on LinkedIn, which grew to 24,000 members. I self-funded two conferences in Galway and brought in global speakers to help motivate and give hope to Irish businesses. Recently, I formed the Vietnam Food Integrity Centre aimed at helping companies source from or establish a business in Vietnam, and to help improve food safety and export capability for Vietnamese SME’s.
I see great potential to work with Irish companies on two-way business, and have already made several connections. In Vietnam we also have companies with connections to Galway and Dublin and doing software development for Telco, Banking, Pharma and Agtech including blockchain. We plan to reach out to Irish businesses to make them aware that we are ready to help.
Stephen Dempsey, Dalian, China: ‘You’ll never be bored’
I have lived in the north-east of China in the coastal city of Dalian for two years. Dalian is a really livable city with plenty of things to do, decent Western amenities and an excellent transport system. Even though there are 6.5 million people here, the city is well spread out, so it doesn’t feel crowed. China is a whole is a “mad place altogether”, as one would say at home. You’ll never be bored, that’s for sure. It is such a large country too, you could spend 10 years here and still have a list as long as your arm of places to see.
Unlike a lot of foreigners here in China, I’m not a teacher (though have been in the past). I work in the HR department of an English education company, recruiting teachers and helping them with any issues they have once they get to China. It is a very enjoyable role, every day is different.
We’ve got a small Irish community here with about 15 from the Emerald Isle that I know of. There are even a couple of Irish-owned bars, The Shamrock and Metropolis. Irish people generally do really well here in China and tend to make the most of their time here. Anyone considering a move abroad to teach English should certainly give China a thought. As long as you find a decent school and a city that matches your personality, you’ll have a great adventure.
Emer Geraghty, Fukui, Japan: ‘I never expected to like it so much’
I’m teaching English in a rural place called Fukui, in Japan. I’ve been here for three years. I came here to get teaching experience. I never expected to like it so much and have a life here. I’ve no plans on coming home soon. I’m about to start a distance education Master’s in order to improve my job prospects here. There are many Patrick’s day events in Japan in March. A group of Irish people and local Japanese set up the first one in Hokuriku, in Fukui. We are very proud of it. Next year will be our third year. I never thought Fukui would become a second home for me but it has.
Robert Kiely, Hong Kong: ‘The work opportunities are fantastic’
At the peak of the recession with very little work available in Ireland, an unexpected call came my way to move to China in 2013. My wonderful family supported the move and we found ourselves on Shenzhen for three years . It was a culture shock to say the least; simple daily tasks are a challenge when you can’t read Mandarin and almost no one speaks any English. A haircut was an adventure into uncertainty with often surprising results. It was a true adventure. My son went to school and added Mandarin to his list of languages.
We then moved to Hong Kong after an opportunity presented itself in the eCommerce industry servicing Southeast Asia. Hong Kong has an amazing Irish Consulate and active Irish Chamber, which offered amazing support. The work opportunities in Hong Kong are fantastic, with plenty of available and like-minded people who want to start a business.
It also has among the most expensive real estate and rental prices in the world, where a one-bed apartment could cost between USD$3,000 to $6,000 per month depending on location. But tax is around 12 per cent to compensate. Hong Kong has an energy unrivalled in the world for work hard and play hard culture. The heat and humidity take getting used to but all in all, it is an amazing city worth a visit with direct flights now from Dublin.
Claire Behan, Suzhou, China: ‘I have spent five years progressing in my career’
I was inspired by a close friend’s move to Shanghai. Working in London, paying back degree and post-grad loans and rent and bills was becoming overwhelming, and the opportunity to earn more money, travel and work in a top tier British school seemed unbelievable. But it happened. I applied and a month later I had secured a job in Suzhou, a city close to Shanghai. I have spent five years progressing in my career, exploring Asia, saving money and making awesome lifelong friends.
Patrick Conway, South Korea: ‘I recently married a Korean lady’
I’ve been teaching English in Korea for more than 11 years. I recently got married to a Korean lady. I’ve played Gaelic football over here and been a committee member of the Irish Association of Korea. I try to catch as many Irish events here as I can, everything from traditional music played by a musician from Co Clare, to a Troubles-inspired photography exhibition from a Derryman. Seeing Riverdance and The Swell Season in Seoul were notable highs. I’ve been to the Irish festival in Seoul several times; some kind of obligation, I suppose.
Maggie Territ, Penang, Malaysia: ‘Irish are loved everywhere we go’
I left Ireland almost 25 years ago. First we lived in Freetown in Sierra Leone, during the war, and the Gambia in West Africa. Then spent three years in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa in India. In 1999 we moved to Penang in Malaysia, known for being an exotic holiday destination and a foodie pardaise. We were with ESB International in all these countries. Everywhere we went we celebrated St Patrick’s Day in great style.
In Penang, together with a few other Irish girls, we started Penang Irish Association and in 2018 we celebrated our 18th ball and our fourth St Patrick’s four-day festival which includes a parade. As president of the association, I also published a book together with vice president Barry Leddy, Penang- Ireland Bridging Friendships, about the Irish influences in Penang since 1794. It’s all been an very interesting experience, and Irish are loved everywhere we go.
Sylvia Severi, Bangkok, Thailand: ‘It was the best place to live out our retirement’
I left Ireland after my Leaving Cert when I was 17 to study French in Brussels at the Alliance Francaise. I chose Belgium because my parents knew a family I could stay with. On completion of my studies after 18 months I went to France and then London, where I met my Italian husband. After two years in London we moved to Brussels because of his job. We then moved to Bahrain in 1975, followed by Dubai, Yemen, Damascus, Casablanca, Oman and Amman during a period of 18 years. Then we moved to Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and finally China, where we lived for 10 years. On my husband’s retirement in autumn 2008 we moved to live permanently in Bangkok. We chose this capital city as the best place to live out our retirement years. I visit Ireland every year where I still have family and many friends.
Alan Fisher, Tokyo, Japan: ‘I’ve dedicated my life to sharing Irish culture’
Four years ago I left my job in IT and I’ve dedicated my life to sharing Irish culture here in Japan ever since. I set up my own restaurant, Kyojin no stewhouse (www.kyojin-stewhouse.com), which serves Irish stew Japanese style. I launched Kyojin Imports (www.kyojin-imports.com) earlier this year to import and wholesale Irish craft beer. We’ve 18,000 bottles currently sailing from Singapore. I’ve also started Kyojin Books (www.kyojin-books.com) with my first fantasy novel last October. The Japanese version will be released next month. I’m very excited to officially rebrand the business to the “Kyojin Company” at an event which will be held in the Irish Ambassador’s Residence here in Tokyo on August 30th. Lastly, I’m also the founder member of the Irish Network in Services and Hospitality (INISH) www.inish.net , a group of small businesses collaborating to enhance the experience of foreign travellers coming for the Rugby World Cup 2019 and Olympics 2020.
Sarah Connelly, China: ‘I love experiencing the Chinese culture’
I’ve been living in China for nearly three years. I spent a year here during college and just knew I wanted to come back. That became a reality when I was offered a job with Enterprise Ireland in Shanghai. It’s an amazingly diverse city, and while I am extremely connected to Ireland though work, I also love experiencing the Chinese culture Shanghai has to offer. It’s the best of both worlds really, as it’s such a modern city, but it has little pockets that are inherently Chinese. Helping Irish companies grow their business here is an amazing experience.
Darren Troy, Koh Lanta, Thailand: ‘I came here backpacking’
I have been living on the island of Koh lanta in southern Thailand for 15 years. I came here backpacking originally, and liked it. So I stayed and opened a small pub. Now we have two Irish pubs, and I also own a real estate company. I get home to Offaly every two years, and I love to visit. But only visit.