View from the Irish pub, Hong Kong: ‘The mood is nasty now’

Some of Hong Kong’s 5,000 Irish residents compare life in the protest-hit city with home

Only a few hundred metres from where "hard-hat revolution" protesters were pelting bricks and petrol bombs at Hong Kong's police headquarters last weekend, Delaney's pub presented the epitome of calm and Irish hospitality, with live GAA games on the screen, a kitchen offering homely fare and pints of stout settling slowly on the polished bar.

Over a summer of anger, angst and dissent, the increasingly violent pro-democracy protests have roiled Asia’s financial hub and sunk parts of the city into chaos. But while mayhem has prevailed in pockets, and riotous scenes have made headlines worldwide, for much of the past two months daily life and commercial activity have continued.

An estimated 5,000 Irish currently call Hong Kong home, and the Irish pub is an initial port of call for many trying to find their bearings.

The Irish pub still has a very strong role to play in the community if you look after people and take a long-term view

Noel Smyth is one of the first amiable faces from home many will see, in one of the three Delaney's pubs around Hong Kong. Twenty-four years ago the Dubliner was managing the Hole in the Wall pub, on the edge of the Phoenix Park in his home city, when he was lured east for a year to run one of the Delaney's venues.

Although he found Hong Kong impressive, he was truly smitten by a young local woman named Tammy he was introduced to the day he arrived. They later married and have since had a daughter.

“So here I stayed, and it has been fantastic,” Smyth says. “It’s really an amazing city, a great place to live.”

Running businesses in one of the most expensive cities in the world has not been without its challenges, and Smyth and his partners have opened and closed several venues over the years as some pubs struggled and those in the better locations were subjected to the whims of landlords wooed by higher bidders.

Four years ago they lost their flagship pub, in Wan Chai, after two decades, for instance, after the landlords looked to hike the €50,000-a-month rent by 30 per cent. They recently opened a smaller pub in a basement around the corner from the original site.

Tight community

The Irish pub scene has changed dramatically since the “golden era” when he first arrived, Smyth says, when it could be packed seven nights a week. People everywhere drink out less these days, he says, “but the Irish pub still has a very strong role to play in the community if you look after people and take a long-term view.”

Lucy Bans, a finance IT project manager from near Strandhill in Co Sligo, says “the Irish pubs are the heart of the community. They definitely have helped to keep me here longer. A lot of my best friends here I have met through the Irish pubs.”

She is on the board of the St Patrick's Society, which was established more than 80 years ago to support Irish people in Hong Kong, promote Irish culture and raise funds for charities.

“And between the St Patrick’s Society, the Irish Consulate and the Hong Kong GAA, the Irish community is doing well here,” says Bans, who has been in Hong Kong for four years.

The Consulate, which opened the year Bans arrived, does “amazing work” bringing the community together, says Bridget Mullane, a structural engineer from Newcastle West, in Co Limerick. She came to Hong Kong on a short project, ended up staying – six years so far – and has found the Irish in the city greatly helped her settle in.

“They go out of their way to talk to people who they might never spend time with at home,” she says, adding that she finally felt more acclimatised once she started to cook in her new Hong Kong apartment. “I thought, Now I’ve got a frying pan I can do anything. An actual place that I could finally call home.”

Ian Lawlor came to Hong Kong on a whim in 1995, as it “tripped my trigger, and I thought I would give it a go”. The Athlone man later opened a hair salon and a beauty-products business in the city. On his first day he “had a soft landing”, as he met a new bunch of friends in the Irish pub and ended up at a Sharon Shannon concert that night – and got to chat with the music star after the gig.

“That’s the beauty of Hong Kong. It was always very social, very personal, very accessible,” he says. “If I went to her concert back home you would never meet her afterwards.”

He was a founding member of the Hong Kong GAA team in 1995, and the former Westmeath intercounty player has competed across Asia in regional tournaments over the years.

The current protests haven't yet had a major effect on the bars, but the mood 'is nasty now and not going to get better anytime soon. It is only going to get worse'

“The GAA was always core of the Irish community here. It has done amazing work in terms of cultural education, getting Irish and non-Irish involved. It has been fantastic.”

For all of them Hong Kong is their home from home, and they generally give the city rave reviews.

A major commercial centre, it has long been noted for its business efficacy, and people consistently speak of it as one of the safest places they have ever visited.

A major plus for Bridget Mullane is the stunning landscape, with hundreds of uninhabited islands and vast protected parklands throughout the territory. “I can go from the heart of a busy city to be hiking on a mountain peak within an hour,” she says.

City of protest

Hong Kong is no stranger to protests. The pro-democracy Umbrella Movement occupied large areas of downtown Hong Kong for 79 days in 2014 before it lost wider public support and, ultimately, ran out of steam.

Smyth says the protest of five years ago had a prolonged impact on many businesses, including his, and played some role in bringing about the demise of Delaney’s flagship as they considered what rent they could continue to pay. “The government should have closed that off. There was gurrier, thugs stuff going on,” he says.

The current protests haven’t yet had a major effect on his business, as the demonstrations are spread out and sporadic, he says, but the mood “is nasty now and not going to get better anytime soon. It is only going to get worse.”

The city will be hurt financially, he says, as individuals, investors and event organisers increasingly stay away. “It is going to have a long-term negative impact.”

The Consulate has advised Irish visitors to take “a high degree of caution” if they visit Hong Kong. But Bans, who has two young children, says she “wouldn’t have any concerns” about safety. “You stay away from the places where the protests are and everything is normal.”

The political situation in Hong Kong is “really sad”, she says. “A young guy in my work was in tears the other day, wondering what was going to happen to everyone.”

Almost 600 protesters have been arrested so far, most of them in their 20s, and many face the possibility of 10-year prison sentences. “The government has mishandled this and is behaving badly – like a brick wall,” she says. “It doesn’t seem there is any way out of it.”

Thoughts of home

When thoughts in the Irish pub turn to home, Leinster House generally gets a thumbs-up compared with political scenarios unfurling in Hong Kong, London and Washington, DC.

In particular, the passing of the marriage-equality and abortion referendums meet with widespread support. "The referendums showed how amazing people are at home. Looking at it from the outside, it was just fantastic," Mullane says. "A long time ago Ireland was conservative – not any more. These days we are prouder to be Irish, no doubt about it."

The changes have all been for the better, Bans agrees. “It’s a trait that Irish people have now that if they want something they push for it – and they get it and they deserve it,” she says. “It’s a more progressive place than when I was growing up. Thirty years ago you couldn’t even buy a condom. I love it.”

Brexit is a matter of concern for all, but Dublin seems to be handling it fairly well, Lawlor says. “The Irish Government just has to stand firm. I feel like they are doing that.”

Why should we have a say in Irish elections if we don't live there and don't pay taxes? Ordinarily resident people should be the deciders

He also mentions how much more cosmopolitan Ireland has become over the past two decades. “The influence of different nationalities is superb,” he says, “and the immigrants often become more Irish than the Irish.”

The question of whether Irish people abroad should have a vote in presidential and other elections back home divides opinion. Some feel it should be brought in; others wonder about the impact of potentially tens of millions of Irish-passport holders overseas starting to direct policies at home via the ballot box.

“Why should we have a say if we don’t live there and don’t pay taxes?” Bans asks. “Ordinarily resident people should be the deciders.”

Irish gripes

Although the consensus seems to be that Ireland is progressing, there are also ways in which it seems to have become more rigid. “I hate the thing where people in Ireland can’t wait for Friday,” Lawlor says. “If you call someone up on a Wednesday and say, ‘Fancy a pint?’ they’ll often say, ‘A pint? But it’s Wednesday!’”

Bans jokes that she was “the typical person who lives abroad and then gives out about Ireland”, but “it is frustrating, as it could be so much better”. She gives the example of Irish Rail’s online systems, where “nothing works... There are so many small things people just tend to put up with.”

Mullane points out that when people return from overseas their international driving experience and credit history don’t transfer, meaning that they can’t get a no-claims bonus on their new Irish car insurance and that even opening a bank account is difficult.

“It’s unfair. Why is this an issue?” she says. “There need to be incentives to bring people back to Ireland. It’s a gap. Make it easier for people to come back.”

The system in Ireland is inherently flawed, Bans believes, as it is becoming impossible for young people to get on the property ladder. “We had to move away. We are here to save a deposit. We couldn’t do that in Ireland.”

Childcare in Ireland also “costs a fortune, and there is no Government support”. In Hong Kong, she points out, parents get a large tax exemption each year they have a child, but in Ireland childcare is so expensive it encourages people to give up work. “If you can’t pay for childcare you can’t work, and then you can’t progress.”

The Government should be developing incentives and systems to encourage working people to return home, Lawlor says. “Ireland should be saying to all of us: ‘Come back. Bring your experience back. We need it.’”

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