The Beijing Irish: ‘Every day you see something crazy’
The 500 Irish people who live in the Chinese city form a close-knit circle of expats. We start a series on Asia’s Irish communities by meeting some of them
Generation Emigration: Beijing GAA senior men’s team
Beijing Irish: “The city takes hold of you.” Photograph: E+/Getty
Generation Emigration: Beijing GAA club with Ambassador Paul Kavanagh (centre)
Generation Emigration: Beijing GAA women’s team
Generation Emigration: Beijing GAA player Simon Holland, from Ballinadee, in Co Cork
Generation Emigration: Beijing GAA players Elaine Nagle, from Moycarky in Co Tipperary, Paul Fogarty, from Blackrock in Co Dublin, and Andrew Moore, from Foxford in Co Mayo
Generation Emigration: the GAA team from Beijing-Dublin International College, a joint institution overseen by University College Dublin and Beijing University of Technology
There are shouts as Gaeilge, a rattle of hurleys and the sound of a whistle as a ball flies over the bar. On a warm day in Beijing, Irish people living all over the world’s most populous nation have gathered for a genuine New China moment.
Young people are playing Gaelic games in the sports ground of Dulwich College, on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, the world’s third-biggest city, watched from tents by some of Beijing’s small but busy population of 500 Irish. Save for the heat, the dragonflies, the baggy-trousered Chinese security guards watching the games and the Tsingtao beer, you could be in Ireland. This would never have happened when Mao Zedong was chairman of the Communist Party of China.
Dulwich, an international school affiliated with the British public school, is not normally a hotbed of Gaelic games, although the explorer Ernest Shackleton is an Old Alleynian, as Dulwich past pupils are known. But Gaelic games in Asia are bigger than Ireland: Koreans, Malaysians, Japanese and Kiwis are all taking part.
Red faced and elated, the players gather as the Irish Ambassador to China, Paul Kavanagh, hands out prizes at the end of the day. Korea is among the winners – although it’s not part of China, there are ancient cultural links. Kavanagh was a young diplomat in the Embassy that set up in Beijing in the post-Mao era. Diplomatic relations were established in 1979, and the mission opened a year later.
Sinéad Kennedy, a 21-year-old from Cahir, in Co Tipperary, who has just graduated in business and Chinese from University College Dublin, says that every time she goes back to Ireland and talks about Beijing her family say, “What? Why?” “You can’t really explain it to people at home. There are so many different parts to the city. Nothing is easy and everything is possible.”
Most of the Irish people on the Beijing GAA team are here to teach or to work in areas such as hospitality, food technology, microbrewing or the cement business, or as diplomats. “China is great if you’re looking for an adventure or a challenge, and have a bit of patience and are not afraid to take that on, and can trust that it’s going to work out. But you have to go with it. You can’t plan everything,” says Kennedy, who won an all-star award at the games and is heading out to celebrate.
Strolling past the tents are a group of young Chinese wearing the black-and-red livery of the home side. They’re students at Beijing-Dublin International College, a joint venture since 2014 between UCD and Beijing University of Technology.
The course offers programmes in engineering, computer science, mathematics and business, all through English, and has been a big success, with plans to expand the course programme by three later this year.
The students can take Gaelic games as one of their course options, says Eilis O’Halloran, a Beijing player from Courtown in Co Meath, who works with the programme.
“It’s one of their sport options, with students taking part in the Hong Kong games last year and going to Dublin for the World Games in August. It’s been a great opportunity for the club,” says O’Halloran.
She spends about half her time in Beijing, having previously lectured in Nanjing, and has been coming to China for six years.
When the games are over people head back down the traffic-heavy Airport Expressway to the boiling metropolis.
And what a city it is: 22 million residents by some estimates, having grown fast as it draws in migrants from surrounding provinces, plus adventurers keen to share in the country’s boom. Between 2000 and 2010 its population expanded by almost 45 per cent.
Paul Fogarty from Blackrock in Co Dublin, who has chaired the GAA in Beijing for the past six months, has tied his destiny to China, immersing himself in the most spectacular emerging-market story of the 21st century. He has learnt Mandarin and taken a master’s degree in Chinese law at a local university. (Foreigners are barred from practising law in China, but they can work as advisers.) The 25-year-old is working in business development for Alltech, the US animal-feed company set up by the Irish entrepreneur Pearse Lyons.
“What’s the point in living in China if you’re not going to challenge yourself and engage with the culture and the language? And Beijing is just the best for that,” says Fogarty. “There is something about the scale and magnitude of this city. Any residential building you see would be the tallest building in Ireland. People laugh at you when you tell them the population of Ireland.”
Chaoyang, the district where many of the Irish live, has an official population of about 3.6 million people, but it’s probably about a million higher.
As the capital and seat of government, Beijing has long appealed to the Irish community, but the population is transient. Unlike in Shanghai or Hong Kong, the numbers working in financial services or for big food companies are relatively low. At the annual Asian Gaelic Games an Irish expatriate powerhouse like Hong Kong could field 12 or 13 teams; Beijing would typically field three.
The city’s eccentricity is what makes Beijing attractive to Chantal Muldoon, from Ballinasloe, in Co Galway, who also studied business and Chinese at UCD.
“Every day you see something crazy. Every day I see a man walking along with a turtle on a stick. When you go home you forget these things,” she says. “My parents were worried about me, because they see the bad stuff about China, but then they came out here and had a great time. They weren’t worried at all.”
She tells tales of some slightly alarming differences, such as her landlord’s fondness for coming into their apartment unannounced, sitting down and lighting a cigarette. The smog, the hot summers and the cold winters can be challenging, but she loves the diversity of the city. “Once you’re here it’s hard to get out,” she says.
In the elegant lounge of the Hilton Beijing, near the US embassy, Andrew Moore gathers some of the city’s young Irish, and they are exchanging tales of great trips around the nation: Tiger Leaping Gorge, in Yunnan; the terraced paddies of Longji; remote parts of the Great Wall of China.
“Irish people by nature adapt and are flexible. When you see the randomness here we laugh at it, and it adds to the overall experience,” says Moore, who comes from Foxford, in Co Mayo, and is director of business development at the hotel. “You go to Sanlitun” – a glitzy shopping district – “and you could be anywhere in Europe, but when I go down the hutongs” – the ancient laneways of the city – “I’m still a tourist even after two years here. Beijing has so much to offer, whether you’re a student or a young professional. It has more different experiences to offer than other cities in Asia.”
Moore likes the sense of opportunity. “I was in the UK before this, where people would keel over to get the kind of career opportunities I’m getting over here. The Hilton is opening up a new hotel every two weeks this year in China. In the last five weeks I’ve been asked if I want to go to Singapore next or Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo. This part of the world is perfect for Irish people, because we adapt and we get up and go.”
He and his partner, Elaine Nagle, came in search of adventure. “This is Beijing parish,” says Nagle, a 32-year-old teacher from Moycarky, in Co Tipperary. “The Irish community in Beijing is smaller than that of other Asian cities, but it has heart like no other. Everybody knows each other, and everybody looks out for each other.
“Initially, life in Beijing was quite daunting, with the language barrier, cultural differences and the sheer size of the city – which is to be expected. However, once we moved to Sanlitun we found our feet, as it’s the expat hub of Beijing. We began taking Chinese lessons and acclimatised to our new lives in Beijing.”
Lost in the streets
Colm Walsh, who is 36 and comes from Ashford in Co Galway, gave up a job in financial services to move to China. His fiancee, Sorcha Ní Chadhain, from Corr na Móna, is an occupational therapist who always wanted to travel with her work.
“Once Beijing has you it takes hold of you. It’s one of the most populous cities in the world, but at the same time you can get lost in the streets and discover new places all the time,” says Walsh, who has chaired Beijing GAA for two years.
“There is nothing like sitting on a small stool down a side street and eating meat off a stick on a warm Beijing night. We don’t do it as well as the Beijingers, but we give it a good rattle.”
The Embassy performs an important social function for the community, especially around St Patrick’s Day and when leaders come to visit. Paddy O’Shea’s on Dongzhimen Avenue is where the Irish are to be found the rest of the year. It’s probably the city’s best pub for sport, with screens on every wall showing everything from Australian Rules football to the Premier League to ping-pong. And, of course, GAA. This is where the recruiting happens, and a fair bit of the socialising.
As with the Dublin-versus-Cork debate in Ireland, the Shanghai-versus-Beijing debate is a hotly contested one in China. Shanghai is bigger than Beijing, and more international, with a better lifestyle for expatriates, plus beautiful architecture in the French Concession, along the Bund waterfront and in the glossy high-rise districts of Pudong. It also has much cleaner air than Beijing, although Beijing is catching up.
People come here to be where the action is, as Beijing is the seat of power in China. They’re also attracted by the surrounding areas, with the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the ability to be out of the smog in around an hour in light traffic.
Simon Holland, a 25-year-old from Ballinadee in Co Cork, and his friend Diarmuid Crowley, from Ballinhassig, were bewildered when they came out to Beijing and found themselves in a suburb nearly two hours from downtown, in an apartment in a shocking state. Things were sorted out quickly, however.
Crowley has now found a job at home that he can’t pass up, although he will miss Beijing. “I love the variety in all aspects of life. I love finding a hidden gem somewhere. They are everywhere: you could turn a corner and there could be a restaurant that doesn’t look very appealing from the outside but the food is absolutely amazing,” he says.
Holland’s parents were sceptical when he said he was coming to Beijing. They are now converts. “My parents were saying, ‘The culture shock will be massive: you’re not going to like it,’ but once I got out here there wasn’t really a culture shock,” he says. “I love the rawness of Beijing life. The flavour and the authenticity. I wanted to try teaching, but I’m not ruling out doing a business degree here,” he says. “China is like the new America.”
This series of reports is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund. Read more stories from the Irish in Asia all next week in the Generation Emigration section on irishtimes.com.