Chinese in Ireland: In praise of food, shopping and the mammy
As Chinese New Year approaches, Mei Chin reflects on life for the Asian community in Ireland
Kwanghi Chan and Kevin Hui. Photograph: Kate Packwood
From left, Kwanghi Chan, Eva Pau, Mei Chin, Kevin Hui and Jane Wong. Photograph: Kate Packwood
Growing up in America in the 1980s, I longed to be Molly Ringwald. At 41, I am at home with being Chinese. My mother, who was born in Taiwan but grew up in the US, made sure that I read Ming dynasty novels. My dad was born in Hangzhou, and my stepfather was English but was, like my mother, a Chinese historian. However, I grew up with Audrey Hepburn and the girls from Sex and the City as the sexy standard.
It was not until Kevin Kwan’s novel – which was later made into last year’s box-office hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians – that I saw on a dazzling, blockbuster level, that the Chinese could project a glamour to which the rest of the world could aspire. (Crazy Rich Asians isn’t totally “Asian” as its name implies; it deals exclusively with the overseas Chinese.)
There are more than a billion Chinese people on the planet. We have colonised all parts of the world and, in many cases, made it our own. We have been called, by our own people, “cockroaches”, although it’s never acceptable for anyone else to use the term. Cockroach is indicative of Chinese self-deprecation; we perpetuate our species, we adapt to our surroundings, and in the event of a nuclear war, we might just be the ones who survive.
The 2016 census recorded 19,447 Chinese people living in Ireland, and that number continues to grow. When I first moved here six years ago, the Chinese were not visible. As a result, my Chinese-ness was markedly evident, and people reacted to my “really good English” with awe.
Journalist Yvonne Kennedy contacted me after I had lived here for two years. She had a degree from Berkeley and was a translator, born in Taiwan and, like me, had grown up in Connecticut. “I don’t want you to feel that you are being ghettoised in any way,” she said. With a light-handed, diplomatic touch, she introduced me to what she laughingly likes to call the GI Wives Club, dubbed that because they are all Asian women married to Irish men. Until then, I had not realised how lonely I had been.
Were my Irish Chinese friends more Chinese than my American Chinese friends? Possibly
When there are so few of a people living in a place, one’s identity becomes more concentrated. Were my Irish Chinese friends more “Chinese” than my American Chinese friends? Possibly. There is also a clear class structure that is built into the Chinese-Irish. I was told to go to Old Town restaurant, because that was where the white-collar people went, as opposed to another nearby restaurant, which served an identical menu, but catered to the working class.
Like all of my overseas Chinese friends, I endured Chink-Chink-Chong jokes in the schoolyard. But I grew up in the Asian-heavy state of Connecticut. So, unlike my Chinese-Irish friends, I had Chinese circles comprising piano competitions, Chinese language weekend schools, and math clubs.
Dublin-born Kevin Hui, who runs the China Sichuan restaurant in Sandyford, Co Dublin, says of his upbringing: “We identified as Irish. We had to. It’s interesting, my brother got an award for the best Irish essay of the year, and my sister speaks Irish, German and Spanish fluently. The only language she doesn’t speak is Chinese.”
Chef Kwanghi Chan, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Donegal, tells me: “There was no one in the town who was like me. My first day of school in Buncrana I remember, I was dressed like I would in Hong Kong, in a tie and a shirt, and oh boy.”
Eva Pau (36) runs Asia Market with her parents. “When I went to Trinity, I was the only Chinese face there.” Fashion designer Zoe Carol Wong (35), who grew up in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, counters, “I remember at least two Chinese . . . however, I did do science at Trinity so perhaps that explains why I knew the only other two Chinese people.
“Also, when I was in Galway, I enjoyed being different. Probably my friends and my boyfriends got more stick than I did. Of course there were the chink jokes, but I always had other things on my mind when I came home. I had to worry about getting good grades, which was something that none of my Irish friends were concerned about.
“My parents ran the only Chinese takeaway in a small town and, back then, if you liked Chinese food, you would not want to p*ss off the only Chinese takeaway owners.” She pauses. “I celebrated all my birthdays at my parents’ restaurant. My friends ate duck and prawns. It made you feel like royalty, you know?”
People say, if you are from a 'good' Chinese family, it means that your ancestors had engineered an escape
These days, they say the Chinese with “good families” have their roots in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, England and the US. To wit, there was the second World War. First, the Japanese blitzed, pillaged and murdered the Chinese, and then the Communists exterminated every landholder and intellectual who remained. People say, if you are from a “good” Chinese family, it means that your ancestors had engineered an escape.
My own grandparents escaped Chongqing at the end of the war when the Communists came, and went to Taiwan. They never saw their parents again, although before they left, my great grandmother gave my grandmother several soft bars of gold, which saved my grandfather’s life when he came down with typhoid. (My grandmother’s parents died peddling cigarettes; my grandfather’s father died by suicide and his widow was made to spend the rest of her life in a small room with the coffin that the government had built for her.)
Television producer Jane Wong was born in Liverpool. Her grandfather was killed when his airplane was shot down during the second World War. Her grandmother had her leg blown off in a bomb. Banker Patrick Kennedy’s family made it to Singapore, but gave his Chinese mother up for adoption to a Sri Lankan family when she was a baby.
“My family,” he says wryly, “is rather diverse.” Kennedy’s mother then sent him away to England when he was eight. “There was a tremendous fear,” he explains, “about how Communism was spreading throughout Southeast Asia. We were living in Malaysia and my mother sent me away so I could be safe.”
Still the Chinese also believe in not dwelling in the past. You won’t know what your grandparents were doing unless you ask them why they have a limb missing. “I’ve tried my best not to look back, daughter,” one character says in the movie Crazy Rich Asians. “I knew I had to leave my past behind.” Or, as countless Chinese parents have said, “What’s the point of talking? Is it supposed to be some kind of therapy?”
Confession: I grew up atheist, so until I moved to Ireland, I was fairly unaware of Caucasian Catholics, let alone Chinese ones. Apparently, like many Irish, there are Chinese who find Mass an acceptable alternative to a shrink. (Others, like other Irish, find solace in gambling.) Jane Wong says, “Before I went to university, I thought that everyone was Catholic.”
Zoe Carol Wong went to Mass every Sunday in Galway. Her mother is Catholic, her father is atheist, and she was the captain of the servers because every Asian needs to excel, even when it is about going to church.
Eva Pau says, “So you know how First Communion is such a big deal here?” When she was nine, all the girls came dressed in their white Communion dresses, and her mother put her in pink trousers and a multi-coloured jumper. “It’s a bit of a fashion show with Communion,” Eva explains, “but the girls didn’t want to leave me out. We still all have the photos of that day and I am in the middle, with my pink trousers and bright sweater.”
No Asian woman wants to look the same. We like to be unique
“The Chinese I know in Ireland came together because of two things,” declares Kaman Ryan, a personal trainer based in Blackrock. “Shopping and eating.” Shopping is conspicuous in CRA (the abbreviation that every Chinese uses when talking about Crazy Rich Asians, and they talk about it nonstop). “No Asian woman wants to look the same,” says Ryan. “We like to be unique.”
Even more important than shopping is eating. The Chinese I have met in Ireland have said that they have, first and foremost, become friends because of food, unifying over their pursuit for a good cheung fun or spaghetti carbonara.
According to Kaman, “An ideal outing is a sample sale followed by brunch.” However, the act of eating is not a shallow one. Chinese are traditionally not great at heart-to-heart conversations. Instead, intimacy is expressed in sharing, remembering and planning meals. It is how we telegraph warmth.
Historically, the restaurant Good World on George’s Street was always “packed on Mondays because that was the day that all the other Chinese restaurants took off”, says Kwanghi Chan. “When I was a kid, we would drive down from Buncrana.”
Asians still go to the Good World for dim sum, and Kaman Ryan takes charge because she speaks Cantonese. “They have fresh lobster,” she shouts, “So everyone is getting lobster to takeaway, yeah? Hands up for who wants lobster congee.”
It’s not just Chinese food we eat. Popular restaurants include China Sichuan in Sandyford, Pickle on Camden Street, and the Italian restaurant Rosa Madre, with its extravagant display of fresh, sweet seafood. (Asians love their fish.) For dim sum, the hard-core trek to EatZen in Meath. For Japanese, Takashi Miyazaki’s Ichigo Ichie and Miyazaki restaurants in Cork.
In the Asian world, often fathers are footnotes
In CRA, the central character Rachel (Constance Wu) is the daughter of a single mother. “It is interesting,” my mother mused, after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, “that the movie focuses so much on single motherhood.” This was a decision that the filmmaker John Chu made when he did the film. He trimmed the fathers in the story, because in the Asian world, often fathers are footnotes. We Chinese worship our mothers, perhaps something we have in common with the Irish.
Yvonne Kennedy’s mother, Alice, escaped from her abusive husband while she was pregnant with Yvonne. Alice’s mother, who was running a factory in Taipei, took her daughter in and helped raise Yvonne, all while cooking lunch and dinner for her factory employees and smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Yvonne’s grandmother, who passed away recently at 98, said the secret to her long life was because her husband died young.
Eva Pau glows when her mother is mentioned. “My mother is a super woman,” she says. “She worked seven days a week, and then she would come home and cook.”
Chinese women are tough. Kevin Hui’s mother was a nurse. Kaman Ryan’s mother left her arranged marriage and fed and educated Kaman by running a series of restaurants in Long Island, New York. Kwanghi Chan’s mother left his father and him to start a career and another family. Patrick Kennedy’s father left when he was a baby. His mother was a lawyer and a prominent woman’s rights advocate in Singapore. She sent him to boarding school in England when he was eight and they saw each other once a year and communicated through letters. He loves her dearly: “She never forced me to do anything. She wanted me to find my own way. But obviously she would kill for me. Without question.”
Zoe Carol says: “Every day I went back from school, especially when I was getting teased for how I looked, my mum was there. She forced me to get good grades. But also, she made me so proud to be different.”
In the past few years, the Irish landscape has dramatically changed, and with it, the Chinese presence. A new crop of Irish-Chinese young adults flock the streets, drinking pints and bubble tea with their non-Chinese mates; in Dublin there are lanterns lit to celebrate the approaching lunar New Year. Yet the older generation, while they admit to struggles, is grateful to have grown up in a time where they were made to feel their otherness. It has made them even more fiercely Irish and Chinese than they would have been if their identities had not been contested. To echo Zoe, they have learned to revel in being different.
For that, I suppose, they, and many other overseas Chinese, must thank their mothers.