‘The girls in my law course weren’t friendly. They ignored me, the only Chinese woman’
New to the Parish: Last month, Fei Liang became Ireland’s first Chinese-born barrister
Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
On the morning of Thursday, September 17th, 2020, Fei Liang woke up early in anticipation of the exciting and momentous day that lay ahead. She pulled on her newly tailored barrister gown which she had collected from the Paul Henry Tailoring store off Capel Street the previous week and set off from her Wicklow home for Dublin’s city centre.
Later that morning, shortly after 9.30am in Dublin’s Four Courts, Liang made history by becoming the first Chinese-born barrister to be called to the Bar of Ireland following her graduation from King’s Inns.
“I had graduated a few times before with my law degree in China and accountancy here in Ireland but that day was different. I’d made my dream come true – I was very proud of myself.”
I was the only kid at home. My parents gave me 100 per cent attention and always supported and encouraged me
The 35-year-old’s journey to becoming a barrister started well over a decade ago when she studied law at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.
Born and brought up in this sprawling Chinese city, which is home to more than 25 million people, Liang was set on attending one of her country’s top universities.
“It’s very competitive in Shanghai and if you want to go to a top-class university you have to study very hard. With my generation it was still the one-child policy so I was the only kid at home. My parents gave me 100 per cent attention and always supported and encouraged me.”
Liang suffered from severe asthma as a child and was frequently in and out of hospital during the early years of her life. “My parents generally kept me home because I was sick so often. I just played by myself, I didn’t really play with other kids. By the time I went to primary school when I was seven I was much better. But my mother didn’t want me doing lots of exercise; she worried I was too weak.”
Liang was inspired by her parents’ drive and determination to succeed. Her father successfully rebuilt his career after his business fell apart during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
“For a few years my dad did not work and that was a big challenge for him. He’d always been busy before. He told me I had to study hard because he couldn’t support me anymore. But he stayed positive and went on to have quite a successful career after that.”
Liang’s parents were supportive when their only daughter announced she had decided to move abroad to continue her studies and improve her English.
“I’m lucky with my parents – they’re very open-minded. After I graduated I worked in a bank for a few months but it wasn’t what I wanted in my life. I researched courses in the US, the UK and Ireland and found there was a special visa for accounting graduates here.”
Liang arrived in Dublin in June 2008 to study a postgraduate diploma in accounting at DIT (now TU Dublin). She immediately felt more at ease living in a smaller, less crowded city. “Shanghai is too big with so many people everywhere. It’s very stressful there. I feel life here is more comfortable.”
Despite settling quickly into Dublin’s pace of life, Liang struggled to find work once she had completed her diploma and subsequent degree in accounting.
“Before arriving here I’d talked to some Chinese people about life in Ireland and was told it would be easy to find a job as an accounting graduate. But then the recession hit.”
They were young girls around 25 and they weren’t very friendly. They ignored me a lot of the time. But I didn’t let it worry me
She applied for jobs with a few accounting firms and got interviews but felt “they had no interest in hiring non-EU nationals”.
“I didn’t want to go back to Shanghai and I preferred my life here, so I changed my strategy and started looking for jobs with smaller companies. I printed out my CV and went from door to door of accounting firms on the street.”
Liang eventually found a job as a trainee accountant but says she was badly treated by a senior accountant at the firm. “It didn’t just happen once – I had a few jobs with different companies but I wasn’t treated equally. My dad said I needed to understand that I was a foreigner in this country, that I would always have to keep trying and work hard.”
In 2015 Liang started doing evening classes at King’s Inns and two years later she graduated with a diploma in legal studies. She then moved on to a part-time barrister-at-law degree while still working full-time as an accountant. She enjoyed attending classes for the diploma, which had plenty of other mature students, but found it difficult to fit in with her peers on the degree course.
“They were young girls around 25 and they weren’t very friendly. They ignored me a lot of the time. But I didn’t let it worry me. I didn’t care what others thought. I didn’t mind that I was the only Chinese woman in the class.”
Liang also found the time to apply for a mortgage and buy a house in Newtownmountkennedy in Co Wicklow. “I’m from Shanghai and property prices there are much higher so I knew buying a house was a good investment. I loved Wicklow and wanted to see the sea and the mountains.”
Despite completing her degree and being called to the Bar, Liang, who is now an Irish citizen, does not plan to practise law straight away. “I’m 35 and I’ve spent almost all my life working and studying. I’d like to spend more time on my personal life and start a family.” However, when she does practise, she plans to use her skills to help support Ireland’s Chinese community.
My friends don’t pay any attention to politics in this country and don’t know who their local TD is
“China has a totally different legal system, and many Chinese people misunderstand the law here. I’ve seen people end up in trouble because of this, and it’s not fair on them. I’d like to help them understand the system.”
She would also like to find ways to encourage the Irish Chinese community to get more involved in national politics. “My friends don’t pay any attention to politics in this country and don’t know who their local TD is. I’d like to teach them about the Irish political system and realise the rights they have here. Many of them are Irish citizens but don’t get involved at all. I’d like for their voice to be heard in Ireland.”