Monday 27 January 2020

'Christmas isn't cancelled': How Hong Kong's Irish are carrying on regardless

Beyond the headline-grabbing demonstrations, some 5,000 Irish people are getting on with life in bustling, well-organised Hong Kong. Clifford Coonan reports from a city he finds rich in Irish legacy

Anger on the streets: a protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask waves a flag during a Human Rights Day march, organised by the Civil Human Right Front, in Hong Kong this week.
Anger on the streets: a protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask waves a flag during a Human Rights Day march, organised by the Civil Human Right Front, in Hong Kong this week.
Home for 13 years: Sarah Powell

Clifford Coonan

Six months into the democracy protests, 800,000 people are marching along a street in Hong Kong named after John Pope Hennessy, a Cork politician. This is a city state that loves its ironies. The former Crown colony's only Catholic governor, a maverick who tried to give more Chinese representation within the British colonial system, would have relished the idea of Hong Kong speaking up for its freedoms.

Hong Kong is full of Irish legacy and a desire for freedom is part of this.

The Chinese-ruled semi-autonomous territory has seen more than six months of anti-government demonstrations sparked by a controversial and now-withdrawn extradition bill. The often violent protests have morphed into calls for greater democratic freedoms and an end to alleged mainland Chinese meddling.

Walking along Hennessy Road, where protesters offer me masks against the tear gas and embrace me for reporting on Hong Kong, I speak to an insurance broker, a lawyer, a marketing executive. They ask informed questions about the asset management business in Ireland. These are not your typical street protesters.

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"This is our last chance. We have to make the government listen to us. China has to listen to us too," says lawyer Andrew Lau, who is marching with his wife.

Having covered Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997, I know that Hong Kong people believe China needs to listen more.

There has been a feeling of late that the protests are ebbing a bit, and that violence is blurring the pro-democracy message. Certainly there have been unfortunate violent incidents, but given the numbers on the streets in Hong Kong they seem relatively tame. We are used to harder conflicts in Ireland.

Anthem rings out

When the unofficial anthem beloved of the Hong Kong protesters, 'Glory to Hong Kong', rings out across Hennessy Road in the city's Wan Chai district, it is incredibly moving. So much of the narrative of recent years has been about China's economic rise that it is easy to forget that it is not a democracy and does not tolerate basic human rights like free speech and an independent judiciary. These do exist in Hong Kong, for now anyway, and Hong Kongers marching on the affluent streets of Central feel they are defending something the West takes for granted.

The protests have had a major impact on daily life for the city's residents but the 5,000-strong Irish contingent still have a tremendous affection for Hong Kong. The Irish are enmeshed in the life of the city, having been named among the roll call of governors, police officers and financial experts over its history.

"I love Hong Kong's diversity," says Marilouise Hughes from Claregalway, who has been there for seven years.

Home for 13 years: Sarah Powell
Home for 13 years: Sarah Powell

The protests have put a dampener on festive events.

"But we are working on the basis that Christmas is not cancelled. We go ahead and we're committed. You could say we are living around the protests. We know when they are happening. There is no fear. People have a right to protest and off they go.

"I've yet to meet anyone within the Irish community who believes that they have the answer. There is a certain empathy within the Irish community because of Ireland's struggle with England but I don't think the comparison should be drawn out.

"There is empathy because of our own struggle… there may be some similarities but they are very different. But no one professes that they know the answer.

"We don't live with it. We have European or Australian passports, it's very different. But we don't have the duality of the China-Hong Kong struggle. And if you don't have that, you don't get to poke your nose in.

"Life is continuing and there's real hope and positive feeling that things will be resolved. The resilience in this town is pretty amazing. Everyone wants to make money, everyone has lost days and they are not discounting the protests, but if you look at them these days, they are Monday to Friday, they are at lunchtime now.

"These are not angry students, they are workers. They are not crazy people at all. If you invest in this city, it will give it back to you. We're not going to retire here, it's not Thailand or Malaysia. Hong Kong is an expensive city."

Noel Smyth

Noel Smyth is managing director of the Delaney's group of pubs in Hong Kong, which involves three Irish pubs in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), Wan Chai and the Cyberport district, and a Mexican outlet.

"We are very much reliant on the Hong Kong spend and the incoming tourist spend. This means TST and Wan Chai are very much affected but Cyberport is less directly affected because it has a captive audience."

Smyth feels he has a stake in Hong Kong and is saddened by the events of the past half year.

"We are sad for Hong Kong itself. I'm here since 1995, my business is here, my friends are here, my family is here. We are all talking about 2020 and we have to be optimistic," he says.

"It's different from the Paris riots. My kids still go off to school as normal. We just get stopped in our tracks every so often. We do this normal routine. People have, and I hate to say this, got used to the problem.

"We haven't changed much inside our businesses, haven't let staff go. We are a people-focused business."

But the escalation of violence in the Tsim Sha Tsui district a few weeks ago was tough for Smyth's company.

"We closed early for the first time ever. That was the most concentrated destruction we have had so far. And the Wan Chai branch has been affected because the protests go past there," says Smyth.

People's habits are changing because of the protests: when they finish work, they leave the city and head home as quickly as possible rather than going out in town. This has affected Smyth's downtown business, though Cyberport is steady as it is residential. Also, people are doing small Christmas parties at home, and his catering business has picked up.

Irish consulate

In recognition of Hong Kong's growing economic importance to Ireland, a consulate was opened in 2015 and the Consul General David Costello is an enthusiastic Hong Kong resident.

"Despite being close to 7.5 million people in an area the size of Co Longford, Hong Kong is a remarkable green place with 40pc of the landmass devoted to national parks. Indeed the entire residential portion of Hong Kong occupies just 6pc of the landmass. Imagine that! Seven and a half million people living on 6pc of Co Longford? This directly leads to my favourite things about Hong Kong - the skyline and the hiking trails," says Costello.

From the outset, the Irish government has called for all parties to work for a constructive solution and de-escalation, and for talks.

"While Hong Kong has been the focus of media attention for the past six months the causes of the social unrest are not as intractable as in other parts of the world. With some goodwill from all parties, the issues that Hong Kong is grappling with can be resolved. The lull of recent weeks gives some hope that a solution can be found," says Costello.

Sarah Powell from Co Down has lived in Hong Kong for almost 13 years despite intending to stay for just 12 months - so many Irish arrived in Hong Kong expecting to spend a year or two before moving on. She is married with a three-year-old son and runs her own wealth management business.

"Of course, life in Hong Kong has been changing over the last few months. Some protests have impacted on my speed of travel around the city," she says. "Hong Kong is possibly the most organised city I have ever experienced. There is always plenty of information available and people helping each other with updates in live-time via newspapers and social media. I use traffic apps to be able to ensure my time is not being affected travelling between home, work, client meetings and play."

Like everyone, she has had to adapt to the protests.

"But most of my clients are long-term residents and we have just relocated to various places around the city," she says. "People still need to talk about their financial plans, and I work a lot on financial education for children so I have actually been busier than ever in the run-up to Christmas."

Powell loves Hong Kong's natural environment.

"I can go from my office to a remote beach on the other side of Hong Kong island within 15 minutes - looking at the beautiful islands that make up this place I call home. I love sailing; Hong Kong is the perfect place to explore islands and beaches from the water as it is made up of 263 small islands.

"It is also a foodie's dream city - whether buying world-class produce to cook at home with family or visiting one of the 15,000 restaurants ranging from triple-Michelin-star memory meals to hole-in-the-wall dim sum. I love all the varied experiences I can have in a short space of time."


Bringing Guinness to China: A 1900 pioneer

One early Irish visitor to Hong Kong was there for just a short while but his work made quite an impression. In the 1890s, Guinness commissioned a group of "world travellers" to tour global markets and report back on trade conditions.

The directors were unhappy at the varying standards and quality of Guinness stouts being served and wanted to find out more, as well as examine the possibilities for selling stout all over the world.

One of those chosen was JC Haines, a former brewer who had covered the London region for Guinness before setting off for Asia to write a report on 'Japan, China, Straits Settlements, Ceylon, India, North Western Province, Karachi, Bombay and Bengal'.

Haines arrived in China in July 1900. His timing was poor - his visit took place during the Boxer Rebellion, when a group called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists swept through China preaching Nationalist, anti-imperialist ideas, and which led to violence against foreigners in China, especially missionaries.

With this in mind, Haines decided to stay in Hong Kong and did his research from there. Haines found that the "natives" favoured samshu, a rice-based liquor, although he was told by "several merchants, including a native importer, that the Chinese have taken more kindly to stout than any of the beers sent from Great Britain. They believe it makes them strong, and it agrees with them."

Haines estimated around 3,500 cases were sold in Hong Kong every year, and around the same went to Shanghai.

This early agent of globalisation had a clear insight into localisation.

"The Chinese have great faith in Brands, and adhere firmly to their demand for those known to them. Our Label Show Cards are therefore of value in China, but they should be accompanied by an advertisement of a descriptive nature in Chinese characters," Haines wrote.

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