2 Background to the Annual Report of the Chinese Welfare Association (1998)
The first Chinese families arrived in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s. Since then the Chinese population has continued to grow in number and economic strength to become the largest minority ethnic group. There are approximately 8,000 people and over 500 Chinese businesses across Northern Ireland. Most of these businesses are family-run restaurants and takeaways. Working in the catering industry involves long, unsociable working hours and few opportunities for integration into the wider community. Traditional patterns of family life have been disrupted by the need to establish new businesses in areas not already served by Chinese catering establishments. This has led to the dispersal of families across large areas, restricting the growth of close-knit, supportive communities that many people would have preferred.
The Chinese community in Northern Ireland has its roots in different countries: the New Territories of Hong Kong, Vietnam and the People's Republic of China. Most Chinese people living in Belfast share the same cultural heritage, in that their families originally came from southern China, but they have very different backgrounds and experiences. It was crucial for the Chinese Welfare Association to find out more about the profile of the Chinese community if they were to cater effectively for all its members. They decided to conduct a survey to find out more about the individuals and communities they were trying to support. It was found that less than half the Chinese population could speak English well, more than a tenth could speak no English at all, and more than a third could speak only a little English. Older people tended to have little or no understanding of English, whereas children often had a limited grasp of Chinese. Recommendations that were made in the wake of this study included supporting older people through adult education and interpretation services and establishing Chinese language classes for children to keep them in touch with their culture and tradition. The provision of this sort of support was made more complex because different languages and dialects co-existed. Cantonese was the most common, older people often spoke Hakka, and Vietnamese and Mandarin were also found.