By: Mark O’Neill

On Sept. 18, an Irish cabinet member will open the country’s first consulate-general in Hong Kong, both a reminder of the deep Irish historical footprint in the city and a sign of the country’s booming relationship with China.

Richard Bruton, Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and Financial Secretary John Tsang is to open the new office on the 20th floor of the Bank of East Asia Building in Central with Peter Ryan, the Consul-General who arrived in Hong Kong in August 2014 after serving as Deputy Consul-General in New York.

More than 3,000 Irish expatriates live in Hong Kong, the largest number of any city in Asia, working in law, accountancy, finance, construction, high-tech and education. In addition, thousands of residents of Irish descent hold other passports.

China has become Ireland’s second largest trading partner after the European Community. Bilateral trade in 2014 was €8 billion. More than 10,000 Chinese work in 92 Irish firms in the mainland, while major Chinese companies including Huawei, Tencent, Lenovo and China Development Bank have invested in Ireland. Last year the two sides set up the China Ireland Technology Growth Capital Fund, with money from Ireland’s National Pensions Reserve Fund and China Investment Corporation. It invests in Irish and Chinese technology companies that enter the market of the other.

Food products, especially beef, dairy and sea products, are a major Irish export to China. Last year they reached €520 million, an annual increase of almost 40 percent. China is Ireland’s second largest dairy market and is likely to become soon its second biggest market for food.

The market for imported food is enormous because of the scandals involving milk powder, meat and other food items in China. Millions of Chinese are willing to pay a high price for the security and quality of imported food.

Ireland is locked in fierce competition for food products in the mainland market with other exporters, including Germany, Denmark, Holland, New Zealand and Australia. Kerrygold butter and Dubliner cheese can be found on the shelves of high-class supermarkets in major cities, including in Hong Kong.

Irish products received an enormous boost on May 17 when Premier Li Keqiang and his wife visited the home of Joe Garvey, a dairy farmer in County Mayo, on a stopover en route to South America. As he munched on the homemade bread, cheese and beef offered to him, Li said he was confident of the quality and safety of Irish food. The photo of him, his wife and the Garveys was splashed all over the mainland media – worth a thousand advertisements by Irish companies.

A special initiative of the Consulate and the Irish Chambers of Commerce of Hong Kong and Macau next year will see the first showcase of Irish food and beverage products in both cities, with more than 300 products on display in more than 60 retail outlets. 

On April 1 this year, the European Union abolished the ceiling on production of milk. This has enabled Irish dairy farmers to increase output substantially, much of it directed at China. In February 2015, Beijing lifted a ban on imports of Irish beef – the first European country to be allowed to export it since a BSE-related ban imposed 15 years ago.

Students and tourists are another important part of the equation. Last year 40,000 Chinese visited Ireland; the country’s tourism board has set a target of 50,000 by 2018. Chinese are the second largest single group of foreign students in Ireland, after Brazilians, numbering 5,000.

In Hong Kong, the Irish have left a deep footprint. Of Hong Kong’s Governors, nine were born in Ireland, including John Pope Hennessy, after whom the famous street is named. Thousands of Irish people served in the colonial government as engineers, architects, judges and policemen.

Irish Jesuits have run schools such as Wah Yan College; it has educated many members of the Chinese elite, including judges, legislators, businessmen, professors and former Chief Executive Donald Tseng. Many Irish brothers have worked in the La Salle Colleges and Irish Columban Missionaries have also contributed greatly to the social, education and religious life in Hong Kong.

In Wah Yan College in Waterloo Road live a group of retired Jesuits, including Joseph Mallin, 101, the oldest Irish priest in the world. He is the son of Commandant Michael Mallin, second-in-command of the Irish Citizen Army, who led the Easter Rising against British rule in Dublin in 1916. Michael Mallin was executed by the British following the failed Easter Rising; its 100th anniversary will be marked in Ireland and around the world next year.

Joseph Mallin has lived in Hong Kong for almost 70 years. Consul General Ryan lists his attendance at Mallin’s 101st birthday party last year “as one of the highlights of my service as a diplomatic officer. Having first met Fr Joseph in 2004 during a visit to Wah Yan College, I was delighted to renew acquaintances with him and his colleagues.”

Another revolutionary was Rowland Mulkern, an Irish nationalist who was a professional soldier in the British army. In 1896 in London, he befriended Dr Sun Yat-sen after he had been released from 11 days captivity in the Chinese embassy. Like many foreigners, he was inspired by Sun; he worked as his bodyguard in London and followed him to Hong Kong. He took part in the second uprising Sun organized, in Huizhou in 1900; it was one of 10 failed rebellions before the successful one, in Wuhan in 1911.

The Republic of China was formally established on New Year’s Day, 1912 — 10 years before Ireland won its independence from Britain.

Since his arrival from New York, Ryan has been busy. He brought a group of like-minded “friends of Ireland” together to organize the city’s first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on the harbor waterfront; there were as many Chinese participants as Irish.

In June, he joined the Hong Kong GAA Club for their All China Gaelic Games at Kings Park in Kowloon with Gaelic Sports, with 300 people of 19 nationalities; as many Chinese, Japanese and Koreans took part as Irish.

“For Asians who take part, the social side is as important as the sports. Gaelic football is an energetic, enjoyable and safe game,” he said.

Looking ahead to the opening of the new Consulate General on September 18, Ryan “acknowledged the tremendous work undertaken in the past by Ireland’s Honorary Consuls in Hong Kong, most recently Harry O’ Neill, to represent Ireland and to support the Irish Community in the city”.

He also thanked the many “friends of Ireland” in Hong Kong and Macau, including all involved with the Irish Chambers of Commerce in both cities, the St Patrick’s Society in Hong Kong, the Irish International Education Centre, the Celtic Connections Choir and the Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.

“I look forward to building on our good relationships and can promise all a warm Cead Mile Failte – One Hundred Thousand Welcomes – to our new office,” Ryan said.