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Ó Yu Ming go dtí TikTok: The funny, unexpected and complicated path of Chinese identity in Ireland

Diyu Wu’s acting career was short but has had a lasting impact on Irish-Chinese culture.

This month, The Journal’s Good Information Project is discussing China and how Ireland relates to one of the biggest economies in the world.

“AN BHFUIL TUSA ag labhairt liomsa?,” a lonely Yu Ming asks a Patrick Kavanagh statue in the 2003 Irish language short film, Yu Ming is Ainm Dom, shortly after the character realises that Irish isn’t commonly spoken here.

Some 18 years later, lawyer and entrepreneur Diyu Wu is no longer acting but he is still speaking Irish, and talking to TheJournal.

“I feel privileged to have been that lucky person randomly chosen to be Yu Ming. So, I feel a responsibility to try and do more for Chinese-Irish relations and the promotion of the Irish language,” said Diyu.

The short film was a massive hit around the world when it was released, notably winning at the prestigious Aspen Short Film Festival, among others.  Now, it’s become part of the cultural shorthand of Ireland, helped by its sustained presence in Irish classrooms throughout the years – mostly due to its comedic take on the neglect of our native language. 

After spinning a globe in search of adventure, Yu Ming’s finger lands on Ireland. Deciding to follow fate and make the move, his guidebook tells him the official language is Irish.

He arrives only to discover that no-one understands him. In one of the best-known scenes, actor Frank Kelly’s character converses as Gaeilge with Yu Ming in a pub, much to the surprise of the barman who delivers the line: “Did you know that old Paddy could speak Chinese?”

“Everyone finds that scene funny, but afterwards, for the Irish, we do find it sad ourselves,” said Diyu. “The tragic comedy touches on the reality that not many people would be able to converse fluently with a Yu Ming of today, which is why I think the film has gotten so much love over the years.”

Wu said he’s still amazed that the opportunity came about by chance. The film’s director and writer, Daniel O’Hara, was looking for a Chinese actor with the ability to speak Irish, “and you know back then [in 2003] there wouldn’t have been that many”.

“Eventually, he decided to start ringing secondary schools because he realised that because it’s taught in schools it may be possible to find someone in a school of Chinese origin who can actually speak Irish.”

When the call came to Diyu’s school, it was his drama teacher who recommended him for the part.

Heading to the audition with the belief he’d be an extra, 16-year-old Diyu only realised he “had all the lines” once he read the script.

“As a 16-year-old kid back then, you’ve no fear. And I never imagined that nowadays people are still seeing the film in secondary and primary schools,” he said.  “It’s amazing to think that 18 years ago this all happened, and it all came about by chance.”

Source: Screen Directors Guild Ireland/YouTube

When Diyu first met his now-wife, Jizhao Liu, he admits he tried to impress her with his acting chops.

“I was in a movie, you know,” was the pick-up line that broke the ice but had little impact.

“So my plan to impress her with my role didn’t quite go as planned. It turns out that my wife isn’t impressed by being in movies.”

The couple are expecting their first child in the coming months and have already picked out a name: Eoghan.

In his spare time, Wu set up an Irish watch brand called Sólás Watches. He said it made sense to also promote Irish through his other love, watches. 

Despite not having the desired effect during the courtship of his marriage, Diyu believes the short film’s duality as a classic migrant tale has also helped it reach a greater, diverse, audience.

pjimage (12) "By happy coincidence we mirror my parents in a Wu marrying a Liu too," Diyu said.

His family first came to Ireland from Manchester in 1996 after his parents got jobs teaching computer science at universities in Dublin, having moved to England from mainland China to further their education.

“It was almost a classic immigrant story, when my dad first arrived in England with a suitcase and a five pound note,” said Diyu, adding that it’s a story that will “resonate with many Irish people who have travelled out of a country looking for better opportunities with very little but the shirt on their back”. 

I’m immensely proud of them because they were very well educated and worked in a rocket launch centre in China but when we first came to the UK my parents would be washing dishes on the weekend, teaching me on the side, and my mother had a sewing job in a Burberry factory, all while they studied.

“I think it really was a privilege to see the effects of hard work, of washing those dishes while getting your PhD, knowing that you’re working for a better future. It was such a formative thing for me to see the fruits of hard work.”

In his mother’s spare time, she set up a Chinese language school to help educate and preserve the Chinese language within the local Chinese-Irish community here.

“I think the Chinese community here has adopted and adapted to Irish culture very well, which is why the concern is actually about preserving our Chinese cultural heritage,” said Diyu. 

Diversity 

Diyu’s family arrived in Ireland during what is considered the second group of early ethnic Chinese migrants to Ireland.

The first group of Chinese migrants in Ireland came from Hong Kong from the 1950s onwards, mostly after spending a period in the UK – a historically popular destination for Hong Kong migrants due to its colonial relationship.

According to Dr Zhouxiang Lu, lecturer in Chinese studies in the school of modern languages, literatures and cultures at Maynooth University, the majority of early ethnic Chinese people in Ireland worked in the catering industry, predominantly in the few Chinese restaurants and takeaways that opened from the late 1950s onwards. 

The proceeding decades saw a slow but steady increase in Ireland’s ethnic Chinese population before young professionals with college degrees – like Wu’s parents – arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. Some were first-generation migrants from Hong Kong, Malaysia and other south-east Asian countries while others were second-generation Chinese migrants from the UK.

The uptick in the Irish economy attracted a so-called second migration wave of Chinese migration in the early 2000s during which large numbers of mainland Chinese professionals and students migrated to the country.

The number of ethnic Chinese people in Ireland has continued to grow thanks to the steady influx of students from mainland China over the last two decades, according to Dr Lu. 

“Chinese migrants from the UK and other Asian countries and those from mainland China see themselves as two distinct groups with regard to their citizenship statuses, backgrounds and experience,” write Dr Lu in an essay called ‘Rethinking integration and identity: Chinese migrants in the Republic of Ireland‘. 

“Second-generation Chinese are often forced to identify with the Chinese identity due to the restrictive nature of ‘Irishness’ (being white) and the pressure of racialisation and marginalisation in the mainstream society, even though they are not regarded as fully or properly Irish by themselves or by society.”

According to the 2016 census, the ethnic Chinese community in Ireland (19,447) accounts for 0.4% of the total population.

figure-32-population-usu The spike of persons aged 20-24 can be explained by the large proportion of persons of 'Chinese' ethnicity studying here, according to the CSO. Source: CSO

As the Irish-Chinese and ethnic Chinese community are only a small percentage of the overall population, Dr Lu said this creates a unique environment for influencing their integration and identity awareness – making Ireland different from other nations with a bigger ethnic Chinese population. 

Dr Lu says it is vital for Irish society, and especially policymakers, to understand the historical, socio-economic and cognitive contexts of diversity within the Chinese community in Ireland – and in turn the diversity in experiences. 

Cúpla focal 

Dr Jun Ni, lecturer in Chinese in the school of languages, law and social sciences at TU Dublin, says that given the number of Chinese immigrants living in Ireland, “it is of particular interest for Chinese migrants to look at the cultural identity of Irish people and how our two communities can integrate better”.

“A stereotype of Chinese migrants is that they socialise entirely with Chinese friends and remain distanced from the host culture. My research about Chinese migrants in Ireland indicates that great numbers of Chinese migrants integrate better in Irish society. They realise it is important to integrate into Irish life by involving Irish people in their existing personal networks. To understand the host culture is to learn the language of that culture,” Dr Ni said.

“Statistically, English is the primary language of communication in Ireland, Irish is part of Irish culture and national identity. Learning Irish can be a method of communication and integration. More and more Chinese migrants are attempting to learn this language.”

Dr Ni believes the short film Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom is still relevant today because it illustrates “how a positive bond between Chinese and Irish people is possible”.

Being a Chinese migrant living in Ireland, my personal experiences of learning Irish has been enjoyable. I learned a few sentences in Irish and I found it is very useful for getting on well with Irish people in general who may be fluent or just have a few words themselves, as they appreciate the effort. Some Irish people even find it humorous that a Chinese person would have a cúpla focal.

From his own experience of growing up Irish-Chinese, UCD biology student King Ye says he struggled to maintain his identity while attending a predominantly white school and “because there’s not many people that have the same background as me”.

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“I found myself having to adapt to people around me, even for small things such as lunch,” he said.  “My parents would pack me homemade Chinese food for lunch, and I remember so clearly how kids would act disgusted and make fun of the smell. So I found myself not bringing any of this food to school, and I would have ‘normal’ lunches like packed sandwiches just to fit in.”

When Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom would be played during an Irish class, King said other students would give him looks and often tease him.

“I feel like it’s a stereotype that all Asian people are clueless to Western culture – like for example in the movie, in one of the scenes Yu Ming struggles to eat with a knife and fork.”

King said he recently made a close group of friends who he says bonded over the shared struggle of growing up Asian-Irish.

“We’ve learned from each other and have started to embrace our cultures a lot more.

“From my experience, I feel like there should be more Asian representation in Irish media to help people who are stuck between being either Irish or Asian, because you can be both.”

King’s growing presence on TikTok has gotten a lot of attention from other Irish people, thanks in part to his spoofs of Yu Ming, which he thinks brings back a lot of nostalgia for people.

In one of his most recent TikToks, King pays tribute “to the old man who gave me a job when I first moved to Irish thinking that Irish is the main language”. The video has over 90,000 likes and 375,000 views. 

With a growing follower base of 158,000, King says he and his friends  – who are also using the platform  – feel a responsibility to increase the representation of the Irish-Asian community in Ireland “so that people can look up to us and know there are people out there like them”.

Dr Lu says it used to be that there were very few resources to pick up if you were interested in Chinese culture or society but platforms like YouTube and Tik Tok have made a huge difference in filling that knowledge gap.

“If you look at the younger generation, they don’t watch tv in the same way. Individual bloggers and content creators are having an impact that commercial stations or platforms have yet to do.”

If you’d like to share your experience contact adam@thejournal.ie

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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