St Patrick’s Day barely registers on the calendar in China, but this year, for the first time, St Patrick is coming to Fangcaodi primary school in the capital, and students, including my 11-year-old son, are donning green clothes to celebrate the day. For Fred, who has been in China nearly all his life, St Patrick’s Day is a fairly remote concept, and marking Ireland’s national day at school is the brainchild of one of his teachers, an American. The Irish community marks the day in style. A section of the Great Wall at Badaling near Beijing is being lit up in green for the occasion, and the traditional music band Altan are playing concerts around China. There were readings of Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” poems in a large excavation site in Beijing. During the 10 years of living here in Beijing, there has been a noticeable shift.
People are less likely to ask where Ireland is when you mention where you are from, and there are fewer questions about whether it is part of England. In an early taxi journey in Beijing after arriving more than a decade ago, the driver informed me that the reason Irish people were white was because they ate so many potatoes. Ignoring my comment that Chinese people ate a lot of rice and could be similarly coloured, he then asked how many people lived in Ireland. He was shocked to hear that the population was around the same as Chaoyang district in Beijing.
“Do you have an army?” he asked.
Some misconceptions aside, Ireland’s profile has never been higher in China. In a recent poll by the travel firm Ctrip, Ireland was named “best potential destination” for 2014 and years of promoting Ireland as a place to visit and to invest in are paying off. Part of that is down to the visit of President Xi Jinping in 2012. He was still vice-president then, but had been anointed as supreme leader, and the visit was widely covered here.
When Xi made a televised “State of the Union”-style address to the people at Chinese New Year this year, there were several photographs visible in the background, and one of them was of the president kicking a ball in Croke Park. One particularly memorable St Patrick’s Day was in 2008, when the Irish community held a parade on the Wangfujing shopping street. Days before the parade, there were riots in Tibet, where foreign journalists are not allowed to go without special permission.
I went to Xiahe, a Tibetan area not part of Tibet per se, and home to an important monastery, with a strong security presence. The parade in Beijing went ahead but staging similar gatherings in the intervening years in the capital and in Shanghai has been a bit more challenging, and often the Irish community has to celebrate the national day slightly more discreetly. Irishtimes