Ireland’s first ‘Chinatown’ in Derry is a real window of opportunity

Chinatown in London is a thriving district located in the heart of the City of Westminster.
Chinatown in London is a thriving district located in the heart of the City of Westminster.

Today is Chinese New Year. Almost one in every five people on the planet live in China, making it the world’s most populous nation.

It is also on track to have the biggest global economy - by 2030 at the latest - a title that the US has held annually since 1872. If the last century belonged to the United States, the current one will most definitely be all about China.

Even a small economy like the Republic of Ireland has more than 8bn euro worth of annual trade with China, with over 100 Irish companies employing 12,000 people there.

In Derry, the US owners of Invista (formerly DuPont) are selling their apparel and advanced textiles business (including Lycra) to Shandong Ruyi Investment Holding in China. And seven NI wind farms are now in Chinese hands, including two just outside of Derry.

China is also dominating global tourism.

It is already the world’s largest and fastest growing travel market - with 200m Chinese expected to travel overseas each year by 2020. Chinese visitors tend to stay longer and spend more when they travel - accounting for 11% of international visitors globally, but 21% of tourist spend (2016 figures).

Tourism Ireland estimates that 65,000 Chinese visited Ireland in 2016 and, with the first-ever direct flights from Ireland to China starting in June, those numbers are expected to grow considerably.

China’s global influence is also expanding when it comes to education, too. Almost 110,000 students from China now study at UK universities - far exceeding any other nationality - and they also account for almost a quarter of all post-graduate students in England.

For Northern Irish universities, China is second only to ROI as the biggest source of non-UK students.

China is, therefore, a global powerhouse and somewhere that Derry can’t afford to ignore. As a city, we should be thinking strategically about how best to raise our profile there.

On a positive note, our Council is already taking a lead by developing relationships with Dalian - a Chinese seaport city of seven million people. A delegation representing Dalian’s local government visited Derry in December and our council will be returning the favour in May.

There are other ways in which we could increase our profile in China and help people and businesses here to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

Ulster University is host to the ‘Confucius Institute of Northern Ireland’ - one of 300 such centres around the world, working with universities, schools and businesses to promote an understanding of Chinese language, culture and customs.

Ulster’s facility is headquartered in Coleraine, with additional offices at their new Belfast campus. As part of the long-awaited expansion of Magee, we should be pushing for a Confucius presence to be developed here as well.

And Derry should also investigate joining the ‘World Tourism Cities Federation’ - a Chinese-led organisation based in Beijing, which is the only international tourism body for cities.

Belfast and Dublin are amongst its 128 current members, as is Dalian, and membership of the organisation would increase our visibility in the Chinese tourism market.

There is also a more imaginative route to enhance our profile and links with China - in a way that would be unique, would boost our city’s tourist offering and would attract significant media attention at home and abroad.

And that would be to create Ireland’s first ‘Chinatown’ here in Derry.

That may initially sound like a frivolous suggestion, but is a serious strategic opportunity. Chinatowns are popular around the world, as both tourist attractions and footholds for Chinese culture and commerce.

New York has a famous one, there are six in Britain alone and mainland Europe has a dozen - with Berlin and Paris containing two each.

Here in Derry, we have yet to create destination identities for parts of our city centre, save for the occasional non-specific reference to a ‘Cathedral Quarter’. The creation of a Chinatown in Derry would be a major step in the development of distinct neighbourhood identities here.

But where could it be located? We currently have a small population of approximately 250 ethnic Chinese people in Derry - living throughout the city, rather than concentrated in any particular area - so there is no automatic choice for where a Chinatown should be located.

However, we have no shortage of areas that could really do with the kind of tourist and commercial boost that establishing one could bring.

For example, Spencer Road is a street in desperate need of a new purpose. Its location on the eastern periphery of the city centre places it beyond most people’s radar and footfall, and it has struggled commercially for years.

It needs a new lease of life as a destination that locals and visitors would make the effort to spend time and money in, and turning it into Derry’s Chinatown would be one way of doing that.

There also happen to be a number of Chinese restaurants already located in that area, so such an initiative wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

Other possible contenders could be places like Sackville Street or John Street - again, parts of our city centre that are on the periphery of the real action and are struggling without a clear identity or purpose.

This will be China’s century, and places which acknowledge and take advantage of that will reap the economic, educational, cultural and tourism benefits.

A window of opportunity currently exists for somewhere on the island of Ireland to make a major play for China’s attention.

And what better way to show our desire to build strong cultural and economic links than to develop Ireland’s first Chinatown here.

Creating a local home for Chinese businesses and culture, whilst enhancing Derry’s tourist offering and generating a new identity for one of our struggling streets.

It’s something for our Council to ponder ahead of their first official visit to Dalian in three months’ time.

Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on twitter: @Bradley_Steve