Swansea’s Chinese community makes up just 1% of the population, creating language barriers and social isolation. The city’s Chinese Community Co-op Centre has been tackling these problems for the past 18 years, looking after more than 600 members in Wales.
Run by a board of five directors, the centre was set up in December 1996 by a group of volunteers, who are still putting their own time and money in the project. Although it has received funding from sources including the Welsh Assembly and EU, the centre is self-sustaining, with an annual fee of £15 for the elderly and £20 for the rest.
Its founder is director Wai Fong Lee, who arrived from Hong Kong 40 years ago when her family opted for a new life running a takeaway.
“We didn’t speak English when we came here in 1975,” she says. “My father had to learn to speak to customers. No one knew each other – you hardly saw any Chinese people around you and the language barrier accentuated the sense of isolation.
“But now people have a place to come if they have any problems.”
In 2006, Wai Fong Lee was awarded an MBE for her services to Chinese/Welsh relations. But she says there is still work to be done.
“A lot of Chinese people still work in kitchens and have no chance to learn English. It is very limited –because they work long hours, they don’t have the chance to go out and learn. But they can seek advice and get help here.”
The centre has become a focal point for the community, with a café acting as a social hub, groups for women, young people and the elderly, and a badminton class and other sporting activities.
“Wai Fong Lee has done a wonderful job and still contributes the most, coming in every day,” says Jennifer Lam, 24, a community support officer who has worked at the centre for the past two years.
The centre deals with issues relating to education, training, employment, health, social security, housing and police. This includes advice on benefit forms, signposting people to statutory and voluntary agencies, and broadening knowledge of rights and services.
A key aim is to encourage the Chinese community – particularly the elderly and isolated – to take part in social activities, including classes in English and Mandarin. In the past few years, a major success has been IT classes, offering computer skills to older members.
Arts and craft classes are run during school holidays to teach young people about their roots. Other events have included a Chinese fashion show and Chinese painting exhibition.
With the help of Heritage Lottery funding, the ‘All Our Stories’ project captured the oral histories of older members of the community and traced 100 years of the Chinese community’s history in Swansea.
This summer the centre is also organising a week-long trip to Eastern Europe. “It’s seven days when members have an opportunity to travel and get away from a lifestyle which often means working in the kitchen 18 hours a day,” says Jennifer.
But the core work is still based around improving employment prospects and quality of life.
The team is looking for more funding to continue its IT classes, sports activities and a new project setting up a new mental health support group. The Bridging Inequalities project is now looking at tackling social exclusion with a range of support services, including translation.
Major decisions on projects are made by the directors, who meet every two months to plan strategy. The co-operative approach is key to this work, says Jennifer.
“We try and do as much as we can working together,” she adds. “Things are getting a lot better but there are still barriers, and a lot of work to do, because there is no other organisation offering this service or equivalent to the ethnic Chinese in Swansea and its surrounding areas.”