"Ireland is so multicultural now it's normal to be different"
When Voon For Chin left Malaysia, he headed for the Emerald Gardens. He was 20 years old and spoke no English when he arrived on South Main Street in Wexford.
Here he found the Emerald Gardens, the Chinese restaurant his aunt ran in Wexford and where Voon For Chin would work as a chef. In time, two of Voon For Chin’s brothers would follow him from Malaysia to Ireland and settle in Wexford as well.
But he was the first in this new world where everything was different. He was the one who would begin a new life seven thousand miles from home in a land which was so used to everything being the same.
Joanne Black’s home was Wolfe Tone Villas. She was one of seven children who grew up on the estate in Wexford. Her mother May kept an eye on all that happened in Wolfe Tone. May’s grandson jokes that if anyone has a problem with him, “they never get to take me on, it’s her they have to go through”.
Joanne Black got a job five minutes from Wolfe Tone and when she started working as a waitress in the Emerald Gardens, she met a young chef seven thousand miles from home. Voon For Chin and Joanne Black became a couple. They had their first child nearly 24 years ago now and they called him Lee.
A couple of years later, they had a daughter Danielle and they, too, would grow up in Wolfe Tone.
When Lee Chin talks about Wolfe Tone, he smiles a lot. It is the place “closest to his heart”, the place that shaped him.
It’s Thursday afternoon and he has driven from Wexford to meet you in Gorey, to meet you halfway. He finds a quiet corner in the hotel and spends an hour telling his story, and his manner is as compelling as what he has achieved.
On Sunday Wexford play an All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford in Thurles. Wexford are underdogs. Injuries and illness have diminished them, although Lee Chin sees it differently, he often does. The adversity has given more meaning to things. After the defeat to Dublin he says, they could have written the script for the summer, but “we’d have been wrong”.
James Breen, it turns out, played against Cork while suffering from viral meningitis yet he was at training this week. “He’s a hardy bit of stuff. You’ll never get to the bottom of him. He was back training the other night, that’s James for you.”
Lee Chin is 23 and he already has the air of a leader, but when you hear his story, it's hard not to think he's had those qualities for some time. If you talk to Lee Chin, he'll tell you he picked them up in Wolfe Tone.
Growing up in Wolfe Tone, you learn these things, he says. The people of Wolfe Tone will point to men like Lee Chin and Billy Walsh and tell you that their environment shaped them.
“It could be the way at a young age, the mother opens the door, throws you out on the street and tells you to go and survive,” Chin says, smiling again as he remembers days like these.
“You’re given a lot of independence there. It would have been a rough enough area in my town, but for us it wasn’t. For us, we just wanted to play sport on the street or get up to a small bit of mischief every now and again, but that’s just the boyo in you and there are a lot of boyos who’ve come out of Wolfe Tone.”
Billy Walsh was born in Wolfe Tone as well and Lee Chin may share some qualities with the boxing coach. He knows Billy pretty well and Lee Chin boxed too, although his mother didn’t like it and that seemed to be a good enough reason to give it up.
Billy is “fantastic”, he says, recalling the time he has spent in his company, looking at a man whose formative experiences he could understand.
“I suppose there comes a time you have to decide do you want to keep going that sort of route of leaving school, getting a job or do you want more. I think Billy chose a different path as well, and look where he is now.”
Sport was how Lee Chin was going to want more. Boxing and soccer were the avenues out of Wolfe Tone, but he saw another route. In recent years, he has seen there were other ways too, but they didn’t seem possible then to a kid from Wolfe Tone.
“My county team-mates, a lot of them have different lifestyles. A lot of them went to college. When I got brought into that world and environment, I noticed there’s more out there than just dropping out of school, getting a job and living the rest of your life.”
He trained as a barber, but now he is in DIT, trying to make that work, trying to shake the feeling he had since he was a kid that there was something else, that academic life wasn't for him.
School? Well, school was tough. When he looks back on it, he thinks of the good times, the fun he had, but the books could never hold him. He was a daydreamer, dreaming of a world beyond school, but where he wasn’t sure.
“I grew up in an area where a lot of people never really went to college. A lot of my family never went to college and I was going to follow suit.”
They would ask him what he wanted to do when he grew up and he didn’t have an answer. He had some thoughts he might go to England and try and make it as a footballer, but there was something holding him back: hurling.
He played all sports but he was only ever going to commit to one. There was a brief period in the League of Ireland and a time with Wexford’s footballers but hurling was the thing that transfixed him.
“Every day when I wake up the hurl is right in the corner of the room. It’s the first thing I see when I wake up and it’s the last thing I see when I go to sleep.”
He doesn’t know where he got it from. The Blacks didn’t hurl and neither did the Chins, but it was the thing he was drawn to.
Sport was always a release and no two days were the same in Wolfe Tone. Sometimes they would play hurling, sometimes they would play soccer, sometimes they might decide that the sport for the day was “beating the crap out of each other” and sometimes Lee Chin would lose himself in the games he played alone with his hurl.
There are times when Lee Chin will see the cars parked outside his club, turn around and go home. Sometimes he thinks there are too many people who could see him when all he wants is the solitude required to make everything right.
Sometimes he wonders what those who see him out in the field nearly every night think when they hear the roars and screams that come from his mouth as he goes through the exercises that are both calming and a preparation.
“Sometimes the things I want to do out there are not for someone else to look at because they might not look at me the same way.”
As he got older, he advanced from hitting a sliotar off a wall in the estate to heading for the field, but some of his routines have remained the same.
Ahead of Sunday’s game against Waterford in Thurles, he will have spent a few nights out on the Faythe Harriers field this week with the 15 balls he packed into his bag at the start of the summer.
He does it to calm his mind, to tell himself that he’s prepared no matter what will come his way.
“I suppose the fear, if there is ever a fear when you’re going to play, is probably a fear of the lack of preparation that you’ve put in. I don’t allow myself to have that fear.”
So he goes through his routines alone in a field, imagining himself in Croke Park, imagining men around him and what he would do to break free.
“To be honest, if there was somebody out on the field looking at me through a keyhole they’d think I was a madman. I do various different things. I’d scream, I’d shout, I’d give out to myself. I’m trying to imagine scenarios, the atmosphere around me and the emotion that would run through my body if it was on that day of a game and how to settle myself.”
He finds it therapeutic too when he loses himself in these scenarios, driving himself as he's always been able to do when it comes to sport.
This drive to succeed may have come from growing up in Wolfe Tone, but other things have shaped Lee Chin as well. He has that effortless focus and drive often seen in those who have endured tough times early in their life.
When he was about 14, his parents broke up. He knew what was going on in a way his younger sister Danielle didn’t.
“I was at an age where I understood everything that was going on. Some children mightn’t understand but I knew what steps were going to be taken, my father was going to have to move out. I knew the process while Danielle was a little bit younger, a little bit more naive, it probably hurt her a lot more because she just saw my father leaving. I was mature enough to nearly accept it - to an extent.”
He absorbed this like he absorbed everything, making it part of his determination to keep going. His mother and father remained great friends and continue to run the Chinese restaurant they had opened on Bride Street.
His mother provided the understanding too. “My father would always be there for me, but in terms of getting on with things, I’d have to give the mother a lot of credit because as I said she was very comforting. She would explain to you what was going and not to worry about things, don’t let it affect me. Not for a day did I ever let it affect me mentally. I never wanted to go out and do what I wanted to do or be disobedient or anything like that.”
There was no rebellion, just a hardening of the resolve which was also part of growing up in Wolfe Tone. But there were other tests too for the children of Voon For Chin and Joanne Black.
The racist abuse Lee Chin has been subjected to his whole life couldn’t define him any more than the flies that swirl around its mane could define a lion, but for a while when he went public about an incident which happened when he was playing for Sarsfields, it was how he was known to the country.
After scoring a goal in a club match, his legs were taken out from under him by an opponent who then racially abused Lee Chin. The abuse was heard by an umpire and Lee Chin and his club decided action should be taken.
“Nothing like this ever reached the media. It was something that I didn’t want to go and chase myself. But then when something brought it to my doorstep I thought, ‘Maybe I should talk about it’. Danielle plays football for Wexford so maybe it would help her as well as other kids of mixed race. It might help them to know that they’re not the only ones this has happened to.”
At the time of the abuse, he went on the Late Late Show. He has never watched the show again, he thinks he was naive in how he talked about it, but if you watch it, you don’t see an innocent, you just see a 19-year-old trying to explain how it feels to be him.
He says he maybe didn’t understand how he felt about it all, and there was a lot to comprehend.
This was the shocking thing. This wasn’t a one-off. The GAA acted swiftly and commendably when it was reported, but Lee Chin had a lifetime of experiences to come to terms with.
He says he has never been able to hide how he's feeling, no matter how small the thing.
Even this week, something bothered him in training and later that night Liam Dunne rang him to see if he was okay, to wonder why he wasn’t himself.
His mother, of course, never missed a sign that he wasn’t himself. She was always there to help him, especially when he was trying to make sense of something no child should have to make sense of.
“Maybe at times I didn’t want to talk about it, but she’d still know. And she’d always come and ask ‘What’s wrong? I know there’s something wrong’. You’d just talk about it. And yes, she’d make you feel very comfortable about it. She had her way of dealing with it. She’s someone who made me feel very proud of who I am and what I am.”
His reaction would vary depending on his mood. He knows this might not be what people want but he isn’t here to shape public policy, he is here to survive.
“Some days something might bother you and the next day, it wouldn’t. I know this is a very personal thing and it should bother you on the same level every day.”
But that wasn’t his experience and when he had a problem, he talked to his mother.
“She was always the person you went to. I don’t know if it was seeking advice, because I don’t think there is any advice in those situations. You just give someone your shoulder to cry on. Not literally. Somebody to put their arms around you, you’re looking for a bit of comfort.”
And then he had to go out face the world, something that never seemed to be a problem, even when he was feeling weakened by what he had endured.
“I don’t know if it was a confidence thing, sometimes you might be feeling good about yourself and somebody would say something and it doesn’t bother you, it just bounces off you. Then there are other days when you’re feeling a bit vulnerable, bit weak and it hurts a lot more.”
What he doesn’t say but is left to be understood is that it was always there. The anticipation that somebody might say something would become as corrosive for some as the abuse itself. He figured that the people who said these things on the field didn’t mean them, they were hoping to provoke the way people always try and provoke in sport. But that didn't mean he should shake hands at the end and leave it on the field. This was different. This was wounding and personal.
But Lee Chin also instinctively understood one thing: he alone would have to survive it. The fact that he had to find coping mechanisms is an indictment of society then, but outrage wasn’t a way of coping either.
“I got this all my life and especially through sport. But then again kids are kids, they don’t really know what they’re saying. Also on the street, and different things, you might get into a bit of conflict with something, they might say a few words to you.”
And what it does, what it is intended to do, is to make you feel alone. One of the worst incidents happened when he was playing League of Ireland with Waterford United. During an away game, he was subjected to a racist chant from fifty or so home fans for most of the game.
“At that time, I got no comfort from any of my team-mates. If that happened in GAA, the approach would be totally different. The lads would take it upon themselves to do something about it. But in soccer it was happening nearly most of the game, and nothing was ever said about. It was hurtful. As isolating as it was, you felt more isolated from your team-mates. I didn’t feel I had the support there.”
Things have changed now. He would handle things differently too, he says.
“In GAA, when it happens, you have to think you have the support of everyone, they always have my back. I know I have the boys behind me. I wouldn’t let it affect me as much as I did any more.”
Sunday they will travel from Wolfe Tone to Thurles to see Lee Chin play for their county. He wondered what the council made of what happened to Wolfe Tone two years ago when it was covered in purple and gold with banners hailing Lee Chin. He is representing his family, Wolfe Tone Villas and Wexford on those days, but he has another constituency too, another constituency which reflects how things have changed.
Since he spoke out in 2012, he has suffered no racist abuse. The country is changing and Lee Chin may have been one of the agents of that change.
He has a younger sister Molly who is eight and it’s no surprise that he feels like a father figure to her, although she seems to have got the same resolve too. “She’s a hardy girl,” he says.
That’s not a surprise. These days, he gets messages from parents with mixed race children telling him that he is their child’s favourite hurler.
“For me it’s amazing. I’m very proud of that. The GAA is going to be so multi-cultural. There are going to be so many different races playing our games and we have to be proud of that.”
He loves when he gets these messages, and he's pleased that what he's done has made a difference.
“After the Offaly game, a mother sent me a photograph of a boy saying he really admires you and you’re his favourite hurler. For me, I’m very proud of that. If it is me who is giving him the encouragement to want to play hurling, that’s just special. It’s great. It’s everything really. You stood up for what you believed in, things were wrong and coming out the other side kids are looking at it that way.”
They'll tell you in Wolfe Tone that having Lee Chin on your side makes a difference. He might put it down to growing up in Wolfe Tone, but the truth may be more complicated, the truth may be that it's not one thing making Lee Chin the man he is, the man Voon For Chin and Joanne Black can be proud of.
“You’re living in a country where you are different," he says. "But Ireland is a place now that is so multicultural, it’s normal to be different.”