In just four years the number of Chinese students coming to Sheffield to study has more than trebled. Reporter Rachael Clegg met some of them and visited a Chinese shop and club to find out why so many students are flocking to the Steel City.
THE shelves of the new Oriental Mart on West Street are heavy with colourful boxes, jars and packets.
On the pavement outside crate-loads of new deliveries arrive every morning, replenishing daily the supplies of noodles, sauces and Chinese confectionery shipped to Sheffield from China itself.
Business is booming at the double fronted mini-mart - just as it is at specialist Chinese outlets springing up across the city centre.
Most of the Chinese grocery stores - like Tai Sun on Matilda Street, Hu Mei on Scotland Street, and the Fitzwilliam Global Store on Fitzwilliam Street - are in areas dominated by student apartment blocks.
While some, like Tai Sun, have been in Sheffield for years, it’s the past few years and even the last few months that the number of customers has really rocketed.
In just four years, the number of students coming to Sheffield University has risen from 733 in 2007, to 2,124 in 2011. Of a total 25,805 students at the university, now almost 10 per cent is Chinese.
Another 1,000 Chinese students are enrolled at Sheffield Hallam University. “The overall number here has increased significantly since 2007,” says deputy vice-chancellor Professor Cliff Allan.
And while Britons may be tightening their purse strings, the Chinese economy is growing rapidly - and thousands of students with money to spend are now living here in Sheffield.
Among them is Sheffield University student Yunyun Li, whose home province of Hainan is a land of tropical rainforests, coconut plantations, exotic beaches and towering futuristic skyscrapers. She admits her move to Sheffield four years ago, when she first travelled here to study, was something of a culture shock.
But Yunyun says she now feels at home in the Steel City.
“Every time I tell people in China I’m at Sheffield University they say, ‘Ahh, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, the home of snooker!” grins Yunyun.
“In China, Sheffield University has a very good reputation. Most Chinese students come to Sheffield to study business, economics, maths or social sciences. It’s a high-ranking university.”
The steep rise in Chinese student numbers is in line with China’s emergence as a world superpower.
China is now the world’s second largest economy after the USA, and has more than a million dollar-millionaires. Its children are becoming increasingly well-educated, and many Chinese families are sending their children West for their higher education.
With the increase in studying comes an increase in spending here in the city, as British-born Chinese club promoter Jason Wong is experiencing first-hand. He manages karaoke club Chang Chang Bar which opened on London Road in January. The building is divided up into several sound-proofed booths, which customers can hire for a few hours’ private karaoke singing either alone or in groups.
“There are more and more Chinese clubs opening up in the area,” says Jason. “More and more Chinese students are coming to Sheffield every year, some to gain knowledge - others for status.”
The singing booths cost £128 for three hours. Each has its own theme - there’s a Hello Kitty room, a tropical fish room, and a leopard print room - and each has four microphones and a plasma TV on which customers can watch karaoke channel KTV, and sing oriental pop music K-pop. “The Chinese tend to sing karaoke in small groups - it’s not like pubs here where people get up and sing in front of the whole bar,” says Jason.
Customers order drinks via waiter service. “Our customers like to order a bottle of vodka or spirit and some mixers, and take them back to the room where they will sing or play Chinese games like Lucky.
“At the end they usually they split the bill, but one night it was someone’s birthday and they picked up the bill, which came to more than £1,000,” says Jason.
“I’ve seen one Chinese student arrive in a Maserati. There is a lot of money around.”
It’s something witnessed by Yunyun and her friend and former Sheffield Hallam University student, Jieru Ge, both aged 22 and living in the city centre.
“There are some Chinese students who are so wealthy they don’t spend a lot of time studying,” admits Jieru.
“But there are also a lot like me and Yunyun, whose parents have worked hard for us to come here, and we feel pressure to study hard.”
As a legacy of the strict, one-child policy introduced in China in 1978, both Yunyun and Jieru are the only children in their families - which means all the ambitions of their parents are pinned on them.
And while the living costs for students in Sheffield may be cheaper than in, say, London, for overseas students studying here the price is by no means cheap.
While English students will pay annual fees of £9,000 from September, Chinese students face charges of £12,160 a year for arts subjects, law and social sciences, £16,000 a year for engineering, and £28,650 for medicine and dentistry.
It’s not hard to see how obtaining a British degree is a status symbol.
“More and more people are sending their children to be educated abroad - it is a status thing with a lot of Chinese,” says Yunyun.
“In England there are more opportunities for higher education than in China.”
Yunyun says around 20 per cent of her secondary school class came to the UK to study at university. But not all can afford a full degree. To keep the costs down, many Chinese students study one-year postgraduate courses in the UK.
“Not all Chinese students are really rich big spenders,” says Jieru.
“It’s a Chinese thing to be able to save up, because in China you have to pay for everything yourself. You have to pay for your own health care, so most families save up in case something happens.”
Both Jieru and Yunyun are journalism students, and very happy in Sheffield. “I love it here,” says Jieru. “I’m doing a master’s degree in Leicester now but I still live in Sheffield - I didn’t want to leave the city!”
Yunyun agrees. “I’m having such a good time, it’s so much fun.”
Once Yunyun’s degree is over, and Jieru has completed her MA, they will have to return to China.
“Previously, students could stay on in a country and work for two years after finishing university but that has changed now,” says Jieru.
“The visas no longer allow you to do that.”
But, as trained journalists, will the pair go on to work for strict communist China’s state media?
“I think I’ll go into magazine journalism and write about fashion,” says Jieru. Yunyun agrees. “I’ll probably go to America to study a postgraduate degree and then go into marketing or public relations.”
Until then, along with their thousands of fellow Chinese students, they’ll be making the most of Sheffield.