I have perfect life, says Alliance's Lo

Anna Lo was born in Hong Kong and worked in London for a year before coming to live in Northern Ireland in 1974.

For several years she made regular contributions to the BBC Chinese Service about the Chinese community and Northern Ireland affairs.

In 1978 she started the first ever English evening class for Chinese people in Northern Ireland in a further education college.

Following a career break to have her two sons she joined the Chinese Welfare Association in 1987 as a community interpreter.

Four years later she returned to full-time education and qualified as a social worker from the University of Ulster in 1993, then worked in a health and social services trust and Barnardo's.

She took up the post of director of the Chinese Welfare Association in 1997.

Anna was the first vice-chairperson of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and a founding commissioner for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. She was also the first chairperson of the South Belfast Partnership Board.

Currently she sits on various equality committees including the OFMDFM Race Forum, the Bill of Rights Forum and South Belfast Roundtable on Racism.

In 1999 she was awarded an MBE for services to ethnic minorities and in March 2007 she was elected to serve as the MLA for South Belfast for the Alliance Party.

She was the first ethnic minority politician elected at a national level in Northern Ireland and although the Dutch have had several politicians with Chinese roots, Anna was the first Chinese person elected to a European parliament who was actually born in China.

Last year her oldest son Conall Hon Watson was arrested in London as part of protests over China's human rights abuses in Tibet.

Former UK student of the year Conall, 26, helped preparations for the protest after abseiling down Westminster Bridge and hanging a huge Free Tibet banner.

"He is a very sensible and intelligent person. I am extremely proud of him, he is a very empathetic young man but it's important that people understand both he and I have nothing against the Chinese people but against the Chinese government," said Anna afterwards.

Her younger son Owen, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on the day of the protest, also took part.

Anna is also the subject of a tribute band called Shammo Anna Lo, who describe themselves as an 18-piece ghettotech-bluegrass-reggae outfit and have this to say on their website:

"This site is a dedication to the one and only Anna Lo – basically we all think she is pretty great and wish for the world to acknowledge this by giving her her own parking spot in the middle of Belfast.

"Also Anna Lo is the people's champ of politics and her main manifesto is to abolish water charges. Rumour has it Anna Lo loves nothing more than to get a Harry’s special in Harry Ramsden’s after a hard day’s political activism.

“Please become a groupie and help us in our plight to make Anna Lo the Prime Minister, Taoiseach and First Minister as well as head bouncer at the Bot in the next election.”

Just wait until they find out that she’s not really Chinese, for when I asked her if there was good feng shui in the room we were sitting in she laughed and said she hadn’t a clue, which makes me suspect she’s really from Strabane.

What’s your earliest memory of childhood and what sort of childhood did you have?

I was born in 1950 after my parents moved from China to Hong Kong because it changed from democracy to communism. They had nowhere to stay so they moved in with my mother’s parents, followed by my mother’s youngest sister.

So I grew up in a house with my grandparents, my two uncles, my auntie and her family as well as my own family; 20 people in all living around a courtyard where the grown-ups could watch us children playing safely. Great fun, especially since there were eight boys and three girls and I was a bit of a tomboy.

My earliest memory was my cousin pushing me around the courtyard on a rocking horse.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

Worst was my aunt, who could be quite fierce, grabbing a piece of log and hitting my cousin across the back of the legs. He was screaming and jumping up and down because my parents were very much against physical punishment I was really angry. I had nightmares about it and wouldn’t speak to her for a long time.

Best was Chinese New Year, with all the relatives coming to the house. My granny would put three tables covered with food into the courtyard and there’d be about 30 cousins there in their new clothes, getting lucky money in a little red envelope.

Which school subjects were you top and bottom of the class in?

I loved English and art and remember winning the top art award, then falling ill and not being able to collect it. I was very bad at maths and was very intimidated by my three brothers who were all great at maths and called me stupid. So in the end I just shut up and said nothing.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

An artist, but my parents said no. I was devastated and felt betrayed because they were supporting my brothers and not me and because my mother had been a neo-modern women I felt when it came to the crunch that she had let me down.

Why did you come to London and then to Northern Ireland?

After my parents stopped me doing A-level art I left school and worked in a bank but I never stopped studying. I did my A-levels at night, then I did a two-year secretarial course and became a secretary but when I was 23 I decided I’d had enough and was going to travel a bit.

London was the obvious choice and the plan was to base myself there, travel a bit and go home after six months. Then I got engaged to a journalist from Belfast and we decided to come back, get married and stay there for six months. Well, my six months seems to have stretched into lifetimes.

Was Northern Ireland a culture shock?

It sure was. We came back just after the UWC strike, with power cuts and bomb scares which made it even worse. Also, in London we were used to going out once or twice a week and in Belfast evenings were dead. I found it deadly boring. I remember asking colleagues in the office where I worked: “Where do you go out at night? Where do you go to eat?” and they said: “There’s nowhere – and anyway, we don’t eat out in Northern Ireland except for birthdays and wedding anniversaries.”

That would have been only twice a year, I nearly died!

On the positive side, my husband’s family were really supportive and people here were really helpful. I think they felt sorry for me landing in Belfast from Hong Kong and London.

Coming to Northern Ireland, did you find the idea of two allegedly Christian groups hating and killing each other baffling?

I actually got very interested in it. I wrote home to my mother every week about politics in Northern Ireland until after a while she politely wrote back saying: “Listen, people in Hong Kong aren’t interested in politics, never mind Northern Ireland politics.”

My ex-husband was political correspondent with the Belfast Telegraph so through him I met a lot of senior politicians and became intrigued by politics here.

You’re a Taoist. Is that a Protestant Taoist or a Catholic one?

You’re not the first one to ask me that and my usual answer is that I’m an atheist Taoist. My parents were Taoists but there’s always an assumption here that you have to be the same religion as your parents and to be honest I’m not.

The three jewels of Taoism are compassion, moderation and humility. Do you think it would be a good idea if it caught on here?

Absolutely. Or Buddhism. My oldest brother was a very devout Buddhist and until he died of cancer three years ago he was the kindest man I’ve ever known.

Some of the stories of hardship, hard work and sacrifice in the face of appalling racism of Chinese immigrants here make both inspiring and harrowing reading. Do you think Northern Ireland is getting any less racist and moving towards seeing diversity as a blessing?

I think it is, especially as we are getting more and more migrant workers. People are beginning to appreciate that if we want to be a forward-looking society we need to appreciate the new skills and ideas that people coming from outside can bring.

You’ve quoted the Chinese saying before that women hold up half the sky. As both a woman and a member of an ethnic minority have you ever felt that getting to where you are has been double the struggle?

Not really, to be honest. I had some difficulties when I became a social worker. I remember my first team leader asking me a question which took me aback. She said: “Anna, do you think before we send you on cases we should ask clients if they would accept you?” The implication seemed to be that I was less capable than someone from here.

How did you feel when you were elected as an MLA?

Delighted. When the Alliance Party approached me, the rebellious streak in me wanted to test the population of Northern Ireland to see if they would vote for someone who was not from one side or the other of the divide – and when I started knocking on doors during the campaign I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming people were.

And when I was elected it was a good lesson to the rest of the world that we weren’t as bigoted as we were made out to be.

Do you think politics here has for too long been about Orange and green issues rather than jobs, housing, education and health?

Yes. I think we’re gradually becoming more of a normal society but when you look at the workings of the Executive there’s still far too much tribalism, point-scoring and pandering to the society where politicians think their votes come from. Following, rather than leading.

Politicians need to work collectively for the common good rather than just pleasing their own community.

Do you know you have a tribute band called Shammo Anna Lo – with its own website – which wants you to be the next Prime Minister, Taoiseach and First Minister as well as head bouncer at the Botanic Inn in Belfast?

Really? I didn’t know that!

Your sons took part in the Free Tibet protest in London last year and your oldest son was arrested. If you can say, what’s your own feeling on Tibet?

I support my son completely. He’s a young man of very high ideals and principles. Personally, I support the Dalai Lama’s view that he’s asking for more autonomy rather than independence. There is nothing wrong with that. They have a different culture and language and that needs to be respected. It hasn’t been and people there have been suppressed and assimilated.

What are your feelings about the changes in China over the past few years?

It’s done extremely well in terms of economic progress but it has a long way to go with human rights, democracy and equality.

If they want to become a real world power they’ll have to adhere to international standards and follow the example of the countries around them like Taiwan and the Philippines, which are eastern countries but democracies with good human rights records.

Where do you feel your home is?

Here! Every time I go back to Hong Kong I love its vibrancy and fun for a while but I want to come home to the peace and quiet of Northern Ireland, to the countryside and a more compassionate and caring society.

My family in Hong Kong are very wealthy, with maids and chauffeurs and I feel a bit uneasy with that lifestyle so in a way I’m glad I didn’t stay there.

Favourite book?

I’m reading Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father at the moment, which is very interesting. I love autobiographies about what people have achieved with their lives.

Film?

I’ll go for a play instead, which came to Northern Ireland from Australia a few years ago. The actors were all Aboriginal and the play was about the policy in the ’50s of snatching babies from mothers and placing them with white families to assimilate them and eventually wipe out the Aborigines. It was genocide to me and no better than Hitler killing the Jews. It went on for about 20 years.

A lot of mothers had breakdowns after their babies were taken from them and a lot of children were sexually abused by the families they were given to.

It was horrendous and as several of us watched the play we were all sitting there crying. Afterwards you couldn’t move because you wanted just to sit there and think about what you had seen.

First record?

The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My brothers bought it and it got played non-stop.

Favourite country?

I love the United States. We had a lovely holiday once, driving up the California coastline.

Heroes and villains?

When I was in my teens I worshipped John F Kennedy; then when I was older, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi – all people who fought for equality. Villain has to be Robert Mugabe. How can one person bring a country to its knees while we sit on our hands and do nothing?

Which two people have been most important in your life so far, either in a positive or negative way?

When I was a little girl I adored my mum and thought when she was dressed up in her cheongsam and going out that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

My attitude to her changed in my teens and I began to love my father more. He was a very upright and outspoken person, whereas my mother was more conventional and when I was little and wanted to conform, my mother and I found my father embarrassing – but later I saw how right he was to stand up for things.

Vices and virtues?

I’m very determined and prepared to work hard to achieve what I want. I always felt that I didn’t get my chance in education so when my children were young I went back to evening classes to get a part-time degree in social work and a masters. I’m proud that I’ve always been determined to improve myself.

I can be very assertive and stubborn and convinced I’m right, whereas in fact I need to listen more.

Are you surprised where you’ve ended up?

No, it seems more like a natural progression, from working with ethnic minories and lobbying for equality for the underdog.

Regrets: have you had a few?

Only the difficulty of maintaining contact with family and friends back home – but I made amends in October when I went back for a 40-year reunion of my classmates and met friends I hadn’t seen since then. They’d all seen the publicity about the election campaign and they got in touch and urged me to come back for the reunion so I took a week off and did that. It was great meeting all my teenage friends and yapping away in Cantonese again.

When were you happiest?

When my first son was born. I’d been told I may never have children and after trying for several years I finally got my son and when I saw him after a very long labour it was the happiest moment of my life. He was absolutely gorgeous and continues to be absolutely gorgeous and wonderful.

And saddest?

When my parents died and I couldn’t go back for the funerals. A year after I left Hong Kong my father collapsed suddenly, and I got a telegram to say he’d died. My mother said that he’d be buried by the time I got home so there was no point coming back.

Then my mother got cancer and died suddenly during an operation. In those days it took ages to get home, so again I wouldn’t have been home for the funeral.

There was a great sense of loneliness at being alone so far away and knowing that they would never be there again for family gatherings.

Pet hates?

I’m afraid of heights, which is strange for someone coming from a city of skyscrapers, but I only realised it when I took my sons back to Hong Kong and we took the outside lift up to a revolving restaurant on the 68th floor. By the time we got to 50 my legs were like jelly.

What would be your perfect life?

My perfect life is what I have. It is to have happy relationships with people I love and care about and who love and care about me. I have two sons I love and respect dearly and I know the feeling is totally mutual. And I have a circle of very good friends. I know they value me and I adore them.

If you had a time machine which year would you go back or forward to?

I loved my secondary schooldays so I’d go back to them. I was very active, I loved the teachers and they loved me.

If you were a colour, what would it be?

Red. I love vibrant colours and hate pale ones, which says something about the fieriness of my nature. I really should get back to art more, although to be honest I don’t have the time to do more than dabble in it. Maybe when I retire.

What Chinese year were you born in?

The year of the tiger but the hour of the dragon – my grandmother was very concerned. She thought it was a wonderful combination for a boy but not a girl because it means that you will have a fighting life.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

I hope to be in good health and in my second term if people vote for me.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence.

Happiness comes from good relationships with people.