Anna Lo: ‘You just learn to survive... you need to be tough’

Anna Lo in her Holywood home,  Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Anna Lo in her Holywood home, Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Former Alliance MLA Anna Lo has always been considered a straight talker - so much so, that at times that candour has got her into political hot water.

And in her recently published autobiography, The Place I Call Home, she writes unreservedly on a number of sensitive subjects including allegations of assault during her second marriage.

Ms Lo, who represented South Belfast in the Assembly from 2007 until earlier this year, reiterated those allegations on a recent television documentary about domestic violence which was broadcast recently by the BBC.

Her husband, called Gavin, from whom she separated in 2012, has denied the allegations.

Describing one alleged incident in her book, Ms Lo writes: ‘‘He caught up with me, dragged me back to the car, got in beside me and hit me in the stomach.’’

Ms Lo said she decided not to pursue the alleged incident saying she was “frightened of him” but also “you still have feelings for the person - I didn’t want to make it so hard that he would be prosecuted and have a criminal record”.

The chapter in her book detailing the alleged abuse is a difficult read, but she says she decided to write about it as a way of ‘‘helping other women in a similar situation”.’

I met Anna Lo at the Holywood bungalow she moved into three years ago. The white walls are a gallery for her artworks - some she painted herself when she was younger - and there’s a striking portrait of her by the artist Kenny McKendry.

Buddhas and Chinese lanterns give a nod to her Oriental roots, whilst a slew of biographies and memoirs in her bookshelves, denote her love of reading and interest in life stories.

Anna Lo is a diminutive, trim woman - since leaving politics she’s lost nearly a stone, thanks in no small part to her twice weekly swims, gardening and new life free from bad eating habits at Stormont - scones and late night eating were her downfall.

The 66-year-old was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2012, a rare blood cancer, but has not had to have any chemotherapy treatment for it and is sanguine about the diagnosis.

‘‘I feel very fit.

‘‘I’m on medication to keep my blood pressure in check because the lymphoma thickens my blood, and calcium tablets, but that’s it,’’ she smiles.

But the diagnosis could not have come at a worse time; she had just separated from her second husband and had ‘‘literally left the matrimonial home with a suitcase, moving from a luxury four-bedroom house in Jordanstown to a rented semi-detached house in a working class area of east Belfast.’’

A cancer diagnosis, a second broken marriage, and a day job immersed in Ulster’s mercurial political landscape is a challenging combination that would test even the most irrepressible of nature’s, but Anna Lo is not one to wallow in negativity.

To what does she attribute this resilience?

‘‘I think it is from my background.

‘‘When I first arrived in Northern Ireland and there was nobody I could really depend on, you just learn to survive, you just learn you need to be tough.

‘‘I think it’s learning not to dwell on your problems, just get on with life. I think I have always been a very optimistic person.’’

Anna Lo was born in Hong Kong in 1950. Her Chinese name is Man-Wah (meaning ‘graceful’ and ‘beautiful’).

Her parents had moved from China to the British colony a year before her birth when China became communist.

One of four children, her mother was beautiful and wealthy, but she says she took after her father, with ‘‘sallow skin and small eyes.’’

But the once well-to-do family was to fall on hard times after her father contracted tuberculosis.

They would often have little to eat and ending up living in cramped conditions - a stark contrast to their previous charmed life with chauffeurs and maids.

‘‘I was very skinny and all our teeth were not good because we didn’t have a lot of protein. We ate a lot of vegetables and rice to keep us not hungry, but we did not have good enough food,’’ says Anna.

At one stage her businessman father had to go into hiding for two years in Macau, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, in order to avoid prison for supplying goods from Hong Kong to China, which, under communist rule, had a strict closed-door policy.

‘‘Facing near destitution’’ and with nowhere to stay, the family moved in with Anna’s mother’s parents, followed by her mother’s youngest sister.

In her book, Anna talks frankly about how her mother had ‘‘at least a couple’’ of back street abortions.

‘‘Even as a very young child I was just made quite anxious about mother suddenly becoming ill.

‘‘She had to go to bed and my father and my aunt were kind of whispering. I think when I was older I knew it was abortions.’’

But she adds: ‘‘We were in such a dire economic situation, it would be irresponsible for my parents to bring that fifth child into the family when we were scraping for food to put on the table.

‘‘To have a baby would have added so much more difficulties to the family situation.’’

To this day Anna remains a fervent supporter of a woman’s right to choose.

‘‘I think it is a choice for the woman; before the foetus is born it is still part of the woman’s body and if for health reasons, social reasons, economic reasons, the woman feels it is not the right time for her, I think we need to be compassionate and let the woman decide.

‘‘When I was head of the Chinese Welfare Association, we had interpreters going to Liverpool to help women, mostly illegal immigrants. How could they have a baby? They can’t even go to hospital to have a birth, they can’t register with a GP, they can’t have a maternity bed in hospital, the only way they could give birth is to go to Accident and Emergency when they were in labour. That’s scary.

The book, which travels back in time to her great-grandfather’s era, gives a glimpse into the horrors of China’s past, when baby girls would have been smothered at birth or ‘‘taken away’’.

‘‘Favouring boys over girls is ingrained in Chinese culture...and still happens today,’’ she writes.

Reading the book, it’s clear Anna was something of a free spirit, not bound by conventions. When she was a young girl she decided to go off on her own to Taiwan for a holiday, then later moved to London for a year before coming to live in Northern Ireland in 1974.

She married David Watson, the Belfast Telegraph journalist, who died in 2010. The pair had two sons, but divorced after some 26 years together.

But despite her plucky nature, coming to Northern Ireland was still a huge culture shock for the young Anna.

‘‘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.’’

For several years she made regular contributions to the BBC Chinese Service about the Chinese community and Northern Ireland affairs and in 1978 she started the first ever English evening class for Chinese people in Northern Ireland.

Following a career break to have her two sons, Conall and Owen, of whom she is besotted, 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 and 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.

‘‘It was so important to me to be financially independent.’’ she says, ‘‘ because of seeing my mother, that poor woman, having to scrape to find money to keep us all alive. I know she worried about money all her life.’’

A determined Anna continued to rack up the achievements: she was the first vice-chairperson of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and a founding commissioner for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

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 centrist Alliance Party.

‘‘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,’’ she says.

The highlight of her political career, she says, was being appointed the chair of the Environment Committee.

‘‘Coming from a concrete jungle of Hong Kong and London, where before I would never have seen a forest, hardly ever seen any trees, I just fell in love with the countryside here.

‘‘I’ve always been very much involved in racial equality, gender equality, but to me, this (the environment) is also about equality - equality for nature; don’t trample on it, let’s keep it for generations.’’

Anna Lo is now retired from politics and seems content with her new life.

‘‘Alliance is a small party with big ideas, with great aims, but sometimes it can be so frustrating that we don’t get a look in. It is not an easy job to be a politician in Northern Ireland.’’

*Anna Lo, The Place I Call Home, is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £9.99