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'I said that I'd give Northern Ireland six months when I came over... four decades later, I'm still here'

By Staff Reporter

Published 24/10/2016

Anna Lo
Anna Lo

'Come in! Come in!" says Anna Lo, ushering me into her neat Holywood bungalow with a warm Irish welcome, although she warns that she shuns that Western habit of greeting casual acquaintances with a kiss on the cheek.

Her home, which boasts spectacular views of Belfast Lough, is very much East meets West.

An antique Chinese shoe cupboard and oriental dowry mirror decorate her hallway.

Inside, her rooms are teeming with knick knacks from her years in Northern Ireland politics.

Alliance rosettes mingle with political biographies.

Beside the novels of Salman Rushdie sits Fifty Shades of Grey.

"Well, everybody was talking about it and I didn't want to be left behind!" she laughs in response to my quizzical look.

Chinese lanterns splendidly illuminate the dinner table.

"I love to cook both Chinese and Irish dishes," says Lo.

"I dabble in Indian food too.

"I have apple trees in my garden so now I can cook with my own fruit.

"Apple crumble is my signature dish."

She was diagnosed in 2007 with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.

"It's a wait and watch situation," she explains.

"I don't need any treatment at the minute but, of course, it's always in the back of my mind.

"I'm careful about my diet. I eat a lot of vegetables and fresh fruit - especially berries.

"I'm very fit.

"I swim twice a week and I walk a lot.

"I've recently joined a rambling club."

She also hopes to take up painting again.

A self-portrait from the 1980s, a painting of the Albert Bridge, and a copy of a Rembrandt depicting a nude woman reclining on a sofa, are among the earlier work on display in her home.

With two failed marriages behind her, she says she loves living on her own.

"Marry again? Not a chance!" she laughs.

"I am now my own person.

"I stayed too long in my two marriages partly due to my Chinese culture.

"We just don't get divorced.

"When I left my first husband, my eldest brother, David, wrote telling me to go back to him and not to disgrace the family.

"I didn't listen."

Aged 66, she has lived in Northern Ireland for 42 years.

She retired from elected politics this year but remains Alliance party president.

She comes from a fascinating Chinese family in Hong Kong.

Her mother was a beauty from a wealthy family.

Her father's background was poor but he was a rising star in the civil service until struck down with tuberculosis.

After he recovered, he went into business.

Dizzying highs - when the family had staff and a chauffeur - were followed by destitution.

"My mother had to sell her wedding ring," Anna says. "She went through life as a disappointed woman.

"My father had a rebellious streak and a sense of social justice. I got both those from him.

"But while he loved his three sons and my younger sister, who was smart and beautiful, he never felt anything for me.

"I longed for his affection all my life and was hurt when nothing came."

Anna believes her mother had several abortions and is a strong advocate for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

She was born Man Wah but, growing up, the children adopted Western names.

"My big brother, David, read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice," she recalls.

"He saw himself as Mr Darcy so he decided I would become Darcy's sister. 'You shall be named Georgiana,' he proclaimed.

"But Georgiana was too cumbersome a name so everybody just called me Anna.

"And now I just don't feel like Anna, I am Anna."

She came to live in Northern Ireland after meeting Belfast Telegraph journalist David Watson in Hong Kong.

"On my first visit, I fell in love with the Mountains of Mourne," she says.

"But I didn't know if I would want to live here for good.

"I told David I'd give it six months.

"Four decades later, I'm still here."

When she left Hong Kong her mother gave her a turquoise quilt to keep her warm, and a 24 carat gold chain which she was to sell if she ever needed money urgently.

"I've never sold the chain and my sons put cartoon covers on the quilt and slept under it when they were growing up," she says.

Initially, she missed the buzz of Hong Kong.

"Everything here shut down so early, there was no nightlife," she recalls.

"I couldn't find clothes in the shops to fit me. This was long before petite ranges.

"I was 5ft 1ins and six stone and the clothes were all made for women of larger frames," she explains.

But she came to love Northern Ireland.

"The friendliness was overwhelming," she says.

"This is home now.

"When I go to Hong Kong, I embrace its vibrancy but I'm glad to return to the peacefulness of Northern Ireland.

"Although I'm still not keen on the winter, snow, or potatoes!"

Her grown-up sons, Conall and Owen, live in England.

Much as she adores her boys, she would have loved a daughter and "having that special intimacy and emotional bond there is between females".

In her book, she outlines the racism her family faced here.

She sent her boys, aged eight and five, to self-defence classes.

"I think racism is worse than it was when I arrived in 1974, although it's Eastern Europeans on the receiving end now," she says.

"Northern Ireland has the best, and the worst, of people - that's the paradox."

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