Anna Lo: 'It was horrific, I had people ringing saying how dare you'
It all started with a chance meeting with her future husband in Hong Kong, but against all advice and amid a wave of racist abuse, Alliance MLA Anna Lo says that she has no regrets about entering politics in one of Europe's most troubled cities, writes Rebecca Black
Q You are originally from Hong Kong, what made you decide to leave?
A I was born and brought up in Hong Kong, a district called North Point right beside the sea.
I went to London when I was about 23. In Hong Kong I had been working for the managing director of a very large advertising company. There were lots of people in and out from London which was the place to be.
It was difficult to go, as a tourist you only got a short visa so I applied for a course and got a six-month visa. The course lasted for three months then I planned to travel around Europe.
Q What changed those plans?
A Well, back in Hong Kong I had met a Belfast Telegraph journalist called David Watson. I first met him in a very romantic setting. He was my cousin's lodger along with a Canadian engineer. When my cousin got married they were invited to the banquet which would last all night. A banquet would have something like 12 different courses over the night, it takes about three hours to finish the meal. Because I spoke English I was planted between those two guys to be their host and try to explain to them what they were eating. They were all Chinese delicacies, things that even I would find exotic.
Q How did your relationship with David develop?
A David was recently arrived so I was asking him where he had been and realised he hadn't seen too much. So it was actually I who phoned him a week or two later and said come on and I'll show you around.
And in fact he was the one who introduced me to alcohol. Because the majority of people in Hong Kong back then, particularly young women, didn't drink. I don't know about now but it was a fairly conservative society. It was regarded as a western bad habit. First time we met in a hotel bar, I said I have never drunk alcohol so get me something very simple and not strong. So that was my first drink and I was 22. I didn't tell my mum after – meeting a foreigner in a hotel bar and drinking, oh boy!
Q Then you moved to London?
A Yes, I was in London and David had come back from Hong Kong, he sought me out and we started going out. Then my visa ran out and I was going to go back to Hong Kong but he proposed and said come to Belfast with me.
Q How did you find Belfast?
A I arrived in Belfast in 1974, four months after the general workers strike. My friends in London thought I was bonkers because we had all seen headlines about the strikes, no fuel, no electricity. I promised David I would stay in Belfast for six months and see what life was like.
Q What were your first impressions of Northern Ireland?
A It was quite a shock. Even though you saw pictures of armoured vehicles beamed across the television programmes in England, to see it was a different matter. Being searched going in and out of the city centres, searched going into shops, it was a shock. But more so the tension. After 5.30pm, everybody would get out of the city centre. There was this atmosphere of tension, that really was difficult.
I was so used to eating out and going to the cinema in Hong Kong and London, suddenly I realised there were no restaurants open in Belfast, I asked people but where do you go for dinner? They said we don't go out for dinner, all the restaurants have been bombed out or closed.
Q But you decided to stay?
A What struck me was the friendliness of people, people welcomed me with open arms and were very warm. David was a very keen mountaineer so he introduced me to mountains and I just loved the countryside. Coming from two big cities, all that open space was amazing. Walking up Slieve Donard nearly killed me, I barely had to walk up half a hill in Hong Kong, everywhere you went was public transport or taxis. I just fell in love with the people and the countryside and realised you would go to friends' houses for dinners instead of eating out. So we stayed.
Q Did you ever reconsider?
A After a few years I did think about going back to Hong Kong, my parents were concerned, very worried about me staying here after hearing about all the troubles we had. I went home on one occasion and they said you are crazy, get your husband and come back here, you have a good life in Hong Kong. But David didn't want to go back, he found Hong Kong very claustrophobic, crowded and noisy.
Q Tell me about your career before politics.
A I left school at 17, the fourth child with three older brothers still in higher education. After my O-Levels I went to evening classes to do a secretarial course. I worked first for a bank in Hong Kong before the advertising agency. Then in London where there was a lot of demand for temporary secretaries.
In Belfast I started off at the newspaper Farm Week as a secretary to the editor, then moved to the BBC. I worked for the World Service as a radio production secretary but then when they realised I was a fluent Cantonese speaker they recruited me for the Chinese service covering current events here. It was quite interesting for me to speak to a world audience about Northern Ireland. I loved it.
Q The Chinese are one of the longest settled ethnic minorities here, why do you think that is?
A Chinese people are very pragmatic. They saw opportunities in Northern Ireland for setting up catering businesses in the 1960s and 70s. Other cities in the UK would have been very competitive with other fast food outlets. Buying a business was a lot cheaper here than in London or Manchester so they came out to seek the niche market. They knew that they would not be targeted as it was a conflict between the two major communities so they continued to come and became the largest ethnic minority community. They worked very hard throughout the Troubles. You couldn't get food anywhere after the pubs closed and the only place was a Chinese carry-out, they worked very long hours, six to seven nights a weeks.
Q How did your career develop?
A I left the BBC to have my two boys. When they were young I started interpreting for the police. They were so short of interpreters. It started very suddenly with a phone call from a police station late at night asking for me to come down and translate. I was quite concerned that there had been no training or induction. It was then called the Aliens department – what a word. They said you don't need training, we know you speak good English and obviously you can speak Cantonese. So I went along and became their sessional interpreter going to police stations to help take down statements and going to courts.
Q What sort of cases did you deal with?
A Most of the cases were against the Chinese community. The Chinese community is probably one of the most law-abiding communities you could find. Mostly it was racist incidents or car accidents. I had one difficult one, a rape incident which absolutely shocked me. That's why there needs to be training and I think there is now for translators. You are dealing with people who are traumatised and empathetic.
Q You were highly involved with the Chinese Welfare Association?
A The Chinese Welfare Association advertised for a teacher to teach English, I thought that would be a nice part-time job. This was in 1986. I taught English to Chinese residents and then when they heard I was a police interpreter, they asked me to move to that. I believe I was the first ever community interpreter in Northern Ireland. I did that for four years. In the meantime I was doing a part-time degree at Queen's at night. Then I did a full-time diploma course in social work at the University of Ulster.
Q What did those courses lead to?
A I had been thinking I could work specifically for the Chinese community as their first social worker. But that's not how it worked out. I ended up working for the North Down and Ards Social Services Trust as it was then. I would get cases referred to me but I was working mostly with the wider community.
Q So the police work sparked a passion for helping people?
A Yes, I always wanted to try and make a difference in people's lives. Many of them are where they are because of circumstances, background, their upbringing and deprivation.
Q When did you become Director of the Chinese Welfare Association?
A That was in 1997, the organisation was first set up in 1986 under an ACE scheme for long-term unemployed people so my position was the first time a director was appointed to such a scheme. They gave funding for three years and my role was to professionalise it. In the 10 years I was there I hope I achieved that. We got a sheltered housing scheme for elderly Chinese people, which was the first ever on the island of Ireland for any ethnic minority community, I also lobbied successfully for a Chinese centre which again was the first ever purpose-built community centre for an ethnic minority in Ireland and probably in the UK.
Q What was your high point during this work?
A I was involved in the campaign to have the Race Relations Act extended to Northern Ireland. It had been law in England since 1976 but we didn't get it until 1997. We were 21 years behind the rest of the UK.
Q What differences did this make?
A It made huge changes, before that ethnic minorities were not protected at all in terms of employment, housing, services or facilities. For example, if I walked into a company for a job interview, they could have said we don't want you because you are Chinese. We had very strong fair employment legislation so you couldn't discriminate against someone in terms of religion, political opinion or gender, but you were allowed to discriminate against someone depending on their race or nationality right up to 1997.
Q How did you first get involved with the Alliance Party?
A I have always been interested in politics. My husband David, who has since died, was the political correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph for 15 years so I would have met a lot of senior politicians. It was funny, at the beginning I think some felt slighted when I didn't know who they were.
In my own right during the years I worked for the BBC and in the Chinese community I would have lobbied lots of politicians.
I have always voted for Alliance, my mother-in-law was a very active member in east Belfast. I would have gone with her to some of the fundraisers and social events but with David being a journalist we couldn't join any political parties.
Naomi Long got me involved with Alliance, I knew her well through her role as chair of the Good Relations panel. She asked me in December 2006 if I would stand for Alliance in South Belfast. I consulted with a few people, looked at voting records and thought, ah well, I might stand a chance. It'll be interesting to test out the attitude of the people of south Belfast if they would accept a person so clearly not affiliated to one side or another.
Q How did you find the experience?
A I was pleasantly surprised when I was elected. The Chinese community for a long time have stayed neutral and worked with both sides of the community and Alliance fits in with that for me. I would not have felt comfortable in any other party, I am not a Christian, my parents would be Taoist which is in a way fairly similar to the Liberal Party's thinking. I am not Catholic or Protestant, I am not a unionist or nationalist. In many ways it puts me in a unique position to look at issues genuinely without tinted glasses, which other people might not be in a position to do.
Q Has Hong Kong noticed your success here?
A Oh yes, they were berserk when I was elected, there was a big write-up in the Oriental Daily. Someone wrote to me recently and said he was in Hong Kong when a GP said "oh you are from Northern Ireland?" And pulled out a newspaper article about me and said "she is from here!" People are very very proud. When the First and Deputy First Minister went to visit Hong Kong, my name was mentioned quite a lot apparently and people were very proud of the fact that they have someone elected here. I am the first ever in western Europe I think.
They are also very proud in China, someone told me that they were at a museum in China and there was a write-up and a picture of me in a museum.
Q You spoke about working with Chinese people who were targeted in racist attacks in the 1970s, has that been fairly consistent in all the time you have been here?
A Yes, there has always been low-level racist harassment on the Chinese community since I first arrived. There was research to say two-thirds have experienced verbal racist abuse and half said they have had properties damaged.
Although the focus of racism has now moved to newer comers like the Polish, which is totally wrong again. Countries benefit from contributions from immigrants, they bring ideas and skills to the country.
It's an issue of supply and demand, they come here because they know there are jobs vacant here that local firms cannot fill. If there are no jobs they wouldn't come. They come to do a lot of the jobs that local people don't want to do like in factories and in good packaging firms. A lot also work in the National Health Service as doctors and nurses. Filipino nurses and Egyptian doctors. The health service wouldn't be able to function without them.
Q Have you had a lot of abuse directed at you since you became elected?
A Yes, when I first stood there was a racist website which posted quite a lot of racist postings, even pornographic pictures of Asian-looking women, branding me as a madame running a brothel. It was horrific. I get people ringing up and saying how dare you stand. Occasionally I get threats. But that is part and parcel of being a public representative. During the flag protests I had to get security at my home stepped up.
Q You don't regret getting involved with politics?
A Not at all, I love the work in the committees. I am chair of the environment committee which holds the minister and department to account, you know you are doing real work.
I would have a very close working relationship with the Environment sector.
I am very passionate about the protection of the environment and striking a balance between economic development and environment protection.