Champion of the middle way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


An anecdote - no doubt true given Northern Ireland's bitter history of sectarianism - is often told to sum up the years of violent conflict.

A man of Asian ethnicity is walking down a street in Belfast. He meets a local man who stops and asks him where he is from. 'I'm Chinese,' the Asian man replies. The Belfast man then asks: 'But are you a Chinese Catholic or a Chinese Protestant?'

Nothing could summarise better the conflict, or 'the troubles' as they are also known, involving Northern Ireland's Catholics, who seek a united Ireland, and the Protestant community, which supports the union with Britain.

To say the Irish can be a little inward-looking is an understatement, but it makes the achievements of Anna Lo Man-wah all the more amazing.

Not only has Lo worked tirelessly for ethnic minorities in Belfast for the past 38 years, but she was also the first ethnic Chinese person to be elected to a legislature in Europe when she won a seat on the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007.

'At first it was like this place was not made for me nor I for it. I was initially looked upon differently by locals and they would stare at me, as they had never really seen a Chinese person before,' Lo said. 'But this was soon replaced by the warmth and humour of the Northern Ireland people, who accepted me for who I was.'

Lo was born in Hong Kong. She grew up in North Point, where she attended the Java Street Primary School and Shau Kei Wan Technical School. She left Hong Kong at the age of 22 in January 1973. She was a qualified secretary then and had planned to work for a year in Britain before returning home.

At first she worked in London, where she got reacquainted with David Watson, whom she had met in Hong Kong when he was working as a journalist with the South China Morning Post. Romance soon blossomed and they got married. Watson was from Northern Ireland so they moved to Belfast in 1974 to start a new life together.

To think that Lo went to Belfast in the 1970s when the sectarian conflict was at its worst is hard to fathom. Bombs were going off in the city all the time, while sectarian murders were happening on a daily basis. The place was in chaos. As culture shocks go, they did not get any bigger than this one.

'I was used to eating out a lot in Hong Kong, like many people do today. But that all changed when I went to Belfast,' Lo said. 'I didn't see any restaurants around anywhere. When I asked where do people eat out in Belfast, I was told they don't, as most of the restaurants have been bombed.

'You could eat in some hotels, so long as it wasn't the Europa as it was the most bombed hotel in Europe.'

In those early days, Lo's other great passions - a night out at the cinema and shopping - were seriously curtailed too.

'We would go a couple of nights a week to the cinema in Hong Kong, but that ended in Belfast because there weren't many and the ones that were operating were regularly bombed,' she said. 'I had to stop going shopping as well because Belfast's city centre was like a ring of steel. There was huge security, so getting in and out took all day.'

The other problem with shopping in Belfast was of a more practical nature. All the clothes and shoe sizes were far too big for Lo and she had to get her clothes shipped from Hong Kong, or she would bring suitcases back whenever she returned to the city for visits.

It was an inauspicious and ominous start to Lo's new life, but it did not stop her from going on to bigger and better things in a career that made her a household name in her adopted city, not just in the Hong Kong Chinese community but also across the Catholic-Protestant divide.

For several years she initially made regular contributions to the BBC Chinese Service about the Chinese community and Northern Ireland affairs. In 1978, she started the first English-language evening class for Chinese people in Northern Ireland in a further education college.

Initially, Lo said, she would feel homesick during Lunar New Year or when close family members celebrated their birthdays, but she got settled in remarkably quickly.

'The thing was, I liked and got on well with the people here,' she said. 'Yes, the early years weren't easy, but it helped so much that the people here were so friendly.

'I like the outdoors and the countryside is beautiful, so I really fell in love with the place.'

Following a career break to have her two sons, Conall, now 30, and Owen, 27, 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 and worked in the health and social services trust and the children's charity Barnardo's.

She took up the post of director at the welfare association in 1997, and was the first vice-chairwoman of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. A founding commissioner for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, she was also the first chairwoman of the South Belfast Partnership Board.

Lo's tireless work in the community was recognised when she was awarded an MBE in 1999 for services to ethnic minorities, but hard as it is to believe, there were even bigger things to come.

In March 2007, she was elected to serve the South Belfast constituency on the Northern Ireland Assembly for the Alliance Party, the biggest political party in the province not affiliated with either a unionist or nationalist group. The assembly is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It was established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord aimed at bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

Lo had some initial doubts when she was asked to stand for election by the Alliance, but in the end she took up the challenge just to check if the people would ever vote for anyone who had no affiliation with the traditional Protestant or Catholic political parties.

'That I was voted in said a lot. I think people do know where I stand - I'm in the middle ground - and so have no axe to grind for either side,' Lo said. 'People voted for me on that basis, that I'm on bread and butter issues, not on tribal issues. And I think politicians do have to take note of that.'

Lo was re-elected to the assembly in May last year when she topped the polls in her constituency. It is a clear indication of the respect and admiration her constituents have for her, although there is still room for improvement.

Lo admitted that at times she and members of the Chinese community did endure taunting and low-level racism, such as name-calling, which generally came from young people. In fact, the Chinese community is so well accepted now that it is 'old hat' for them to suffer racism in Northern Ireland.

'We've established ourselves here for so many years that the focus of racism has turned to other ethnic minorities unfortunately, such as eastern Europeans, who are now targeted,' she said.

The 62-year-old sits on various equality committees, including the Bill of Rights Forum and the South Belfast Roundtable on Racism. She also chairs the environment committee, is a member of the audit committee and is the party's spokeswoman on culture, arts and leisure.

Lo still has a sister living in Hong Kong, where she works with her husband in an interior design company. A brother also lives in Belfast and is in information technology.

Lo's last visit to Hong Kong was in 2008, when she attended a 40th anniversary reunion with classmates of Shau Kei Wan Technical School, now known as Shau Kei Wan Government Secondary School.

'I saw, for the first time since we left school in 1968, a lot of old classmates at the reunion dinner during my last trip to Hong Kong,' she said. 'My Chinese friends say I speak Cantonese with a kind of Belfast accent. I don't know if that's entirely true but it's what they say. What else would you expect!'