Barnet in north London is not a place you would ordinarily expect to find a former member of the Red Army, who worked for Xinhua news agency and once caught the eye of Chairman Mao Zedong. But as her memoir Black Country to Red China proves, little in Esther Cheo Ying's life has been ordinary or expected. Now released in paperback, the book reads like a novel, but every part is true: from her birth in Shanghai to an unhappy childhood in England; from her extraordinary journey to the mainland in 1949 to her even more extraordinary return to England six years later. Cheo, 77, is married to Lance Samson, a retired journalist whose own story is remarkable. A German Jew who escaped Hitler's Germany at 10, he met Cheo in East Berlin in the mid-1950s after she had fled the mainland with her two sons and then husband, Alan Winnington. But it was Samson who brought Cheo back to England. The couple moved to Devon where Cheo became a teacher. Her story begins in London. Cheo's father, the wealthy son of a Chinese mandarin, was studying at the London School of Economics. Her mother was a chambermaid at the hotel where he lodged. They married in 1931, Cheo says, after her mother feigned a pregnancy, returning to Shanghai shortly thereafter. Cheo was born in January 1932; a sister followed the next year and a brother in 1936. Her parents were unhappy long before the Sino-Japanese war forced Cheo's mother to flee to England. Evacuated from London to escape the blitz, Cheo was billeted in a succession of foster homes, ending up in Staffordshire where she spent a miserable childhood. 'I remember waiting to be placed with a family,' she says. 'I was the last one. I was dark, I didn't look English and I scowled. This woman arrived late. When she saw me she said, 'I can't take a blackie.'' The 'ghastly' foster mother set six-year-old Esther to work. Little more than a skivvy, she longed to return to the mainland. 'I became frozen,' Cheo says. 'My happiest memories were the first six years of my life in Shanghai. That's what made me want to go back.' Her homesickness intensified when she returned to London and discovered revolutionary politics at the China Institute. 'Other people liked Frank Sinatra. I had Mao and his revolutionary heroes.' Aged 16, Cheo married her first husband, a captain in the Chinese air force. When China's civil war broke out, the couple decided to return to the mainland. Stopping over in Hong Kong, her husband began to have serious doubts about his commitment to the Communist Party. But Cheo never wavered and completed the journey alone. Arriving at Tianjin railway station, she had finally realised her dream. Yet Cheo quickly realised she was an outsider again - distrusted for her 'foreign eyes'. Her Western looks weren't a barrier for Mao when the pair met at a wedding party that year. 'Wang T'ao, my commanding officer and also my lover, told Mao I was from England,' says Cheo. 'Mao said, 'She's very pretty. She has the beauty of the West and the East.' Wang T'ao dragged me away. I think he was pretty worried. It was Mao after all.' Those early years were defined by a powerful sense of pride and victory. 'It was a nice atmosphere. Mao and the other generals were ordinary at the beginning. You felt like equals with them.' She pauses. 'It didn't last.' As the seeds of the Cultural Revolution were sown, Mao became increasingly remote, protected by walls of nepotism and corruption. Always the rebel, Cheo became increasingly outspoken against the party, a stance that grew more dangerous when she married an Englishman, Winnington, and had two children. It was the need to safeguard her sons that motivated Cheo to escape. 'I had to leave,' she says. 'By that time, I was disillusioned and I could see my children becoming little red guards. They were indoctrinated from nursery school. I couldn't do anything about it.' The paranoia of those final weeks left deep scars. 'I was too scared to say anything in case there were bugs,' Cheo says. 'If I received a letter, I would chew it up. I thought if I flushed it down the loo someone might be able to read it.' The healing process was long, slow and in some respects impossible. When Cheo arrived in England, her younger son requested a gun to shoot the imperialists. 'Once we were in Trafalgar Square and he ran up to a policeman and kicked him. He shouted, 'Down with British imperialism!' Luckily he said it in Chinese,' she says, laughing. Although her younger son adapted, his older brother never did, later suffering a breakdown. Cheo refused to think about the mainland for years. Then she gradually began to make contact with former friends and colleagues. When a teaching colleague suggested she write a memoir she was initially reluctant. 'I would go into the study with a bottle of vodka,' she says. 'I would write a chapter and stagger out. It was cathartic. I had kept it suppressed for so long. Sometimes I used to sit there crying. It was an outpouring.' With a film company interested in Black Country to Red China, Cheo has begun work on a sequel. Having at one time risked everything to reach the mainland, she has never regretted her decision to leave. 'I saw my old friends years later and they welcomed me with open arms,' she says. 'They told me, 'You were right, but at the wrong time.' When we talked about what happened to them, I said, 'My God, I would have been killed or committed suicide.' They said, 'No you wouldn't. You always had a strong will.''