Anna Lo – The Place I Call Home | Book Review
Published by the Blackstaff Press
By Conor O’Neill
Anna Lo is a woman of firsts. She is the first qualified minority ethnic social worker in Northern Ireland, the first minority ethnic MLA in Northern Ireland and the first Chinese born parliamentarian in the UK and in Europe. Not surprisingly, the news of the latter went worldwide; everywhere from Australia to Japan, USA to China to Taiwan, Russia and Europe, her name was on everyone’s lips.
The introduction of the book gears us up for her taking her place in the upper echelons of Northern Irish political and social campaigning circles. Comparisons are made between the plights of the Irish and Chinese. Both are industrious, inventive, steeped in tradition, and most importantly, sharing rich histories of battling against the odds as immigrants and the inherent racism that goes hand-in-hand towards displaced peoples. Parallels are also made between the 1840s’ potato famine and the Chinese famine in the 1860s and of rioting in the streets of Hong Kong in 1967 and the beginning of our own Troubles a year later.
To a western reader, this autobiography will be an eye opener to the ways of the east, from foot-binding to the Chinese zodiac, the Yin and Yang (shadowy and sunny) and the importance of family, respect for elders and other morals credited to the philosopher Confucius. Born in the year of the Tiger and on the day of the Dragon, a combination thought to be ‘too much for a woman to carry’, young Man-Wah, her Chinese name, proved to be bright and intelligent. We learn of the Wai family, a clan of high birth and scandals, concubines, dowries, a suspected opium overdose and tragic fall from grace. On her father’s side, the Los bring an illiterate grandmother bent double from years in the fields, to her grandfather a herbalist and then her own mother and father with their love of ballroom dancing, coca-cola and all things western.
With three generations under one roof, Anna moved out to start a Dulux colour chart of varied careers, seeing her move from junior clerk to bank-teller, personal assistant, secretary, translator for both the RUC and BBC (for whom she also free-lanced as a broadcaster), art student, social studies graduate and bringer of hope to those without a voice. Somewhere along the line she met the Belfast connection, namely Belfast journalist David Watson. Married in 1974, both for love and in fear of deportation, ‘Bad Foot’ her childhood nickname, arrived on our shores to ‘suffer the diet of potatoes’ and separation.
Children came, husbands went, Anna stood up and worked for the Chinese Welfare Association, helping many obtain the rights they knew little about, translating for them and sometimes working 100 hours unpaid overtime. Her life was often threatened, she tore countless pair of tights looking under her car for bombs, she carried a police alarm and was once sent a bullet; yet in spite of all of this, she remembers the flowers and letters of thanks from people of all creeds and denominations.
We can thank her for helping bring the 5p plastic bag tax, affordable housing, foreign language books in libraries, and for being an ardent campaigner for freedom of choice regarding women’s health. You’ll be surprised to find out we in Northern Ireland still live under the draconian abortion legislation of 1861 and to read of her stance against an evangelical calling Islam ‘satanic and the doctrine of the spawn of hell’ and forcing Peter Robinson to renege on his support for said evangelical.
This book makes a great read for those interested in politics, but away from that this is the tale of a gritty woman, one with a love of art, theatre, wild places, the environment but most of all, family. Anna Lo, MBE, we’re lucky to have her call Northern Ireland her home.