05 November 2017
2:00 pm - 4:30 pm
A conversation and documentary film screening with Anna Lo, the first Chinese parliamentarian in Europe
This free event attracted over forty interested members of general public to watch a documentary film British Born Chinese (2015), and to learn about the first Hong-Kong-born parliamentarian in Europe Anna Lo’s journey to politics in Northern Ireland. The documentary film, collaboratively made over two years with two British-born Chinese boys in Manchester, invited the audience to reflect on their conceptions of home and searches for belonging. This then lead to the discussion with Anna about her journey from Hong Kong to Belfast, where she found home and a career in community work, campaigning, and politics.
Elena Barabantseva (Politics, University of Manchester) opened the discussion by asking Anna about the challenges that she faced after arriving and settling in Northern Ireland during the troubles of the 70’s. Anna recalled how few Chinese people were living in Northern Ireland at the time, and how the locals were curious about their different appearance just because they had never met Chinese people before. Chinese were the only migrants daring to seek livelihood in the deeply segregated and violent Northern Irish society of the time, and they believed that that they could stay out of the troubles by not taking sides in the conflict. They resourcefully adapted to the local realities by giving their children common Catholic or Protestant names depending on which side of the divide they found themselves living in. This earned Chinese respect among those who welcomed new ethnic eateries at the time when no fast-food chains opened businesses in the region for the fear of violence and damages to their properties. By the end of the 1980s, Chinese became the largest ethnic minority group in Northern Ireland.
Anna spoke about how she became involved with the Alliance Party and the racist abuse that she often endured as the first public figure of an ethnic minority background in Northern Ireland. She is convinced that the majority of people have been abhorred by the racist attacks and many offered their support and encouragement when aggression happened. It was her stubborn and resilient personality and unwillingness to give in to bullies that pushed Anna to continue the work she believed in making Northern Ireland a fairer society on behalf of the people who elected her in the Northern Ireland’s Assembly. Growing-up in Hong Kong in a middle-class family with traditional Chinese values, Anna experienced first-hand cultural biases against daughters and women, when her family did not support her aspirations for higher education. Marked by those early experiences, Anna attributes them to her life-long commitment to fight for the underdogs of the society.
The questions and discussion with the audience touched on many interesting themes, but the points which stood out particularly prominently were the lack of cross-cultural understanding and skills, the challenge of addressing white privilege in the society built on it, and how the language of racism sensationalizes, divides and paralyzes public debates on ethnic diversity and participation. When Anna retired upon reaching the retirement age of 65 in 2016, the media credited her decision to step down from politics to the racist abuse. It was a newsworthy story, but it ignored the very fact that Anna had a right to retire after working all her adult life. While it is important to combat racist abuse in its multiple manifestations, those exercising the power of word should be wary of the perilous effects of victimizing the very people who fight against it hardest.
The one and a half hours that we allocated to the discussion flew by unnoticed. We hope that the audience gained an insight into the experiences of the British Chinese and found Anna’s life inspiring. She blazed the way to politics for British Chinese and other ethnic minorities, and hopefully more aspiring politicians from minority backgrounds will follow her suit and take up the challenge of public office.
As part of the evaluation and feedback of the event, we invited the audience to reflect on what home means to them. The podcast from the post-screening discussion session can be downloaded here.
This event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences and funded by the ESRC. It would not have been possible without the support of the Manchester Museum staff who generously provided a free venue to host the event.
Contact: Dr Elena Barabantseva
This event also forms part of Manchester Migration Month, a series of events, activities and articles – running from 9 October to 4 November – that explore migration’s relationship with inequalities, social justice, belonging and Brexit.
Get involved on social media with the #UoMmigration hashtag.
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