Former lawyer says politics is 'calmer than yoga'
Few people would assert that politics is calmer than yoga but this is how Merlene Emerson describes her campaigning for the Lib Dems, Britain's centrist party.
"I stopped teaching yoga because I couldn't dedicate the time to it but I see politics like karma yoga, which is the yoga of action," she says.
Emerson was a banking lawyer with a big commercial law firm until she became involved in charitable and political work, for which she was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth last year.
She co-founded the Chinese Liberal Democrats in 2006 to ensure a greater political representation of British Chinese and to encourage their involvement in politics. She is also one of the founding trustees of the Chinese Welfare Trust, which helps elderly Chinese living in London with housing needs.
Her political outspokenness comes after the self-described dutiful daughter studied law because "Chinese parents expect us to enter one of the professions. My sister is a doctor so I chose law," she says.
Both her parents have roots in Fujian province of China with their families eventually ending up in Singapore, where she was born. Her maiden name is Toh in the Hokkien dialect, or Du in Mandarin, and she may have an ancestral link to Du Fu, the eighth century poet. "I like to think we are descendants but we probably aren't!"
She recalls the strength of her Chinese upbringing and she loved the Chinese New Year celebrations. "Chinese culture is very strong overseas and maybe we hold on to it even more outside China. Parts of it get diluted with every generation but it's still important."
She moved to Britain when she was 18 to study at King's College, London and then took a Master of Laws at Cambridge University. "I was a child of the British Empire so it wasn't too much of a shock moving here," she says. She had also trained as a ballet dancer and she took up contemporary and jazz dance while in the UK.
Between 1992 and 1999, she, her husband, who is a management consultant, and their two sons moved back to Singapore where she was a partner in a medium-sized law firm. They returned to the UK when her eldest son was on track to attend St Paul's School, one of the top, fee-paying schools in the country.
"I then had something of a mid-life crisis," says Emerson, who is now 56.
"When I worked in the City, I used to feel so proud when I worked all night but I knew I didn't want to go back to that."
She trained as a commercial mediator as well as volunteering and specializing in working for several housing associations that serve among others Vietnamese refugees from the 1980s.
She joined the Lib Dems because she felt no affinity with either the Conservatives, which tends more toward free-market liberalism, or the Labour Party, which has roots in traditional working class politics.
"Politics can be very tribal and I didn't share the values or manifestos of the other parties," she says. "The Lib Dems are more in the middle, very moderate and more Chinese, in that they are not extreme."
She has stood for election to the London Assembly and as a Parliamentary candidate and she has her "eye on the prize" for the 2020 London elections.
"London is larger constituency because you get to serve very diverse communities," she says. "But 2020 is a long way away so every day I just carry on with what I do."
She is very proud of her work with the Chinese Liberal Democrats. "We look to inform the party of the needs and aspirations of British Chinese as well as translate the aims of the Libs Dems for the British Chinese," she says.
"We also work on improving China-UK relations, to improve understanding, and to facilitate growth and investment."
She tries to visit Singapore at least once a year and has been on several official delegations to China. "I like to see myself as a critical friend of China but every country has to find its own solutions," she says.