LONDON—Lion-dancers leaped through thousands of people thronging the narrow streets of Chinatown, right in the heart of London's West End. Children waved paper dragons or roosters as adults waited in long lines for snacks from smoke-billowing street stalls.
But as tourists and Britons converged on Chinatown to welcome the year of the Rooster in February 2005, worry clouded the faces of many in the Chinese community.
"Happy New Year to everybody! Please would you sign your name to pledge your support for our campaign—to help save Chinatown," a campaigner hailed the crowd through a megaphone against the background of beating drums and folk opera.
"Seventeen businesses in the red-brick building beside you have been told to leave by the developer," she shouted from the steps of a small pagoda, a well-known meeting place in the small network of London streets that makes up Chinatown.
The 37,000 square-foot Sandringham Building—known as the Red Brick Building in Cantonese—was acquired in April 2003 by property developers Rosewheel, a private company owned by British businessman Robert Bourne.
Rosewheel has ordered 17 businesses—including a fresh fish market, a traditional Chinese jewellery store, and mom-and-pop operations selling everything from woks to Chinese herbs—to leave when their leases expire at the end of March 2005.
It says it plans to redevelop the ground floor of the loss-making building into an upmarket shopping mall.
"While it's only 17 tenants affected right now, there are 28 business tenants altogether in the Sandringham Building. That constitutes around 20 percent of the businesses in Chinatown," Jabez Lam, spokesman for the Campaign to Save Chinatown told RFA's Cantonese service. "The developer is likely to put the rents up by 200 to 500 percent after the redevelopment."
Lam said the redevelopment could spell the beginning of the end for Chinatown.
"Chinatown is a very small street in London. If 20 percent of the businesses have their rents increased, that is likely to have an impact on the rest of the business tenants here. If the overall level of rent goes up, then other landlords in the area are likely to put their rents up too," Lam told RFA reporter Luisetta Mudie.
Campaigners have collected at least 3,000 names on their petition and are lobbying the local Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London in favor of wide-scale public consultation exercises before going any further.
Rosewheel has already postponed its application for planning approval, saying it wants to include the local community in the new plan. But Lam says so far the council hasn't done enough to reassure the Chinese community that it will treat the project even-handedly.
An official with Westminster Council told RFA that nothing could proceed on the ground before the planning application had been processed. "Rosewheel couldn't go in with their bulldozers," the official said.
"I've seen the artist's impressions in the press...of what Rosewheel have said they would like to do, and there's absolutely no way they could start that work without planning permission being granted by the City Council," he said.
An official at the Mayor's office declined to comment, saying they too were waiting for the planning application.
The Chinese community is one of London's oldest ethnic groups, dating back to the mid-19th century, and the city is home to more than 60,000 Chinese, mostly of Hong Kong origin. Others come from mainland China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore.
One campaigner told RFA: "I don't think any Chinese person in the United Kingdom would want to see a Chinatown with such a long history just disappear one day. The people who have signed our petition are from all over the world, and also non-Chinese British people, and they don't want to see that happen either."
"The atmosphere is very hard to recreate. It's the gradual product of many years. It's not as if you could just re-build Chinatown in a couple of days in another place," said the man, who said he was studying in Britain.
Rosewheel's managing director, Richard Bowen, has said in recent media interviews that the company is committed to working together with the Chinese community to ensure that the development is compatible with Chinatown's unique character.
London's Chinatown is in a historic conservation area of the capital, and is also the subject of an overall plan outlined by the local authorities, the Westminster City Council official said.