WHEN IT COMES to British popular culture, ever more ethnic Chinese are seizing the spotlight. Think Alan Yau (the New Territories-born entrepreneur behind trendy noodle bar chain Wagamama), Kowloon boys Kenny Ho (the Beckhams' stylist) and Eric Yu (the nightclub mogul), David Tang (the Shanghai Tang svengali), Shanghai's Burt Kwouk (the comic actor in the cult TV hit Banzai!), Beijing's Ma Jian (author of Red Dust) and, of course, the king of killer heels, Jimmy Choo, who hails from Georgetown, Malaysia. Contrast popular culture with politics which, perhaps because of the Chinese community's tendency to deal with its own affairs, hosts about as many representatives as the Vatican. But there is one man who, with apparently effortless excellence, has broken the mould: 63-year-old Singapore-born Michael Chew Koon Chan or, as he is properly known, Lord Chan of Oxton (a leafy suburb near Liverpool in the north of England). Because of his frenetic work schedule, obtaining an audience with the aristocrat takes some doing. But he squeezes in a space on a sultry evening at the House of Lords - that plush Westminster colossus in Big Ben's shadow, guarded by police equipped with machine guns. A dapper, pinstriped figure with slightly thinning swept-back hair, Chan, who has been married to Irene for 38 years, proves sprightly. He positively zips along the corridors which, he mentions, stretch for 4.8 kilometres in total, leading the way to an interview room. Chan was made a peer in 2001 to strengthen Britain's links with the Intelligent Island (in his own modest view). His blood connection with the mainland is Fujian traders who, four generations before him, went to Southeast Asia in search of tropical products, including a curare-like poison that can be used to kill fish. 'Lazy man's fishing,' he remarks. Chan personifies the phrase 'polished communicator'. Even so, the aristocrat who won his wife's heart with the blackcurrant drink Ribena - he was introduced to her when she was ill in bed - has a quirk or two. For instance, whenever the conversation takes on a remotely whimsical turn, he really lets rip, throwing his head back and cackling. During particularly reflective moments, the schoolteacher's son removes his spectacles and rubs the lenses with his handkerchief, apparently trying to clarify his thoughts in the process, as when he discusses everyone's bugbear, Sars. Chan is well-qualified to talk about the subject. He studied medicine at Guy's Hospital Medical School in London and was a senior lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine from 1976 to 1994. He receives so much post about Sars-related matters in central London's Chinatown that he feels obliged to set the record straight. Thanks to what he frowningly calls the 'blame culture' and 'rumour-mongering', restaurants are apparently becoming deserted. White clients, he claims, are shunning the area because they fear newcomers from Hong Kong or the mainland could infect them. He underlines that, of the six probable cases in Britain identified by Sir Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, all the suspected carriers are white. Not a single Chinatown worker or resident has contracted Sars, Chan claims. He dismisses the rumour that 25 per cent of Sars victims die from the virus, but warily adds the proportion has risen. Does he worry that Sars could blossom into a modern Black Death epidemic, as the New York Daily News recently suggested? Chan's answer is typically measured. 'From the point of view of it being a new disease that kills people and that there is no known cure, it certainly is quite frightening because there are other diseases that are even more infectious - tuberculosis, for example - but we have a cure for them. So although many thousands more people get tuberculosis and millions of people get malaria and die, we don't make a song and dance about them because we have got the treatment.' He is outspoken about the recent 'Isle of Fright' controversy over the April 18-28 confinement of 100 Chinese pupils from 30 British private schools at a holiday camp on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. Chan, who has two grown-up professional children, asks why the authorities isolated the pupils when they were well and none had Sars-afflicted relatives. On the face of it, the measure was 'certainly unfair', he says. Inequality is another issue the self-styled 'compassionate socialist' can talk about authoritatively: between 1990 and 1995, he was a commissioner for the Commission for Racial Equality, the only independent British organisation devoted to tackling racial discrimination. The most common racial complaint he heard - and still hears - from the Chinese community is restaurant clients refusing to pay for food they have ordered, on the pretext they have been served the wrong dish. In some cases, the troublemakers return and threaten to smash the windows if they are not served. Thanks to an amendment to the Race Relations Act in 2000, such abusive behaviour can now lead to prosecution. And prospective troublemakers have realised this. 'People know the Chinese who run these restaurants speak English; they can telephone the police. They know their rights. They will employ a lawyer. These are not those foreigners who cannot speak our tongue,' Chan adds, concluding that, as a result of the amendment, verbal abuse has 'by and large disappeared'. Even so, assaults still occur. Chan mentions drunken football thugs picking on waiters. British-Chinese citizens often feel particularly vulnerable because 'their appreciation of the police in Britain is different from the police in Hong Kong'. The latter are armed and rather more ruthless than their British counterparts, he stresses. 'You know the police here: they come in, they talk to the people. They don't threaten them, they don't handcuff them. They don't beat them up,' he adds and then, after a pause, rocks with rasping laughter. When he first came to a country traditionally fixated with fair play in 1958 to better his prospects, he was appalled by the 'miserable, wet, grey and horrible' climate. A true chameleon, he adapted. Around him, however, other Chinese, who worked in catering, struggled with stress, strain, smoking and tuberculosis, which were aggravated by bad habits. 'They never had a day off, and they worked very unsociable hours and finished work at past midnight - two or three in the morning. They would gamble at a casino, waste their money, and then start all over again.' Chan argues, however, that the new, educated, professional generation of British-Chinese has shaken off these habits. He portrays it as balanced, affluent and going somewhere. Never impeded by the colour of his skin as far as he can be sure, he denies he ever feels out of place in the House of Lords. With a lilt in his voice, he describes his extraordinary, exalted position as 'a novelty, a novelty'. He avoids taking himself too seriously, which is probably sensible since, as with a Tower of London Beefeater guardian, a lord's role is somewhat ceremonial, carrying limited legislative clout. When someone asks Chan whether they should bow in his presence, he says: 'Yes, by all means do it.' He laughs and then, his face lighting up, mimes someone obsequiously tugging their forelock.