In the food court of Oriental City, an Asian-themed mall in the northwest London suburb of Colindale, a banner accuses the owners of 'ethnic cleansing'. The banner was erected by a group of mostly Chinese residents and shopkeepers protesting against the proposed redevelopment of the shopping centre. Protest leaders hope the community's political activism will transcend this one issue. The campaign suffered a setback on Tuesday when the town council in the borough of Brent gave the developers planning permission despite the opposition. The Brent Council's approval paves the way for a #200 million (HK$3.1 billion) redevelopment of the site, which opened 13 years ago as a Japanese-themed mall. But community leaders are not about to give up. Oriental City Tenants' Association chairman Liu Yip-fei said they would take legal action if necessary. 'We're going to meet our legal team, our barrister and our planning consultant, we're going to lobby [London mayor] Ken Livingstone, and afterwards we may seek a judicial review,' he said. 'We have found we cannot get justice in Brent.' It is rare for Britain's politically placid Chinese population to sign petitions, wave banners and take their complaints to the mayor. But community leaders are using the case to organise and meet politicians to get Chinese more involved in British politics. Mr Liu, who owns a restaurant, bar and food court outlet in the mall, called an 'awareness meeting' five days before the council vote. About 200 people - mostly senior citizens and housewives - turned up. In the past, British politicians had ignored the concerns of Chinese voters, he said. 'This made Chinese people more reluctant to vote for their local councillors. The lack of political representation on local councils and in Parliament made us feel our concerns were ignored.' Mr Liu said 800 jobs were threatened by the redevelopment, including those of 80 of his own staff. There are about 185,000 eligible Chinese voters in Britain, according to 2001 census data. Figures for the number of registered voters are not available because the Electoral Commission does not break down numbers by ethnic group. The area around Oriental City is home to a sizeable Chinese enclave, with more than 5,000 in Brent and 6,000 in neighbouring Barnet, Mr Liu said. Oriental City houses about 40 Asian-owned businesses, including shops selling Japanese goods, a real estate agency aimed at Chinese clients, a Chinese medicine and acupuncture clinic, a supermarket selling Asian groceries and a food court featuring Thai, Malay and Korean cuisine. The two-storey mall, dubbed London's 'real Chinatown' because the one in the West End is overrun with tourists, attracts 8,000 to 10,000 shoppers a week from all over the city, and twice as many during special holidays. As a result, the owner, Development Securities, and the main leaseholder, Oriental City, want to tear it down and replace it with a bigger version that would include 520 apartments, space for a big hardware or furniture store and 930 square metres of retail space for the existing tenants. Development Securities, which bought the site in July last year for #26.4 million, said the new mall would be much better. It has promised to relocate tenants to a nearby site in the meantime, but the tenants are not happy about having to operate from another location for two or three years during construction. Mr Liu enlisted activist Jabez Lam to launch the campaign against the redevelopment. The first move was to show politicians that Chinese votes mattered. 'We need to encourage Chinese to take part in political affairs' in Britain, Mr Lam said. 'I think it [the campaign] is a good education process, telling politicians that Chinese are under-registered. We need to give the message very clearly to politicians that Chinese votes are untapped, and that you need to protect the interests of Chinese. 'I believe this is just the first step. When the message gets across, other areas [in Britain] will probably follow or invite us to take part,' he said. At a meet-the-politician session, staff from the electoral services commission showed people how to register to vote and local politicians spoke about the importance of the Chinese constituency. The decision to encourage Chinese participation in British political life is unusual because Chinese immigrants have traditionally tended to keep out of politics. On the few occasions that Chinese have become involved in politics, it has been mainly to protect their own interests. Two years ago, Mr Lam helped lead London's Chinatown in the fight against a similar redevelopment. Petitions were signed and banners raised but the campaign failed. A property company was allowed to evict long-time tenants from a key building in the historic district and turn it into a mini-mall filled with stalls selling cheap Chinese goods and other products. In 2001, at the height of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, tabloid newspapers published false rumours that the disease originated from meat found in Chinese restaurants. Activists led by playwright Anna Chen fought back with a media campaign. Those are the only examples of Chinese political activism in recent British history. It is a poor record compared with other minority groups, especially South Asians. In the most recent general election, in May last year, 10 South Asian politicians won or kept their seats in the House of Commons. There are only five Chinese councillors among London's 32 boroughs and no members of parliament. The first and only Chinese member of the House of Lords, Lord Chan of Oxton, died in February. One reason is numbers. Estimates of the size of the Chinese community in Britain range from 250,000 to 400,000. However, the South Asian community, including Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, numbers about 2.3 million. While the first generation of Chinese immigrants, which started arriving in the 1950s, generally kept their heads down because they were busy working, the second generation has stayed out of politics for other reasons, said Miri Song, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Kent. They have readily assimilated into British culture by joining the mainstream workforce or by marrying, so have not been able to develop their own political identity. 'There are some BBCs [British-born Chinese] who feel there's a culture of being quiescent, that Chinese people are good people,' said Dr Song, who is carrying out a research project on British-Chinese attitudes towards politics. 'A lot of second-generation Chinese are very successful in getting employment. There isn't a collective sense of being Chinese and mobilising around issues that concern them,' she said. Furthermore, unlike Britain's South Asian Muslim community, which has spawned homegrown terrorists and radicals, the Chinese are seen as a model minority and thus have been ignored, she said. But that may be changing as Mr Lam and others work to get the Chinese more involved politically. 'Whether it's Chinatown or Oriental City, the Chinese community, I believe, apart from looking at their own business, should also take a wider view of the community and build a better foundation for the community and businesses,' Mr Lam said. Kam Sang Law, who heads a support and advice centre in London for Chinese immigrants, also organises workshops and seminars on how to make the Chinese vote count. He bemoans the lack of Chinese in British politics. 'They should volunteer to be school governors, to take part in public service,' he said. Lawyer Christine Lee is organising focus groups to encourage young Chinese to become more active in politics. Dr Song says that websites such as dimsum.co.uk will also help bring young BBCs together politically. 'Those websites are really important. They have given BBCs a way to connect with each other and they have offline consequences as well,' she said, pointing out that people have used them to organise petitions and hold monthly gatherings. It remains to be seen how long it will be before British Chinese gain a collective political identity. If the response at the rally at Mr Liu's restaurant is an indication, they have their work cut out for them. Some turned up because they wanted more information, while others said they were concerned about the future of the shopping centre. 'Without this, where would we go?' asked mall regular Mei Fong. 'Chinatown's too far and the congestion charge is too much,' she added, referring to the #8 charge levied on drivers who take their cars into Central London. 'It would be such a shame to get rid of this.' Mrs Fong, a housewife who moved to Britain 30 years ago, did not believe the developers would keep their word to bring back the mall's tenants. 'I think they just want to make money,' she said. Mrs Fong said she has never been involved in politics before but turned up for the meeting because 'I feel obliged to support the community'. A Mrs Tang, aged '70-plus', said her husband died several years ago and her son had moved out of the house, so she came to the mall 'just to meet friends and pass the time. It's very convenient. You can eat here and don't have to cook at home'. She said: 'I have nowhere to go, I hope it won't close. Will they keep their promise or not? I have no idea.' But Mrs Tang, who came to Britain from Singapore about 40 years ago, said she had no interest in politics. 'I'm just an ordinary housewife, what can I do,' she asked. Vicky Shen, originally from Hangzhou, was more enthusiastic. 'When I heard the [campaign] slogan, 'No Vote, No Voice', I knew it was not just about the development - it's also about the political involvement of the Chinese community, which is more long term, more meaningful,' she said. Ms Shen arrived in Britain eight years ago and works as a counsellor and psychotherapist. 'I sense we just don't bother to be involved, and it's the wrong attitude.'