Apart from Europe's oldest Chinatown in Liverpool (settled for nearly 200 years), the two largest and most active Chinatowns in Britain are in Manchester and London. "When the first Chinese restaurants came to this area 30 years ago they were all scattered," says Raymond Chow, chairman of Manchester's Chinatown Business Association. "Then a small Chinese supermarket opened up and, increasingly, more and more Chinese restaurants and enterprises started to come. There are now around 56 businesses here, including travel agencies, supermarkets, acupuncturists, doctors and financial advisers."
It's a similar story in the capital, where new-style businesses are replacing the old catering outlets. The most noticeable trend has been to cash in on the popularity of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Providing alternative treatments for health complaints ranging from skin problems to ME, many clinics offer both herbal remedies and acupuncture. Although there is no regulatory body, there is a register of Chinese herbal medicine which provides a list of the more reputable, established practitioners.
One of these, The Chinese Herbal Centre, in the heart of Manchester's Chinatown, has provided herbal remedies and acupuncture for 12 years. As one of the biggest clinics in Manchester, its four practitioners, all trained in China, see up to 80 patients - many of them non-Chinese - every week. In London, the Hong Ning Co Ltd clinic had much to do with kicking off the interest in Chinese herbal medicine. In the mid-Eighties, people would queue outside the clinic waiting to see Dr Ding Hui Luo, whose herbal treatments for skin disorders were renowned.
Another ancient practice which has recently become popular is Feng Shui. Charging upwards of pounds 150 per consultation, experts such as Sifu Yap Leong in London and Mr Kwok Man Ho in Manchester will use their skills to tell you the best position for your furniture to achieve total harmony within your surroundings. Sifu Yap Leong also owns the Shaolin Way martial arts shop, where budding Bruce Lees can buy books, videos and magazines, clothes and equipment. In Manchester, the best place to kit up for a Double Eagle Split Kick is Van Dang Martial Arts. But if you prefer just to watch chop-socky moves the Eastern Heroes shop in London is well stocked with all manner of Hong Kong films and memorabilia.
Many of the Chinese in Britain lead a dual existence; they live and work here but are culturally rooted in Hong Kong. If you fancy glitzy nick-nacks from Britain's soon-to-be-ex-colony or the latest CD from a idol of Cantopop (HK's own pop music) the best places to visit are the "cultural" outlets. The emphasis of stock is on the cute, with a cornucopia of golden plastic charms, statues of gods and fairies and incredibly popular karaoke videos. Many also stock elaborately embroidered figure-hugging Chinese dresses. Among these treasure troves of tat are Manchester's T La Arts & Crafts shop and the Modern Chinese Cultural Services Shop, and London's Singalong & Co and Cannon & Co Chinese Cultural Centre.
The Guanghwa Bookstore in London has a wonderful range of more "highbrow" Chinese arts and crafts, including hand-carved seals, materials for Chinese painting and calligraphy and books on Chinese language, culture and literature.
In Chinatown, even food stores have sidelines: the Lucky House Mini-Market has a huge range of Buddhas and slimming products, and both London's Loon Fung Supermarket and the Wing Fat Supermarket in Manchester sell woks, china and catering equipment.
Although neither Chinatown has a proper venue for cultural, artistic and social activities, community centres provide some facilities, albeit with limited space and resources. Still, it's the supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants which dominate, offering a food-orientated social scene. So, whether you'd like to get a CD, poster or haircut (there's been an outbreak of hair salons in Chinatown in recent years), be cleansed by a herbalist or get your kicks at a martial arts shop, the most authentic way to explore Chinatown is on a full stomach. Chinatown is not just for Chinese New Year, it's for life.
l Hong Ning Co Ltd, 15 Little Newport Street. Tel 0171 437 4910.
l Sifu Yap Leong, 10 Little Newport Street. Tel 0171 734 6391.
lEastern Heroes Shop, 96 Shaftesbury Avenue.
l Singalong & Co, 112 Shaftesbury Avenue. 0171 437 8789.
l Cannon & Co Chinese Cultural Centre, 18 Newport Place.
l Guanghwa Co Ltd, 7 Newport Place. Tel 0171 437 3737.
FACT FILE - MANCHESTER
Chinese Herbal Centre, 1st floor, 16 Nicholas Street. Tel 0161 228 0131. Open Sat-Thurs 12-6pm.
Feng shui and martial arts
Van Dang Martial Arts, 8 Newton Street. Tel 0161 236 0966. Open 10am- 6pm daily.
T La Arts & Crafts Shop, 16 Nicholas Street. Tel 0161 236 2333. Open 11am-7pm daily.
Modern Chinese Cultural Services, 55a Faulkner Street. Tel 0161-236 4014. Open 11am-7pm.
Wing Fat Supermarket, Faulkner Street.
Wai Yin Women's Centre, 1st Floor, Rother House, 11-13 Spear Street. Tel 0161 237 5908/228 3096.