Two and a Half Chinatowns

BY LAVINIA LIANG

An alleyway in Belleville, Paris’s new “real” Chinatown. (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

I.  BELLEVILLE

The buildings make long shadows in the morning in Belleville in the 9th arrondissement. I blink as I walk out of the Metro. The streets here, just outside the Metro station, are filled with signs advertising Chinese markets, shops and restaurants. Pauline from the Chinese Cultural Center and Alain Frachon from Le Monde had both told me that Belleville was the “real” Chinatown of Paris today.

I try speaking to the florist, and to the women loitering outside of the largest supermarket, but am rebuffed. I wander hopefully into a hairdresser’s shop. When I explain to them that I am a journalist and a student, they ask me which Chinese-language U.S. newspaper I represent. “None,” I say. “But my professor wrote for The New York Times?”

They don’t know what The New York Times is. “Le Monde?” I try. They don’t read French, either. But they do follow politics. As soon as I ask them for their thoughts on the upcoming French presidential election, the entire salon’s staff of five hairdressers (except for the young man with the perpetually bored air) is debating the merits of each candidate with me. Jie, the assistant manager, is particularly keen on drawing comparisons to the United States. “Trump is great, isn’t he?” he asks, and I realize that these hairdressers, all relatively new immigrants, hardly have consistent sources of news in their lives. “Well, no,” I say. “He’s a white supremacist. And I would be careful of Le Pen, too.” They are shocked by this.

They show me the newspapers they read. There are two main Chinese-language newspapers in Paris, one called Seeing China and another simply described as “very nationalist.” Do they see themselves as French, at all? I ask. “No, of course not,” says Jie. “We’re Chinese. And we love our country.”

As I leave, they ask me to share their pictures in all the Chinese-language newspapers in the United States. I laugh and say I can’t make those promises.

 

II.  OLYMPIADES

After Belleville, it is only fair that I check out the 13th arrondissement, the Chinatown proper of Paris, south of the Seine. Pauline and Alain told me Belleville is the “real Chinatown” now because of the many French Indochinese or Southeast Asian immigrants in the 13th. It lives up more to its name of the “Quartier Asiatique,” an Asian area, rather than simply Chinese.

The Olympiades stop in the 13th is eerie in its silence. I emerge from it, from three floors underground, to reach the Olympiades shopping center plaza. The plaza is framed by residential towers, higher than anything I have seen yet in Paris, except perhaps the Eiffel Tower.

I wander my way through the restaurants and supermarkets and shops. I pop into the office of a cultural association of French Indochinese, a small and dim office with newspapers on the counter and a large blue curtain drawn to close the Chinese language classes from view. An unofficial wall. I can hear the chatter of children in my parents’ tongue from behind the veil. An old, pursed-lipped Mr. Chen gives me curt answers in Mandarin to my questions about the association: “Why did you come to Paris?” – “I was fleeing my home country.” – “Do you like Paris?” – “As a refugee, I’m not allowed to have that preference.” I walk to a street lined with small markets, and chat my way from the frozen foods store to the “Big Marché” supermarket to a dusty and quiet Chinese/French bookshop to a small boutique that only sells imported outfits from China. It is around noon, and all the store owners are out for lunch. Their attendants say that they can only tell me so much, unless I want to wait for the managers to return.

“Even then,” says the old woman tending the bookstore, “she probably won’t tell you much about what you want to know.”

 

III.  LAFAYETTE

So I hope on the Metro again, wondering if being modern-day flâneur or flâneuse allows for the Metro. Either way, the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann is too far to reach by foot. When I reach the busy, tourist-filled intersection, I have already forgotten about a newspaper clipping my professor had given me days ago. The clipping was a report that a new building of the Galeries had opened, and that this building was completely dedicated to Chinese tourist customers. With the beginner’s luck of a flâneuse, I walk right into Building 21, and chat with Sylvie Jin, a Coach representative, for almost half an hour. I tell her that I have only seen Asian or Chinese attendants in this building.

“This is the one,” she tells me. “This one is all for Chinese tourists.” She also tells me that she grew up in the 93rd. The 93rd district is a banlieue, a suburb of Paris, known for having the highest population of immigrants anywhere in France. It also has an incredible crime rate. I tell her excitedly I’ve been there, been to the Sunday market, and she smiles politely and changes the topic.

If Belleville is Chinatown and the 13th is the Quartier Asiatique, then the Galeries Lafayette is halfway there to a new kind of Chinatown, one founded on tourism and constant change, rather than the desire for stability.

 

VI.  MOUFFETARD

My friend Andrew and I have agreed to meet in front of the Sorbonne. This is my last formal appointment of the day, and as I sit on the steps, my red hat is flapping in the breeze and the dried flower blossoms are sweeping in circles around my feet. After a small mix-up on which side is the real “front” of the Sorbonne, we find a café and chat about his experiences as an Asian American student in Paris. Afterwards, we wander around the Quartier Latin. We see the Pantheon, the Rue Mouffetard, and we use the bathrooms in McDonald’s. He remarks on how funny it is that the French even have the word “flâneur,” as though they needed justification for something that should be done regardless of its status as a “proper” activity. He is surprised that we visited the 93rd, and tells me that banlieue is no longer a neutral word. “It’s like, the hood,” he says.

He lets me fawn over the crêperies and macarons and teaches me how to pronounce the “ai” sound in French. He corrects my pitifully few French phrases to a convenience store owner like a seasoned Parisian, although I know from our coffee chat that “Parisians” don’t typically include people who look like us. At least, not yet.

 

V.  AU REVOIR, NOT ADIEU

I take off my shoes in the hotel at 2 A.M. As I put them down, I examine them, this pair of pale wingtip flats. I have worn them for the last four days, and I am marveling that they haven’t peeled yet from the sole. Last time in Rome, my boots gave in. Back in Princeton, my shoes typically only last a year or so. Perhaps Paris is lighter on the feet than many other places are.

I think of the young American couple who went running one morning. They left their keys with the concierge before breakfast. “We’re going for a run,” the woman said.

“Paris is not good for running,” the concierge said flatly.

“I know,” said the woman. “But we still have to give it a try!”

Perhaps Paris is lighter on the feet, and that is why it begs walking and wandering rather than running. Running misses too many sights; disallows them the proper time they deserve. There is too much to smell here, too much to see, and, anyways, running is inherently an emptying thing. For example, I run to stay thin, and to lose weight. I run to clear my head or “clear up” my body when I feel full. I run to feel light.

But Paris is inherently a filling thing. The smells of butter and fresh baked viennoisserie and the honking of cars on the Boulevard Saint Germain fill the air. The wind runs in and out of the gates of the Sorbonne, over and around the sign that reads “College de France.” It fills in all the negative spaces between the iron bars, and the city and my heart are so full, and my shoes are still intact.

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