Two and a Half Chinatowns


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


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.



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.”



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.



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.



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.

Defining “chic”


Courtesy of Typhaine Augusto, 2016.

Typhaine Augusto started blogging because she was shy as a child, and because growing up in Southern France was boring. Her current blog, Cuillèrie à Absinthe (“Absinthe Spoon” in English), has thousands of followers, and has been featured in multiple publications. Augusto’s Twitter has over 4,000 followers, and her Instagram almost 14,000.

Augusto was born in Paris, but moved soon after to the south of France for her parents’ work. Growing up in the south of France gave Augusto the push she needed to start her first blog at eleven years old. She studied photography in college, and wanted to be a fashion photographer for a long time. Then, she realized she wanted to be in front of the camera. She has not looked back since then.

Now, in Paris’s Montmartre, the 25-year-old is a stylist, a professional blogger, and a part-time DJ. Augusto has the model-like quality of appearing young and mature and ageless all at once. A bob of bright orange hair frames her smooth-skinned face. An A-line of bangs covers her forehead. Today, she sported a tight-bodied white turtleneck sweater, covered by white jean overalls. A large hoop earring dangled from each ear.

Augusto is famous for her use of colors and her tomboyish looks, as well as for incorporating “Asiatic aesthetics” into her styling. Augusto has long been a huge fan of Asian fashion, particularly Korean style elements. “They have a kind of no-gender trend,” said Augusto. “Many Parisians will embrace the ‘tomboy style,’ but they will always make sure to have something feminine to balance it out—feminine shoes, or accessories, for example.”

Augusto wants to break the Parisian tradition of conforming certain fashion items or looks to the gender binary. In France, women wear “feminine” outfits. Men wear “masculine” ones. “They [Korean style elements] gave me the confidence to wear these outfits,” she said. By “these outfits,” Augusto was referring to ones that could be worn easily by both men and women.

Most of Paris cares about fashion, to some degree, Augusto said. To wear sweatpants out to the street gives others the impression that no effort has been put into appearing in a public space. “It’s not really chic,” Augusto said. When asked to define “chic,” the fashion blogger paused for a little before saying, “It is definitely a feminine thing…but it means that you thought about this before presenting it.”

Most of Paris, however, is still not comfortable with “androgyny” as a fashion sense. This philosophy of breaking the gender binary in fashion leads Augusto to call herself a “mixed girl. She dislikes when people expect her to “dress a certain way.”

Augusto is also a big fan of feminist literature, citing Virginia Woolf as her favorite author. Augusto’s style icons, too, are ones with obvious feminist agendas: Tavi Gevinson, founder of the fashion blog Style Rookie; Léandra Medine, founder of the lifestyle website Man Repeller; and Simone de Beauvoir, the twentieth century feminist intellectual and writer. “I’m just so fascinated by how women were treated and viewed in the past,” Augusto said. “How they were completely left out.”

To prove her point on double standards in fashion, Augusto once conducted a social experiment. She went to two parties in one night, both with similar groups of people, and with people whom she knew relatively well. For one, she wore high heels and a typical, feminine outfit. For the other, she dressed down for a “chill” look with overalls and a t-shirt. “The difference was huge,” Augusto said. At the first party, “people said hi and complimented me, my outfit. At the other party, people just ignored me.” Augusto shrugged and shook her head.

Courtesy of Typhaine Augusto, 2016.

Augusto is not only aware of the unspoken dress codes for women, but also with how similar restrictions can apply to race. “I have a friend who is black, and when he wears sweatpants, people will think he is a…bad boy. He has to dress well so that people don’t think that.” In contrast, Augusto said, when her white friends wear sweatpants, nobody thinks twice.

In her free time, Augusto has taken up acting and singing classes. Her blog has expanded to more than just fashion. She wants to show off the artistic world of Paris from more than simply the lens of fashion. Given this mission, perhaps it is not surprising that Augusto has started to find Paris’s annual fashion week “boring.”

“It is spending a lot of time for something not that interesting,” she said. “I can see it all on the Internet.”


The Many Faces of Versailles


(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Bertrand Rondot is head curator at the Palace of Versailles. Rondot is an expert in the decorative arts, and specializes in the history of the furniture and artistic pieces of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France. Marie Antoinette was also the last inhabitant of Petit Trianon. Although Petit Trianon was built in the 1760s by Louis XV for his official mistress, the small chateau later became the residence of Marie Antoinette, the proper wife of Louis XVI. Situated behind tall trees and at the end of an almost-fifteen-minute walk from the main palace, Petit Trianon became a sanctuary for the queen, away from the public scrutiny of life as royalty.

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

The architect of Petit Trianon, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, was famous for his use of the Neoclassical style, as well as his innovativeness. One example of Gabriel’s creativity is situated on a wall where the stairs turn direction between the two ground floors. The face of Medusa is molded onto the white stone, at once startling and subtle in its low relief. Usually, such a feature would be found on the exterior of a building. Rondot remarked that Jacques used “the vocabulary of outdoor architecture” and then brought it indoors.

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Other odd and even grotesque faces make their appearances throughout the rooms and bedrooms of Petit Trianon. A coin-sized lion-man face on the stem of a lavender vase. A gold-leaf baby bearing two elephant-trunk-like candleholders. Still other contorted or displeased faces are painted into the artworks that hang all throughout the chateau’s bedrooms. Perhaps, however, the most surprising and interesting face is the one that dominates the king’s room itself.

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.
(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

The face in question here indeed dominates the design of the room. Louis XVI’s bedroom at the Petit Trianon is lined with Chinese-inspired prints. Today, as with the other rooms in Petit Trianon, modern textiles recreate the originals in the king’s bedroom. The cushioned walls, the cushioned chairs, and the entire bedspread from curtains to pillow covers are covered with a silk red print that bears small figures of a Chinese man. On the left side of the room is a cabinet with Chinese-styled images on the front.

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

“As you know, the French are very reactive to new ideas,” Rondot said with a faint smile. What he initially meant was reactionary, that the French can be slow in accepting new ideas. But reactive works, too. Rondot related how East-West cultural exchanges became more and more prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries: “For example, when they [the French] saw them [Indians] wearing white muslin robes, suddenly the European women were wearing them, too!”

Learning about the Chinese diaspora in France


Lobby display at the Chinese Cultural Center of Paris (CCCP.) (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Pauline Bayle speaks five languages. In the last ten years, she has lived in four countries and seven cities. Now, in conjunction with finishing her master’s degree in East Asian Cultural Studies in Paris, her hometown, Bayle is interning at the Paris Chinese Cultural Center. She loves her work as the front desk representative. “Everyone is very nice, and I am learning a lot every day,” she said. She described the Chinese Cultural Center of Paris (CCCP) as a “bubble of China in France.”

The CCCP is a moderately-sized complex, and an organization that employs about 20 individuals. About a third of its staff are interns. Bayle is one of two non-Chinese interns. As an extension of the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China, the Center’s staff are technically employees of the Chinese government. “I have to be careful what I say,” Bayle said, lowering her voice.

A young man stops by, speaking French with Bayle. Then he switches to near-perfect English, and then to perfect Chinese. He introduces himself as Sean Tu, the Executive Director’s Assistant. Like Bayle, Tu was also once an intern. He was born in China, came to France for his undergraduate studies, and then did his masters in Raleigh, North Carolina. He soon leaves to help a few visitors, after complimenting Bayle’s English.

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Visitors to the CCCP are not many, perhaps a dozen an hour. They trickle in regularly, and stay for extended periods of time in the complex. CCC’s daytime regular programming is all free. The center offers a variety of programs and services. These include a Chinese school, a theater that shows Chinese cinema, an East Asian library, and a permanent space for special exhibitions. The current special exhibition is a collection of famous Chinese artist Han Meilin’s sculptures and watercolor paintings.

For a small cultural center in a busy business district of Paris, the Center seems to attract a lot of visitors. However, Bayle says that there is still a lot more to be done on the communications and marketing front. “Everything here is a little behind,” she said. “When I first interviewed here, the Executive Director didn’t even know what ‘digital marketing’ meant.”

(C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

The Chinese community in Paris, as Bayle explained, has always been rather fragmented, although in recent years it has been coming together through social action. Most of the Chinese immigrants in France—indeed, in Europe—are from the province of Wenzhou. The Chinese immigrants in Paris include small businessmen, many of them restaurant owners; undocumented workers; as well as a growing Chinese Mafia. Still many more are the descendants of immigrants, and are native-born in France. “Some of these Chinese are more Parisian than me,” said Bayle, who lived in Rome for her first five years of childhood.

Bayle also drew comparisons between the current political climates of France and of the United States. Both countries are slowly addressing the often-quiet racism against Asians. Both countries, through presidential elections in the US and presidential campaigns in France, are witnessing the popularity or electability of far-right candidates. In recent years, the Chinese community in Paris has also been defining itself and coming together as a clear and cohesive group.

In such a political climate, Bayle reflected on the different kinds of racism that different ethnic groups experience in Paris. “You say something against blacks or Muslims? You’re racist. You say something against Chinese? Well.” She paused. “There is still the idea that Asians are well-integrated here in France, and cause no trouble. But now there are demonstrations. Everybody is talking about this.”

The Good Market


Courtesy of

For three years now, Valentine He has lived and loved Paris as her own. However, if her visa doesn’t go through by the end of April, she could be deported back to her native residence in Hangzhou, China. The young attendant at Le Bon Marché, the world’s first department store, has her fingers crossed that things will work out for her to stay in France.

Le Bon Marché is not an American Macy’s. It is filled to the brim with the finest fashion goods that Paris offers, from Givenchy to Hermès. A large art installation claims the center of the store. The department store is startlingly white and sterile. Everyone speaks in low voices in Le Bon Marché.

In MIU MIU, where He works, the cheapest pair of sunglasses is 270 euros. Sunglasses themselves fill up half a wall of the store, and range from simple gold wire frames to large, plastic frames encrusted with gems in the shapes of feathers.

He is petite and large-eyed, and today, dressed in all black except for a tiny gold nametag pinned to her shirt. Several other attendants were milling around the MIU MIU section of Le Bon Marché, but He was the only obviously Chinese one. She was helping a Chinese customer, a man not much older than she. The man was crouching on the floor. The man proceeded to scoop patent leather clutches into a garden tote bag, stand up, and then text on his phone for a few minutes.

After the man left, He explained that he was a shopper, one based on the Paris side. Some Chinese immigrants in Paris, many of them students, buy name-brand goods to sell to customers in China for a profit. The shoppers directly sell these items, mostly handbags, to individuals through social media channels such as the app WeChat. The shoppers buy enough in one spree to render their purchases tax-free and discounted as according to the high-end stores’ incentive rates.

Everyone at Le Bon Marché knows this, He said. But the luxury goods stores are unable to do anything about it, since the Chinese shoppers are careful and follow all rules while conducting business. They also like to go through Chinese store attendants, like He, when doing this business—“because of language,” He explained.

A glasses-clad young man sitting on a bench near the building exit was wearing a gray hoodie and surrounded by duffel bags, as though on vacation and mid-transit. But when asked, he quietly explained that he was a shopper. His bags were filled with more bags, ready for sale. He moved to Paris five years ago. His unassuming demeanor was different from that of the first man in MIU MIU; the man in MIU MIU was much louder and more aggressive in his way of speech. A shopper could be anyone.

An art installation in Le Bon Marche that evokes a forest. (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

All of He’s family is still back in China. She longs to travel and see places farther than Paris someday, too. “I really want to visit America,” she said. “I want to see if New York is as yong ji as Paris is.” She paused for a moment to take out her phone, looking up the English translation of yong ji—which means “crowded” or “packed.”

“But I also just feel nervous now because of Trump,” she added. “I feel like I would get bullied there. Plus, American Chinese food has become its own thing…And it is so bad!”

Baby Swag!


In line for the Restaurant Chartier. (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Sofie Skitt was born in China’s Hubei province and moved to Paris in her twenties. Her husband, Cyriel Skitt, was born in Cameroon, and moved to Paris as a teenager with his family. This makes their 16-month-old Aoki (yes, “like the DJ”) Cameroonian-Chinese-French. More importantly, Aoki is also a rising Instagram star. The toddler has over 600 followers on the social media platform, and even now, waiting in line for dinner at the Bouillon Chartier, his mother is taking photos of him on her phone, trying to get the perfect shot for their next post.

One look at the Skitt family shows that they know fashion. (Cyriel’s Twitter bio reads: Stylist, Fashion buy and Jewelry designer in Paris. The link to his website does not work, unfortunately.) Sofie wears her straight, black hair parted in the middle, and sports large black statement glasses frames. She has on a white knit turtleneck that is mostly covered by a loose-fitting black bomber jacket. Her cross-body purse is a bright grass green. The handle of it is wrapped in a colorful fabric that is reminiscent of La Sape patterns. Cyriel has his hair tied back in long braids (which he ponies up further to get his picture taken.) He wears an olive-green tee under an unbuttoned chambray shirt, under a long black coat. Several gold Hands of Hamsa amulets dangle from his neck.

Sofie and Cyriel are big fans of the Restaurant Chartier (Sofie recommends the duck confit.) (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Chinese aesthetics or sensibilities do not really influence Sofie’s fashion sense or her shopping habits. “But you should ask my husband if you want to talk cultural influences,” she says excitedly in Mandarin. “They have this…this cultural thing…it’s spelled with s-a-p-p…it’s like, when you care so much, you can have a refrigerator that doesn’t have any food in it, just shoes.” She taps Cyriel on the arm and asks him a flurry of questions in French.

What Sofie was trying to convey was the concept of La Sape, an African subculture movement that “embodies the elegance in style and manners of colonial predecessor dandies,” and is centered around the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo. Practicers of La Sape (which is an acronym for the French translation of “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People”) are known as sapeurs. Sophie was trying to spell sapeur.

Aoki Skitt sporting his latest outfit! (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

Today, young Aoki is sporting a navy snapback, a speckled white knit sweater, a sheepskin coat, and tiger-print gray sneakers. (His Instagram account’s first post is of his orange leather Hermes booties. His Instagram account’s bio reads: My name is Aoki Skitt, AKA baby swag in Paris.)

But Baby Swag is not only a term used by the Skitts. Earlier that morning, in the Sunday market of Seine-Saint-Denis in the 93rd, a young black man handed out flyers for a newly opened, high-end baby accessories store called “Baby Swag.”

The Baby Swag store was sandwiched between several women’s clothing stores. These stores sold burkas and hijabs, but were owned by Chinese immigrants. “Happy Miss” was the name of one such store. Happy Miss was situated across the street from Baby Swag, and was staffed by Chinese attendants who did not speak English and spoke shaky French. They directed all questions to their manager at the front desk.

The manager of Happy Miss dressed simply, wearing a gray polo shirt and thin glasses frames. “I don’t answer journalist’s questions,” he said. “But you can stand in front of that store across the street and take a picture of my storefront, if you really want to.”

On First Impressions


A street near Montmartre. (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

The sky was gray and it was starting to rain when a group of students from Princeton arrived on the Rue de Martyrs with their professor. Still, every shop owner greeted the group with warmth. The professor leading the Princeton excursion was Elaine Sciolino, former New York Times Bureau Chief in Paris.

Sciolino’s book The Only Street in Paris: Life of the Rue de Martyrs (W. W. Norton, 2015), holds true to the description of its subtitle. The book is a personal and narrative but also often journalistic account of everyday activities on the Rue de Martyrs. Many shops on the eponymous street and in the surrounding area carried posters of Sciolino’s book.

Sciolino’s students were pleasantly surprised by how well their professor knew the shop owners on the Rue de Martyrs, and how friendly the residents of the neighborhood were. Many of the shop owners provided food samples to the class, and still others tried speaking English with the students.

Pastry chefs hard at work; a beautiful cake and cone of macarons, all at Sébastien Gaudard’s Pâtisserie de Martyrs. (C) Lavinia Liang, 2017.

While eating at the bistro Miroir later that night with several Columbia University exchange students, the Princeton students were struck by how clean Chef Sébastien Guénard’s plating was. The chef served a delicious main plate of chicken over lentils, but the presentation of the dish, too, was tantalizing. “Presentation is everything,” said one unnamed student from Columbia University who is studying abroad in Paris for the semester. The Columbia University student went on to describe French customs that supported this statement. “They are very polite,” he said. “You must always say hello, always say thank you, always say good-bye.”

Florent Masse, a professor of French theater at Princeton University who also came along on the trip, expressed how “proud” he was of the Princeton students for dressing the way they did for walking around the Rue de Martyrs neighborhood. He said that they all had “very good looks,” and reemphasized that the way someone dresses is “very important in France.”

Dress also depends on occasion and location. One dresses down to go to the Sunday market in the suburbs; one dresses up to tour the Château of Versailles and meet its president. First impressions can mean a lot in a city that has painted its landmark monument, the Eiffel Tower, two different colors to ensure consistency when viewing. “It’s like makeup,” Sciolino had said.