Issue 32

Chinatown, Paris

By Alexandra Breznaÿ

Paris has three Chinatowns: one in Belleville, the second reduced to Rue au Maire in the third arrondissement and the most famous on Avenue de Choisy and Avenue d’Ivry, also called the Triangle de Choisy or Petite Asie, the largest commercial and cultural centre for the Asian community of Paris. It is located in the southeast of the thirteenth arrondissement and forms a rough triangle bounded by Avenue de Choisy, Avenue d'Ivry and Boulevard Masséna, as well as the Les Olympiades complex.

By the 1920s, some Chinese students had already settled in the thirteenth arrondissement, where they created the French section of the Chinese Communist party with Zhou Enlai. But the real first wave of Asian immigration to the neighbourhood consisted of ethnic Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam War and the civilian war in Cambodia during in late 1970s. Later waves of migrants consisted of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, who also fled their countries following their Communist takeovers and to avoid persecution by the new governments. Coming from the south of China, their languages were Teochew and Cantonese and are still the most used in the neighbourhood.

They chose the district because of the amount of housing available. Big towers had just been built , but hadn't succeeded in attracting city hall's original target, young Parisian employees. The high-rise buildings were thus almost empty, and Asian immigration effectively saved the development.

In the following years, in the 80s and 90s, other refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand arrived. The neighbourhood is sometimes only a transit zone for these populations. Some of the earlier Vietnamese immigrants integrated into French society shortly after their arrival, and began moving to other areas of Paris and the surrounding Île-de-France region, while still maintaining a commercial presence in the thirteenth. Even though many don't live there, many Chinese and East Asian communities of Île de France gather in the neighbourhood, and you can thus find organisations like the Association des Résidents en France D’Origine Indo-Chinoise, helping to serve immigrant needs and providing cultural activities, especially for those from the former French Indochina.

The architecture mostly consists of highrise buildings. South of Rue de Tolbiac the shop signs suddenly turn Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian, spices fill the air and even McDonald's is decked out à la Chinoise. You can find exotic groceries, Vietnamese Pho noodle bars, hairdressers and Chinese patisseries, along with the huge Tang Frères supermarket (48 ave d’Ivry), which sells everything from dim sum and fresh spices to ready-made sauces and rice cookers. There’s even a Buddhist temple hidden in a car park under the tallest tower avenue d'Ivry.

The Olympiades shopping centre is the meeting point for many of Paris’ Asian communities. On the middle floor there are shops selling everything from Buddha effigies to Thai pop CDs; in the evening, the car park hosts an oriental market, its tables laden with spices and roasted duck. Within this neighbourhood, commercial activity is dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese businesses, with a smaller number of Laotian and Cambodian establishments. The annual Lunar New Year parade within the neighbourhood is largest in Paris, when the streets fill with lion and dragon dances, and lively martial arts demonstrations.

Alexandra Breznaÿ is a French documentary photographer who graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2010. After having lived three years in New York, she is currently based in Paris. Find her at www.alexandrabreznay.com.

























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