mardi 29 mai 2007

City of Dim Light

(Drawing of the homeless. Copyright © January 2003 by MA Shumin.)

It is not easy being poor in the City of Light.

When the weather gets cold, the homeless and the beggars around Paris are more apparent. No matter what background we are coming from, and no matter how humble, we are fortunate compare to the homeless and the beggars. We have a roof over our head, food in our stomach and the luxury of shower each night when we want.

The other way of life confronts us each morning when we leave home and each evening when we return. The foul odors of those who have with them bags of their lifelong belongings are detected afar; they have come to the metro stations to escape the cold. Throughout the streets of Paris, refugees and the homeless loiter and beg. Often times they are women and young children who sit around.

In the RER B line, running from north to south Paris, Charles de Gaulle airport to Robinson are seen both men and women who panhandle. These people represent different race groups. Some are fallen French residents, many others are refugees from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and still others are unidentifiable. There are those who make music, play the violin or accordion to earn their money. Others pass out little slips of paper, saying they are homeless, without a job and need people’s help. And still some others just go from car to car informing the passengers that they have no work, no home to live in, have 2 to 3 children to care for and need help. Any change or restaurant tickets will help them out a lot.

In Paris’s 20th arrondissement at Jourdain metro station every morning a gentleman greets the commuters. This chubby elderly man is always positioned there. If in a red Santa suit, he can very much be mistaken for Santa. He is a friendly looking fellow and if dressed otherwise one would never imagine him being homeless. He smiles and rocks about, nods his head when someone drops some change into his held out hands. He has become such a regular that people would often have conversations with him, asking how he is doing.

There are a lot of beggars and homeless people in Paris, lingering around the metro station and on the streets. Most say the same things or have with them a similar sign: No work. No money. Hungry. Please. The word “s'il vous plaît“ has a whole new meaning for me now than when I first learned it in my French class in America. This is what I cannot help but notice about Paris; the great number of tourists is mixed in with the immense population of beggars, homeless and gypsies.

There is a very dim side to the City of Light.

lundi 28 mai 2007

Paris loves Artists

(Raoul Velasco in his studio. Copyright © by MA Shumin.)

I first fell in love with Paris during a weekend class trip when I was studying in Dijon, summer 1999. The class took a Bateaux-Mouches night cruise on the Seine and the city lights were just mesmerizing against the warm summer evening. On the Eiffel Tower looking over the city, with the lights and the romance, I thought to myself that I had to come back again, and I didn't want to wait too long. Most Americans like to wait until they are older, with more money, perhaps during retirement to experience living in Paris. But for me, I had no problem with being young and poor. Young just means I will have more energy and poor means learning to be more thoughtful, creative and resourceful. This was what I got out of watching RENT musical in New York City, "If not now, then when?" "No day but today".

So I came back to Paris right after college. I did not intend for my stay to be so long. I came in the summer but I liked the life here so much, more than I could have ever imagined, I decided to stay for longer. I fell in love with Paris for the second time in my life. This time, not for it being the City of Lights and glamour, but for it being the city of diversity, culture & inspiration.

Paris has been luring expatriates since the beginning of time. In the 1920’s, at a time caught between the first and second world war, the city was opened to change and new ideas. Paris then was a haven for artists, offering them the freedom, support and inspiration they needed. People from all over the world came here to write, to compose, to paint and to learn. One famous group of expatriates called "Lost Generation" included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

There was also a great migration of African-American writers, artists, and musicians to Paris at this time. The black Americans were eager to come to Paris to escape the oppressive racism and segregation of the United States. The African-American musicians popularized jazz in the Parisian nightclubs so much that Montmartre was known to be "the Harlem of Paris." On the list of well known African-American expatriates were Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. In the 1950s and 1960s there was another famous group of expatriates called “Beat Generation”. This group included Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder. Other expatriates included jazz musician Steve Lacy, rock musician Jim Morrison, and singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy.

The neighborhood of Belleville also had a share of this flux of expatriates. In the 1980s artists and musicians were drawn to Belleville because of the cheaper rents, the numerous vacant large spaces, as well as the old Paris charm of its smaller cobbled stoned streets. There are so many artists living and working in Belleville today that it is reputed to be the most concentrated area of studio workshops in Europe.

On 49 bis rue des Cascades, one of the many quaint cobbled stoned streets in Belleville is the studio of artist, Raoul Velasco. He is a 56 year old Mexican artist, originally from Mexico City. He claimed he has lived two lives. The first life was in Mexico, as a professor until the age of 34 when he had the epiphany to change his career. He wanted to do something new that works with his hands. He felt Paris was the city to make the change and came here to start his second life as a self-made artist.

Raoul arrived in Paris in 1989, knowing no one and speaking little French. He rented a little studio in Belleville on rue Cascades where he still works today. He learned various art techniques (painting, wood-sculpting, etching, etc) by himself, as well as from the many artists who were also renting studios in the neighborhood. Feeling immense gratitude for the neighborhood that gave so much to him and helped him develop as an artist, Raoul wanted to contribute to Belleville. From 1993-1997 he became president of the “Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville” (a non-profit association that supports the artists in Belleville). In 2000 he created “Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire” in his own studio. Other than workshops and courses, the studio also does exhibitions of local artists, as well as foreign artists from Japan. These events give artists the opportunities to show their work, as well as get their artworks sold.

Raoul came to Paris with nothing but a dream to start a new life. Today he has become an important part of his community, and known to be “the most famous artist on rue des Cascades”. The culture and the arts are really vibrating in Paris and is an inspiration to any one who wants to create. But perhaps what is even more important is the solidarity among the artists themselves. The coming together, helping one another to grow and improve with their arts is what makes Paris a great place. Paris has been and will always be a haven for artists.

mardi 8 mai 2007

The Red Balloon

(Nemo's The Red Balloon on Rue Henri Chevreau. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

The first film I remember seeing in my life was in my seventh grade French class in fall of 1992. Madame LaFarge showed us “The Red Balloon” (1956), by Albert Lamorisse and I just fell in love with the story. It is a short film about a small boy in the Parisian neighborhood of Menilmontant, just next to Belleville who gets a magic balloon that follows him everywhere. Since that autumn afternoon sitting behind my desk I have not seen the film again and vaguely remember the details. I’ve even forgotten it took place in northeast Paris. But the memory that stayed with me was how much I love this small story about a unique friendship and the imagination it inspired in me.

“The Red Balloon” became my favorite French film, and ironically there are no dialogues in the film. The film was shown to me at the beginning of the first semester of my first year in junior high school, at I. S. 131, Sun Yat Sen on Hester Street in New York Chinatown. The students were required take up a second language and there were only two choices: Spanish or French. Most of my classmates opted for Spanish, feeling it’s more useful given that we have lots of Spanish-speaking people in New York. That summer my family had just moved out of Chinatown into Alphabet City in the East Village. The main population of my new neighborhood were Spanish-speakers from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. I was hearing Spanish every day at the bus stops, in the laundromat, at the supermarkets.

A quiet and happy thirteen-year-old, I had a rebellious inner side and didn’t want to be like others. The beginning of fall semester I made the decision to study French. Not because I found the language romantic and beautiful to the ears, or that I appreciated the great philosophers and literatures, but simply I just wanted to be different. Never would I think I would continue to learn French after junior high school, or that I would live in France one day, and that I would be making films for my career.

Fast forward to ten years later, after my film studies from Syracuse University I was still a fish trying to swim against the current. While my classmates opted to go west to Los Angeles and to New York to pursue their film careers, I headed east to Paris. My justification was I was seeking a European and international perspective in filmmaking, that it made all sense for me to go and live abroad in France as it’s the origin of documentary filmmaking with the Lumière Brothers showing the first films of people coming out the train station in 1895 in a Paris cafe.

An unconscious but powerful desire to be different started the history of how I first studied French to eventually coming to live in France. And as if it was all meant to be, in the unique Belleville neighborhood in Paris that I eventually settled, I saw again what first inspired me.

Belleville is a living art neighborhood. It is an open museum with 24 hour free entry, opened 365 days a year, rain, snow, sleet, hail or shine. No entry ticket is necessary. The building walls are the giant canvases. Anyone and everyone who passes by can appreciate the artworks. The streets are the studios of the artists. Some of these artists are professionals, where they dedicate their whole life to art. Others have day jobs and do art on the side.

“The Red Balloon” is part of a mural painting on one of the gigantic walls in Belleville. The series of paintings first appeared on the walls of the 20th arrondissement in the early 1980’s and was created by a street artist named ‘Nemo’. He was a math professor who worked during the day, and the rest of the time began painting using stencils. The nickname Nemo was inspired by the detective comic, “Little Nemo” that came out in 1905 by Winsor McCay.

Nemo’s paintings are imaginative and the style is simple, convincing me that it does not take a lot to make great art. He created the silhouette of a man in black who wears a coat and hat following a series of different adventures. Nemo mastered the concept of space and filled it with a remarkable universe of magic. The stenciled images are strong: a suitcase, an umbrella, a ball, a cat... etc. The story is up to the viewer to imagine and for nearly 30 years Nemo’s paintings have provoked the minds of children and adults in the neighborhood.

Having lived in Belleville all these years, I can see how this neighborhood has inspired the 1956 film, “The Red Balloon” and the 1980’s of a man creating arts on the neighborhood walls. Belleville is just forever magical and inspiring.

samedi 5 mai 2007

Café Social

(Café Social outing in Montreuil Garden. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

What does one do in ‘retirement’ when all one knows in one’s whole life is work for survival, and concepts of hobbies and leisure vacations are non-existent? I have been interested in this question ever since my father retired in 2003.

My father was a peasant farmer for thirty years in our village in Taishan of Guangdong Province, China. It was small rice village by the name of ‘Stream Factory’ of about a hundred people with the same family name. When we immigrated to New York, he worked for twenty years as a dishwasher and chef at a Chinese restaurant on Canal Street. When both of his children graduated from college, my father decided to have an early retirement. I was relieved that he was no longer working so hard, but was worried what he would do with all his free time.

“Located in the heart of Belleville, a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Paris and a place of nostalgia, the association Ayyem Zamen opened in January 2003, a social café to welcome, help the elder immigrants and to accompany them in their old age”. The people who come here range from age 60-90. The majority are men from North African countries of Tunisia and Algeria, but there are also men and women from other parts: Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, etc. It’s a warm place, not only in the yellow pastel color of the wall paintings, curtains, and tables, but also in the familiar and cozy atmosphere. Here, you will find that people always greet one another by shaking hands. The three full time employees are friendly, dedicated and sincerely care about helping the people who come in.

One of the three employee is Moncef Labidi who is also the founder and manager. Originally from Tunisia he has been in Paris for 25 years. He was a sociologist by profession before noticing that too many retiree/senior citizens are uncared for. Four years ago he established the Café Social. The Arabic name is “Ayyem Zamen” which means those days that are gone. Moncef wants the people to not only remember fondly of the days that are gone, but to also enjoy their old age in Paris.

These North African men first arrived in France in the late 1950’s and 1960’s to rebuild France after the war. They came young, in their 20’s, at my age and only expected to come to work for a short while, make money and then to return to their country. Instead they stayed for much longer, some for 50 years. In between they would return to their home country to get married and have children, but they would never go back to live for permanent. Today these men are in their 60’s to 90’s.

How does an elder immigrant deal with ‘retirement’, when all he knows in his life is work for survival, and concepts of hobbies and leisure vacations are non-existent? The same Spring 2003 that my father retired in New York Manhattan Chinatown, the Social Café opened in Paris Belleville. The Social Café has since become a haven for elder immigrants, a place for them to come for aid, to help with translation and social papers. It is a place for them to meet, to have exchanges and to find solidarity. Each week is filled with events such as film screenings, Tuesday and Friday morning breakfasts, and outings, such as to the sea in Normandy and to the Paris suburb garden.

Every Thursday the Café Social takes the elders to a garden in Montreuil, the eastern Paris suburb. A dozen or so men would participate. These men eagerly work on plowing the earth and plant seeds for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers. The men are happy to get away from the busy Paris city for a while and to be around with nature. All these Arab men used to be farmers in their native Tunisia and Algeria. They had no education, and cannot read and write. But here in this Montreuil garden, everyone is equal, working with their hands, and it doesn’t matter if you are not highly educated with many degrees and speak perfect French.

At that moment, standing there and looking around me, appreciating the natural landscape and seeing the elders working, it reminded me of my own father working in the rice fields in our village.

From a distance someone might ask what does this Chinese-American girl have in common with these Arab elder immigrants. And the first reply, they may say there is nothing: we come from a different generation, a different country, a different culture and different language. But I would say, while there seems to be nothing, there is also everything: we all speak French with funny accents and we are all immigrants from a village, whether China or Tunisia or Algeria. And while we all have left our home country to survive and thrive in a foreign land, we did not forget where we came from.

mercredi 2 mai 2007

The Chinese In Paris

(Photo taken at metro Belleville. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

When I made the decision to come to Paris I had prepared myself to be enclosed in an all-European world. Thus when I arrived here and found a Chinese community so vast and continuously growing that it was shocking to me. The second and third generation Chinese in France are mixed with the newly immigrants from Wenzhou and students pouring in from Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and various parts of central and northern China. As a result of these immigrants and students, there is an overwhelming sense of modern China living in Paris. My introduction to the other Chinese is as much of a 'culture shock' experience for me as for the French.

To understand why this experience, it is necessary to retrace the steps to about twenty years ago, a time when I grew up in New York City's Manhattan Chinatown. In the 1980s the Chinese community there consisted mostly of people from southern China, namely Taishan, other parts of Guangdong province and Hong Kong. The first Chinese settlers in America, dating back to the mid 1800s were from Taishan and it was said that America is "Taishan's Other Half". So having been born in Taishan and then to come to New York's Chinatown filled with people from Taishan or who have their roots from Taishan, the Taishanese Chinese were all I know of.

It was not until high school when my eyes opened up for the first time to an outside Taishanese community and I learned the existence and prevalence of other Chinese people. Lincoln Center's LaGuardia High School of Music, Arts & The Performing Arts has a very diverse student population, with many of its students immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China. My education there not only exposed me to the Arts but also to the world of the intellectual and more affluent Chinese. For the first time in my life, I was classmates with Chinese students whose parents were not immigrants like mine working in a garment factory and restaurant. I could not relate to them as intimately as with my fellow Taishan childhood friends but I appreciated the opportunity to see a life beyond Manhattan Chinatown.

When I arrived in Paris I was once again introduced to a whole new set of Chinese people whom I have never heard of, the Wenzhounese from Zhejiang province. As the Taishanese were to New York and San Francisco in the past, the Wenzhou people have been and are to Paris now. They occupy two neighborhoods, one at Belleville and the other at Arts & Metiers (just three metros south on the same line 11).

The history of Wenzhou in Paris began more than a century ago when the first Chinese migrants found their way to Paris through Russia and other European countries. During World War I, the French government recruited 150,000 Chinese laborers largely from Wenzhou and while many returned to China after the war, over 2,000 stayed. In the 1930s, a lot of handicraftsmen from Wenzhou came to Europe to seek their fortunes in Europe and many settled in France. In Paris they settled at Arts & Metiers. The last 20 years saw a rapid rise of Wenzhou's immigrants to France, all settling in the Paris Belleville neighborhood. I have been told that there are so many Wenzhou people living in Paris that back in Wenzhou there is also a large French speaking community. The Wenzhou people speak Wenzhounese, their native dialect. The language is as foreign to me as Russian and Arabic. With them I have been forced to improve my Mandarin (Putonghua). I rarely speak Cantonese or Taishanese in Paris, except the weekly phone call home to my parents.

The Belleville Chinatown is small compare to Manhattan Chinatown but still very distinctively Chinese. At Belleville Park every morning from 9:00-9:30am, rain or shine you will find over a dozen mid-age to elderly Wenzhou men and women perform their daily stretching exercises. There are plenty of supermarkets and restaurants lining rue de Belleville. Cha siu (bbq pork) is available and I indulge in that whenever I get reminiscent over New York's Cantonese Chinatown. But still I often feel like Dorothy in Wizard of The Oz and the frog in the well, where one day the stork came and brought it out to see the world. I have seen a bit of the world already, but there is no place like home.... and I miss the Taishanese and Cantonese community.

mardi 1 mai 2007

Beautiful City Belleville

(Church outside metro Jourdain. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

Today I received in the mailbox the latest issue of "Le Paris du 20e - Journal d'Informations Municipales" (Paris 20th arrondissement, Information Journal). I love receiving and reading this free journal that provides information on each arrondissement. In this latest issue, it talks about housing situations, famous people who had lived in this area, music performances, restuarants, a profile of a person who works in the neighborhood and their business. It was interesting to read about this lady by the name of Madame Germaine who has been working in her sewing store for decades. Her drive in life is making shoes for people. I find that when we know more about our neighborhood, its history and its people, we develop a certain intimacy and a close-knit bond with the neighborhood. Buildings are not just buldings. People in stores are not just people. There is more meaning when we are aware and we care more.

I live in the Belleville (meaning Beautiful City) area of Paris. Located at the northeastern end of the city, it is truly a 'beautiful part of the city'. Hills and parks dominate. I have this incredible fondness for hills, it is the reason I fell in love with San Francisco, summer 2000 when I was there. The perspective, the angles, the twist and turn, the elevation where at one point you feel like you are at the top of the world/hill! Observing a hill can be quite analagous to observing one's life. I do not mind the arduous climb to the top either. It only makes the view up top even more triumphant, even more breathtaking.

Belleville used to be and still is somewhat of a village. The cobblestoned streets are narrowed and in this part of town, life is even more lay back. There are an abundance of little markets that sell fresh fruits, vegetables and meat outlining rue de Belleville. Just down the hill is Paris' second Chinatown which the Chinese shares with the Arab and African community. There is a big church right outside the Jourdain metro station. On the three minute walk home I would pass by a Tabac cafe/convenience store, a boulangerie (bakery), two florists, two bookstores, an elementary school, a real estate agency and a small Arab convenience store. And it is all an accident how I ended up in this part of town....

During the summer I had lived in Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement, a very French and homogeneous southern part of Paris. When I had to move in the fall I had wanted to find a place in the same area as I knew it well. I didn't looked into other parts, especially not the Paris northeastern end, the 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements. I had heard a lot of negatives things and the reputation is as bad as New York City's Harlem. There are too many uncivilized, new, and possibly illegal immigrants. It is rough, disorderly, chaotic and dangerous. That was the impression given to me.

At that time I experienced much of the same agony and frustration that Paris studio-hunters go through. I got desperate (or was it my luck?) and decided to check out this ad for a studette in the 20th arrond. And when I visited it, I knew it was for me! Just like that. It has been some months since I have lived in this area. I find it to be very safe and calm. The neighborhood is convenient and well stocked with all life's necessities. The residents' content attitude reflect the charming neighborhood. I am very happy at how wrong those people were who first told me about this place. As a matter of fact, I am so happy that I hope to become a weekend tourguide and show tourists and even Parisians around this area!

Published in
Paris Kiosque :

I give occasional walks at "
Belleville: ça se visite":