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.