Getting Ready for New Year in Chinatown

paris-store supermarket
The 'Tet' rush is on already at the 'Paris-Store Supermarket.'

Very Long Parades and Lots of Firecrackers Coming Soon

Paris:- Wednesday, 21. January 1998:- You may think it is an easy thing to do, going around and taking photos of the thousands of bars, cafés, bistros and restaurants in Paris. I don't suppose many readers have stopped to consider that many of these 'French' establishments are oriental.

Paris has a lot of 'Chinese' restaurants everywhere. In addition to these, there is a large Chinese community living in Paris; concentrated in the 19th and 20th arrondissements around Belleville, and a larger community is in the lower end of the 13th arrondissement.

This second one is sometimes called 'Chinatown.' Not Ville de Chine, but 'Chinatown.' There are over 100 oriental restaurants and something like 13 percent of the population is Asiatic in origin.

The date of the Lunar New Year is near, so I start my research at the Mairie of the 13th, located at the place d'Italie. You never franco-asiatic assn know what you might find in the city hall of an arrondissement - so they are good places to start if the territory is completely unfamiliar.

While local citizens are demanding local services at the reception, I quietly rummage through the handbills. The only one with 'Nouvel An Lunaire 1998' on it has been put out by the 'Rencontre et Culture Franco-Asiatique' association.

This is the modest headquarters of the Franco-Asiatique Cultural Centre.

I ask the reception lady for directions and she says it is just across the 'place.' The place d'Italie is very large and the number at the beginning of the rue de Choisy is very high - which means it is going to be an unknown length of walk to get to number 29.

After admiring the Liverpool football scarf of some street kids, number 29 does not look promising - mostly because it says it is only open on weekends. While I'm reading this, a fellow comes out the door, allowing me to slip in.

The first room is small and full of Chinese decorations in plastic sacks, hanging from the ceiling. The second room is not much larger, and it has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of used pocketbooks, mostly in Chinese.

Behind a large pile of loose papers and somewhere behind what I imagine to be some sort of desk, is Mr. Phi Kin-Chi. He is going out, the centre is not open, the telephone rings, I am to sit down, if I can find a chair.

Mr. Phi is very busy. He does not say this; I sense it because he starts to do things, but keeping on chinatown's start talking. On the phone, it is usually in Chinese or Vietnamese, to me it is English. Mr. Phi has to go; I can come with him and see the school the association runs.

Before we get anywhere near the door, Mr. Phi explains to me that the Chinese who live around Belleville are mostly Chinese and he does not know why they live there.

Chinatown started in this mini-mall courtyard, just over 20 years ago.

In the 13th, the Chinese are mostly from Vietnam; except the ones from Taiwan - three factions - the ones from Hong Kong - two factions - the ones from Cambodia, Laos, northern Vietnam - many factions - and the Chinese Chinese - also many factions.

Mainly though, the Chinese came to the 13th as a result of the end of the war in Vietnam. Mr. Phi is a little impatient with me when I ask, which war? The French, the American, the Chinese, the Vietnamese - he is talking about 1975. Mr. Phi has been in Paris 20 years and I do not ask him when he left Saigon or why or how.

When they came to Paris, they came to the 13th because it was cheap and run down. For the Chinese, the rents were higher than normal, but they paid.

Actually, the 'Chinese' area of the 13th looks like an immense and not particularly attractive public housing project - and according to one source, even had some 'pagoda' decor before the Chinese arrived. In the triangle between the avenues de Choisy and Ivry, down to the boulevard Masséna, with the high buildings, it could be a housing development in Hong Kong; only lacking the harbor.

Over time, many Chinese - all factions - have moved in. Mr. Phi has his entire family in France and I forget the exact number, but it is about a dozen close relatives. The whole community is like this.

After we have found the big padlock and chained a steel cabinet closed, we head down the avenue de Choisy. On the way to the school, Mr. Phi takes a detour into a small commercial centre to show me where 'Chinatown' has its start. It is unremarkable.

We go up to an office he has in the school, which is between two classrooms. They are small rooms, full of kids. We are in the photocopy and chinatown resto sign café centre, for a café. Mr. Phi warns me not to take too much sugar, then decides I should have more. One classroom breaks and kids pour out through the centre, and soon other kids are coming in for their class.

Mr. Phi needs to get something, buy something; take an angelfish he has in a jar someplace - probably home. We go over to the avenue d'Ivry to the 'Paris-Store Supermarket.' That is its name; in Chinese it is seven characters.

Inside, there are a lot of people at the checkouts. Mr. Phi tells me they are doing their 'Tet' shopping. He hellos all the crew at the meat and bird counter and introduces me to the manager and he takes a Metropole card, so he can read this on Monday. The veggie guy is slapped on the back and we take an escalator upstairs for a swing around the pots, bowls, and wun-tun baskets. With the upstairs's manager's approval, I take a photo of a big Chinese vase there; ask him if they deliver. The hand-painted vase is about two metres high. It is for decor, not cooking.

Back downstairs, we are going out and then we are back in because everybody knows Mr. Phi. My blitz tour of the supermarket tells me it has everything you need, if you don't need anything Mexican. Mr. Phi tells me Chinese come from London to shop here. I've personally met students from Berlin who came down here to shop. The ginger is huge.

We make it out on about the fifth try, after Mr. Phi has remembered the angelfish, in the jar he checked going in. Mr. Phi really has to go now. The goodbye is not long, but it has ten episodes.

Beyond the 'Paris-Supermarket Store' there is the imperium of the Tang Brothers. It is all over the place, even in lights strung across the street, which are just about to come on. I take the escalator up into the mall, where there are hairdressers, video shops, more restaurants, fraternal associations and cafés.

Not all the people around are Chinese; I guess not even all the Chinese are Chinese. Beyond the mall, there is a monster plats a emporter jungle of very high apartment buildings, with one-story restaurants and shops in the long area between them. When I can get out, it looks like Paris again.

I bet the Chinese had take-away eats 2,000 years ago.

But, I'm lost. I ask the way to the nearest métro and get even more lost. Finally I'm at the 'Paris-Store Supermarket' again, so I know how to get to the avenue de Choisy.

This is where I run into Mr. Phi again, with his angelfish. He has to go to the 'Paris-Store Supermarket' because he forget to get what we went there for. We say goodbye again, but don't drag it out. He's late and I'm cold. I can't find métro Tolbiac which can't be far away, and hike all the way back to the place d'Italie. There's a choice of lines here, so I take the six to Etoile.

Later, I send a fax to Mr. Phi to ask for the 'Year of the Tiger' in Chinese. He is also a licensed interpreter.

When he faxes the Chinese text back to me, he forgets to put my name on it and the ladies in the Librarie Moderne think it is Chinese spam and toss it in the waste bucket. I go there in time and get it unwrinkled. The ladies are sorry; they don't charge for the three pages. It is on this week's contents page it says, '1998 The Year of the Tiger.'

Mr. Phi told me a lot of other things too - like how Chinese restaurants are financed - about some frictions between the communities - how not even he can get a table for ten on Sunday noons at 'the' restaurant - but let's just skip to Chinese New Year.

Wishing You a Happy New Year

Wishing You a Happy New Year

The demonstration of the 'Lion Dance' is next Saturday, so it'll be over when you read this. The actual Lion Dance is on Saturday, 31. January and Sunday, 1. February, from 9:30 to 18:00. The location is given simply as on the avenues de Choisy and Ivry.

The big event - the New Year celebration I guess - is at 14:00 on Sunday, 1. February. The Vietnamese New Year - 'Tet' I guess - is about the same time in the same place. I saw posters for it, on Saturday, 31. January.

There will be a 'Weekend Culture La Chine à Paris' on the same Saturday and Sunday, at the Centre d'Animation le Rond-Point Baudricourt, 6. rue Simone Weil and 65. avenue d'Ivry. A exhibition of painting and calligraphy takes place in the same location; from Saturday, 31. January until Sunday, 8. February. Hours are 10:00 to 18:00. Info. Tel.: 01 45 82 14 19.

Then there will be a World-Class Lion Dance competition, along with the Canton Opera, folkloric dances, some Kung-Fu and a parade of traditional and imperial costumes; on Sunday, 15. February; from 14:00 to 18:00. This will take place at the Gymnase Georges Carpentier, 81. boulevard Masséna, Paris 13. Métro: either porte de Choisy or porte d'Ivry.

There are no entry charges for these events, but places may be reserved for them. Call either the number above, or the number of the Rencontre et Culture Franco-Asiatique, at 01 45 86 40 52.

I hope you enjoy your Année du Tigre, Année d'Abonndance. I hope I will have time to get in a Sunday lunch in Chinatown, if I can get a table. It will be like old times.

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