Migration in Paris’ Chinatown: a reality in Europe

Article published on July 15, 2008
Article published on July 15, 2008

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

With Chinatowns sprouting in every major European city, immigrants travel more between one country to the next. Does it make them more European than ‘real’ Europeans?

Chinese emigration has reached unprecedented levels since the policy regarding reform and opening up the country began in 1978, which marked the end of Mao’s communist regime. After decades of being cut off from the rest of the world, there was a flurry of departures abroad at the end of the eighties. This was particularly the case in the eastern/ south-eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, known for being migratory shelters in the south of China, where a lot of the current flow to Europe finds itself.

The countries of western Europe are perceived to be a privileged destination but also an area where opportunities to work have fast become scarce. The labour market in the fast food sector favoured by Chinese immigrants has rapidly become saturated. New arrivals in Europe have had to find other activities and host regions. During the nineties, capitals of countries in northern Europe such as Denmark and the Netherlands, but also in the east, for example the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, saw the birth of their own Chinatowns, with their own way of life. There are more than thirty different Chinese newspapers in Europe today.

Paris: a tale of two Chinese communities

France is the country most affected by this new wave of Chinese immigration, in particular Paris. However, when these immigrants arrive in France, they find themselves faced with an already well established Chinese community. For this group, France constitutes the last phase of a migratory history that started several centuries ago.

The ‘Boat People’ were granted refugee status by France in the mid-seventies

The ‘Boat People’ were granted refugee status by France in the mid-seventies, when they were fleeing conflict and persecution in the countries of former Indochina. These Cantonese, Teochiu or Hakka people of Chinese origin dispersed in southeast Asia have often inherited a Vietnamese, Laotian or Thai culture. There is nothing to link former and new immigrants who do not share either the same history or language.

Whilst the 13th arrondissement (of twenty ‘districts’) of Paris and its surrounding areas are home to the ‘Boat People’, new Chinese immigrants are establishing themselves in the 3rd arrondissement and the northeastern area of the city. Paris therefore has two separate Chinese districts. If relations between these two groups are not always friendly, there are still definite interactions between them. With the arrival of these new immigrants, China has become a more palpable reality. These immigrants are more in touch with modern life in China where often some of their relatives are still living.

The phenomenon of cultural conversion

Mandarin has become the lingua franca of Chinese emigrants

Chinese television has recently acquired a large audience for its programmes via satellite, including older immigrants. Mandarin, the official language, has become the lingua franca of Chinese emigrants. A prosperous Chinese entrepreneur originally from Laos who arrived in France in 1976 is a witness to this. ‘Even Teochiu and Cantonese people no longer stick out from the other Chinese immigrants like they did fifty years ago. Before, they couldn’t understand each other in their own language. Now, with Mandarin it’s no longer the same. There are less differences!’ According to this entrepreneur, local dialects are far less important than Mandarin, which has become the real language to do business with.

This phenomenon of cultural conversion is not unique. For a few years now, new Chinese immigrants in Paris have been organising their own processions to mark Chinese New Year, just like their elders in Southeast Asia. However, far from conforming to traditions in their provinces of origin, it completely resembles the rituals of the ‘Boat People’.