Until the mid-80s Belleville, known as the second Parisian Chinatown, was a heterogeneous neighborhood where Jews, Arabs, Africans and West Indians lived. The Chinese aroused resentment by quickly expanding in the district. In 1973 it contained only one Asian restaurant. By 1977 there were four, and by 1981, 41. As at Porte de Choisy, Chinese living in Belleville are mostly Southeast Asian refugees.
Those residing and working the in the Third Arrondissement come, however, from mainland China. Mostly hailing from Wenzhou, they are considered the real Chinese by the French. Instead of operating restaurants and garment factories, they are dealers of fine leather goods. Already a third of all leather stores in the neighborhood are Chinese.
Relations Among Asian Groups
By saturating the Parisian market with restuarants, garment businesses and fine leather stores, the Chinese have driven down prices so low and made the competition so stiff that not only the French but many Chinese have been forced to switch to other trades.
So Chinese taxi companies, Chinese computer and electronics stores, Chinese beauty parlors, Chinese travel agencies and hotels have proliferated into non-Asian neighborhoods.
On the whole Paris's various Asian groups interact little with one another. At most they blend into mainstream society and socialize with the French. Divisions exist even within individual Asian ethnicities. Mainland Chinese, for example, ignore ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia, who in turn ignore the real Indochinese. Each group has its own turf, its own favorite restaurants and streets.
Yet Paris being Paris, friendships, or at least contacts, do form despite the odds. One of my friends there is a woman born in Thailand of Chinese parents but educated in a French school in Laos. She considered herself Chinese, and used to regard other Asians, and especially the Vietnamese, as uneducated and obtuse barbarians.
Another longtime acquaintence is a Taiwanese-Chinese who grew up in Okinawa, earned her bachelor's degree in the U.S., and has settled in Paris. She insisted, after watching The Killing Fields, that it was the Vietnamese, not Khmer Rouge communists, who massacred millions of Cambodians.
Vietnamese have their own opinions of Chinese. "We, the Vietnamese, we want our children first to have a diploma," said Ngo Van Nhan to a reporter for Le Nouvel Observateur. "The Chinese only think of business."
But Paris has a reputation for tolerance so people often unlearn their prejudices here. My Thai-Chinese friend is now married to, of all people, a Vietnamese. My Taiwanese-Chinese acquantence served a few years ago as an interpreter in the Cambodian peace negotiations in Paris.
Vietnamese, the Oldest Asian Community
Disliked by ethnic Chinese, Laotians and Cambodians for historical reasons, the Vietnamese are nevertheless very appreciated by the French. "When we think of the Vietnamese, we think of them as being serious and virtuous," said Helen Raymond. "We think of work, work, work."
The Vietnamese society is France's oldest Asian community. Until 1975 it was also the largest. It is much more varied than Vietnamese American society which is mostly made up of refugees who came since 1975. In France Vietnamese immigration began early. the first wave of pre-1954 immigrants consisted of a small group of students, workers and soldiers. The second wave came between 1954 and 1975, two important years in contemporary Vietnamese history. In 1954 Vietnamese communists defeated French colonial troops in Dien Bien Phu. Fearing reprisal, many Vietnamese with French citizenships emigrated to France. Between 1954 and 1975 students from both North and South Vietnam came here to pursue higher education. The third wave is made up of post-1975 refugees, of whom some are intellectuals and political leaders, but the majority are unskilled and uneducated. PAGE 7