On 7 August 2016, Zhang Chaolin, a forty-nine-year-old tailor, was savagely beaten by a group of youths in Aubervilliers, a deprived suburb on the northern outskirts of Paris – the latest in a string of violent aggressions against ethnic Chinese. Like the other victims, he had been targeted because of the widely held belief that members of the Chinese community habitually carry large amounts of cash (and that they are docile and unlikely to fight back; that they are reluctant to report crimes because they are in the country illegally, or cannot express themselves properly in French; and even if they do, the police do not take them seriously; or, simply, that the Chinese ‘keep themselves to themselves’). As it turned out, Zhang Chaolin only had a packet of cigarettes and some sweets on him. He died as a result of his injuries five days later.
The following year, on 26 March, fifty-six-year-old Liu Shaoyo was preparing dinner for his children in his apartment in the 19th arrondissement in Paris when the police arrived at his home following a call from neighbours (the nature of the complaint remains unclear). The precise sequence of events is disputed: his family insist firmly that he had merely been gutting fish and had answered the door while still holding a pair of kitchen scissors; the police claim that they had acted in self-defence. Either way, they opened fire, killing Liu Shaoyo.
In the aftermath of each man’s death, huge demonstrations were held by France’s ethnic Chinese, a community traditionally invisible in national discourse and under-represented in public life. I was transfixed by video footage of a crowd of over 15,000 in the Place de la République in 2016 shortly after Chaolin’s death on 12 August, protesting against continuing attacks on ethnic Chinese in Paris. Much of what I heard in the speeches that day, as well as in newspaper reports and on social media, felt tragically familiar to me: the cries of a people who felt that they had been ignored by the state. We work hard, we keep out of trouble, no one gives a damn about us, we have to struggle all by ourselves. These were the sentiments I grew up with in my ethnic Chinese family in Malaysia – a sense of frustration and suppressed pain that informed my view of the world.
But there was also something totally foreign to me about these protests: the open dissent. Pushing back against hierarchy and authority. The protesters were overwhelmingly young, incredibly vocal and, in some instances, willing to resort to violent action – the very opposite of how overseas Chinese communities, the centuries-old immigrants known as huaqiao – have traditionally behaved. In short, the demonstrations seemed to be distinctly French.
I had been as surprised as most people to learn that France has the largest ethnic-Chinese population in Europe. In a country where race-based statistics sit uneasily with the notion of égalité and French citizenship, it’s often difficult to find accurate figures, though most estimates suggest a population of at least 600,000–700,000, more than double that of the United Kingdom.
There were other surprises too. In France, where I have travelled and lived on and off for more than fifteen years, I have always taken the French habit of calling anyone of East or South East Asian appearance ‘chinois’ as a laziness bordering on casual racism, particularly since France is home to large Vietnamese and Cambodian communities who arrived in the country in great numbers following the wars in the former French colonies in the 1970s. But as I got to know members of the various Asian communities in Paris, I discovered that I had been guilty of overlooking a fact that should have been obvious to me, of all people: that the overwhelming majority of Cambodians and Vietnamese in France are of Chinese descent. That is to say, like me, they come from South East Asian Chinese families – families who had already been immigrants in their home countries before moving to Europe, and for whom being an outsider is integral to their sense of identity. Their languages – Cantonese and Teochew – are those I have lived with my whole life.
I learned, too, of the vast distinctions within the Chinese community, principally between the South East Asians and the huge numbers of newer immigrants from the mainland, overwhelmingly from the factory-port city of Wenzhou.
I met the people who had organised the most visible of the demonstrations. They have since mobilised themselves into a group that promotes not just political but social and cultural change – the Association of Young Chinese of France, one of the most notable of the many Asian action groups that are being established in the country. Over the course of many months, we’ve walked through the Asian neighbourhoods of Paris, shared meals and become friends over the messy issue of mixed identity. They’ve spoken about what it means to be French and Chinese.
The suburbs of Aubervilliers and Pantin lie just beyond the north-eastern corner of the périphérique, part of the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, notorious in the French public imagination for its perceived levels of crime and deprivation, and known colloquially as ‘le neuf-trois’ after its departmental number. At Quatre Chemins, the crossroads that form the heart of the neighbourhood, the first building I see when I emerge from the Métro bears a sign that reads hôtel à la journée / €53 la nuit. People hurry along the streets, as if to and from work, in contrast to the more bourgeois districts of Paris, which are already empty now that the summer holidays are here.
Rui, age thirty-two:
‘I arrived in France in 1995, when I was seven and a half. My parents had already been here for some years, having arrived in Europe from Wenzhou, in the south of China. They had papers for Italy but had come to France illegally, so when I arrived I was an illegal too. One of my earliest memories of my childhood in France was of my father not returning home one night, and my mother telling me that he’d been arrested by the police for not having the right papers. He didn’t come home for three days. Eventually he was released – they couldn’t prove anything, so he was free to come home, but we lived with that fear all the time. It was exhausting.
‘Before we got our papers, I lived constantly with my father’s shame – the shame of being a poor clandestine. We lived entirely within the Chinese community, that is to say, entirely within the Wenzhou community. Some had papers, many didn’t. There was a very distinct hierarchy, a division between those who were legal and those who weren’t. In those early days, not so many of us had a passport, and if you got married to a French citizen it was like getting married to Bill Gates or Hillary Clinton – the most privileged thing in the world!
‘My father was the opposite end of this spectrum. He worked in the lowest of shitty jobs, as a plongeur in Chinese restaurants – that sort of thing. I could feel his shame at being an illegal immigrant every time he talked to anyone. I could hear it in his voice – he felt crushed by the world. Why? I asked myself. Why do we have to live with this shame? I would go home at night and cry myself to sleep. Because they were illegals, my parents were forced to accept their position at the bottom of the ladder, and their inferiority complex coloured my experience of life, even at that age.
‘Every single time they went out, my parents would take me along with them. “In France the police won’t arrest us if we have a child with us,” they used to say. Even at that age, I knew that I was being used as a human shield. I’d be playing or reading quietly at home and suddenly my parents would say, “We need to go out.” I never had any time for myself. Sometimes I feel as though I had my childhood taken away from me, confiscated against my will.
‘People don’t stay in Quatre Chemins long. As soon as they have a decent job and some money, they move to a better neighbourhood. Those who stay aren’t so lucky. We were here for many years, just up the road on the Pantin side of the crossroads. Down there, just a couple of hundred metres away, was where Zhang Chaolin was attacked. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the violence in Aubervilliers and Pantin, but in truth it’s always been difficult here, there’s always been aggressions, robberies, fights. [As if on cue, at our very first meeting in a cafe in the heart of Quatre Chemins, a fight suddenly breaks out between the Wenzhounese cafe owner and a man who had walked in off the street, an altercation which spills out onto the pavement and results in the appearance of the police in just a few minutes.] This is where the Chinese community live, but they mostly work on the other side of Aubervilliers, where they run wholesale businesses, mainly of clothes, shoes and bags. It’s a barren area, very harsh, and it’s on the way to and from work that they’ve been getting attacked and robbed. What you hear about Chinese people feeling scared and not wanting to go out unless they’re in groups – it’s true. But look around you: you can see we also have ordinary lives in a very mixed community.
‘It looked as if our lives were condemned to forever being lived in the shadows, and my parents were ready to abandon their French dream and return to Italy. But then, in 1997 a coup de théâtre, and suddenly our fortunes were transformed. Jacques Chirac, who was president at the time, decided to call fresh legislative elections because he believed they would reinforce the right and destroy the left. But the plan backfired and instead it was the left who won the elections and proceeded to put in place a programme of regularisation for people who’d lived without papers for many years in the country. All of a sudden, we became normal members of society, and that changed everything for us: the kinds of jobs my parents were suddenly eligible for, the way they could hold their heads up in public, even my behaviour at school. I felt confident, I felt the same as everyone else. It’s not as if we became rich or anything, but almost overnight, we felt as if life held possibilities for us. I remember the day we got our papers, my mother took me to a restaurant for the first time – a simple Vietnamese place where we had pho. It felt like such a luxury.
‘Now that I have a good job – I work in real estate, I have a decent income and I own a nice apartment – I sometimes think back to those days of poverty, when we were illegal and my family had no money, no possibility of earning money or of getting any social security. And I realise that a large part of the shame was what we were going to tell our family back in China. We had left to build better lives for ourselves in France, but here we were, worse off than before. We were trapped in a sort of double prison: by poverty in Europe, and by China and its expectations of us.
‘After I became a full French citizen at the age of eighteen, I started to think more deeply about my identity – about what it meant to be French, and also Chinese. By that time, I and all my cousins and friends, people who’d been brought up or even born in France, had experienced racism in France – from casual insults, people mocking our accents, or more serious incidents like being robbed because we were seen as weak and docile. And then, during the Beijing Olympics, we saw how the French media talked about China and the Chinese, as if we were one kind of people, who acted in the same way, always in the image of the Communist Party. That got me really mad, so together with other friends like me – young Chinese people who considered France their only home – I formed the Association of Young Chinese of France. I was at university at the time, at Paris Dauphine, and reading Marx and Bourdieu – people who helped me make sense of my childhood, of the way my parents’ experience conditioned mine. I wanted to change things – for me and also for them.
‘When Zhang Chaolin was in hospital and everyone knew he was going to die, I knew I had to do something. Together with a few other young people, we made plans for a huge demonstration that we would put into action the moment he died. When I saw all those people gathered for the demonstration outside the mairie of the 19th arrondissement, I felt elated – as if change was finally happening.
‘What happened at the demonstration to mark Liu Shaoyo’s death was even more remarkable. The elders of the Chinese community had organised a formal event, full of boring speeches that tried to appease everyone. Everything was expressed in neutral language, with typical Chinese politesse. Not that many people were present. Then, not long before proceedings were due to wrap up, a huge swathe of protesters dressed in black descended towards the Place de la République, shouting slogans against the establishment. All of them were young Chinese people, angry with the inaction of the older generation. They wanted change, they wanted it urgently. All of it was calculated to make the elders lose face, to show how powerless and pointless they were. It was exhilarating to see that mass of young people trying to wrest control from their elders.
‘For me, the demonstrations were a form of revenge. For the humiliation that my parents experienced. That I’ve experienced. The humiliation of being rendered invisible, of not being listened to. The humiliation that Chinese people go through every time they are aggressed in the street, which is a continuation of the marginalisation my parents lived through.
‘But above all, these protests, this spirit of revolution – this is what makes me French. In Chinese culture, as you and I both know all too well, we’re trained to be obedient, to respect your elders and hierarchy in general. In France it’s the reverse. You became integrated from the moment you feel able to criticise, especially if you criticise the state and the government. It’s a particularly French quality, almost a disease, I would say! In this country, we are French, we are required to be French, and this requires a very special mentality. For Chinese-French people, it’s not the same as Chinese-Italians or Chinese-Spanish, who are always thinking they will never be fully integrated and will probably go back to China in ten years’ time. We think of our children and grandchildren living normal lives in this country, so we need to change things. I have a way of thinking which I feel defines a French person: I believe that the government can always, always, be changed. I believe in the power of revolution to change our lives.’
13: South East Asia
The southern end of Paris’s 13th arrondissement is home to the city’s largest and longest-established Asian community, composed principally of families who fled the civil wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, arriving in France in large numbers after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh in 1975. The heart of Chinatown is concentrated around the famous residential towers blocks known as Les Olympiades, completed in the mid-1970s – the first homes to be occupied by the families arriving from South East Asia.
Laëtitia, age twenty-five:
‘One of the things my parents often used to say in reprimanding me was “Tu es devenue trop Française” – you’ve become too French.