Paris, France’s largest and most diverse city, is home to a vibrant immigrant population that includes, among many cultures, one of the largest and oldest East Asian communities in Europe. In honor of the Lunar New Year, we’re taking a look at three neighborhoods in Paris with a history of immigration from China—and superior restaurants.
Today, there are just a handful of Chinese-owned shops and restaurants near the métro station Arts et Métier (in the city center, not far from Beaubourg). But during the 1930s and 1940s, the city’s oldest existing Chinatown was filled with sundry shops, wholesale stores, leatherwork ateliers, and other businesses owned largely by immigrants from Wenzhou, a city on the southeastern coast of China.
Les Wen, as French people with roots in Wenzhou are nicknamed, were the first Chinese immigrants to France—the small group of merchants arrived shortly after the port of Wenzhou opened to France in 1876. A second wave followed during the World War I, when British and French forces recruited more than 140,000 Chinese workers to perform manual labor on the Western front, clearing trenches of mines, repairing railways, building ammunition depots, and other menial tasks. Paid a pittance and forbidden to fraternize with their employers—their ranks diminished by shelling, landmines, mistreatment, and disease—only a small group remained in France after the Armistice, most settling in Paris.
Despite their small numbers, however, the link to Wenzhou endured. During the 20th century, a steady stream of Wenzhou immigrants joined their families in Paris, forming a strong social and economic network that still exists. Today, they make up the largest Chinese community in Paris, according to the French newspaper, La Croix. Their integration, along with the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification, means Wenzhou-owned businesses have dwindled in the 3rd arrondissement; many of the former leatherwork ateliers and wholesale shops have evolved into restaurants. “Wenzhou cuisine isn’t widely celebrated, but Wenzhou-owned restaurants cook everything—Sichuan, Vietnamese,” says Chunhui LeComte, an art gallery owner who moved to Paris from Beijing 35 years ago. “They are very savvy business people.”
Ward off wintry Parisian grey skies with a bowl of noodle soup at Happy Nouilles, where the house-made strands are thick, doughy, and hand-pulled. At Song Heng, a postage-stamp Vietnamese restaurant, a perpetual crowd flocks for the bo bun, a light and colorful rice noodle salad.
The story of the 13th arrondissement begins in Teochow (also spelled Chaozhou, Teochiu, or Chiuchow), a city on the southeastern coast of China (about 500 miles south of Wenzhou). More than 400 years ago, economic hardship drove many Teochow immigrants to settle in Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which became the colonies of French Indochina.
In the 1970s, facing discrimination in the wake of political upheaval, more than 150,000 Teochow fled southeast Asia for France, where they received political asylum. Already familiar with French language and culture due to their colonial exposure, the Teochow integrated rapidly in France; many of them settled in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, on the city’s southeastern edge. Today, this neighborhood, the Triangle de Choisy—which is named for the triangle of streets formed by the Avenue de Choisy, Avenue d’Ivry, and Boulevard Masséna—is Europe’s largest quartier asiatique, filled with restaurants and grocery stores that reflect the Chinese diaspora in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“They were survivors,” says Nancy Li, a journalist and longtime resident of Paris. “They had lost everything. But they’ve made the 13th into a successful immigrant neighborhood.”
At Au Delice de Confucius, which Nancy Li calls “the top Shandong restaurant in Paris,” her favorites include the handmade pork dumplings and sweet-and-sour fried fish. [email protected] offers “chinois-khmer” dishes like boeuf loc lac, or stir-fried black pepper beef served over rice with a fried egg. Ngoc Xuyên Saigon is a traditional Vietnamese restaurant serving delicious noodle soups featuring beef, fish, or crab. Carrying everything from fresh fish, to Asian vegetables, to jarred sauces, the city’s two Asian mega-supermarkets, Paris Store and Tang Frères, alone are worth a trip to the neighborhood.
Celebrate the New Year: The 13th arrondissement hosts the city’s oldest and largest Lunar New Year parade, held this year on February 25 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. More than 200,000 people gather for the spectacle of lion dances, acrobats, percussionists, and more, so arrive early and be prepared for crowds. A full program of events, including film screenings, concerts, and art exhibits, will also be offered throughout the month. More details live here.
Perched on a hill in northeast Paris, Belleville is traditionally a quartier populaire, a working-class neighborhood whose multi-ethnic immigrant population was once rooted largely in Eastern Europe and North Africa. In the late 1970s, Teochow refugees began moving here, spilling over from the 13th arrondissement, and creating the city’s newest Asian neighborhood, which is concentrated mainly on the Rue de Belleville.
Today, the neighborhood is one of the most diverse in Paris, a motley mix of artist’s studios, Middle Eastern sweet shops, Asian grocery stores, and eclectic bistros frequented by bobos—or bourgeois-bohème, a.k.a. Parisian hipsters—whose presence is starting to be associated with the area.
“It’s much larger than Arts et Métiers, much more diverse than the 13th,” says Minh-Tâm Trân, co-author of Nouilles d’Asie and owner of La Kitchenette de Miss Tam, a Vietnamese cooking school. “But, yes, it’s becoming more and more bobo.”
Minh-Tâm Trân loves the ultra-fresh, house-made tofu at Best Tofu, which offers soybean curds in a variety of forms: sweet, savory, spicy, fried, etc. The sprawling Chen Market offers an array of fish, meat, and Chinese vegetables; Wing Seng is smaller with more Vietnamese products. At La Kitchenette de Miss Tam, Minh-Tâm Trân’s cooking classes offer a delicious overview of Vietnamese cuisine, while introducing typical ingredients and dishes.
Hero image credit: Flickr/Joe deSousa
What are some of your favorite places to eat Chinese or Vietnamese food in Paris? Let us know in the comments!