I’m at Café O’Jules on the Place d’Italie, accompanied by a large brown box and a serious case of exhaustion. Whupped isn’t a French word, but it’s the best one for how I feel. How did I end up here, listening to a French version of “Born to Run” and eating stale popcorn out of a plastic basket?
It started this morning. I rushed through errands so I could be on time for a walking tour of Chinatown. Our group met at the Porte de Choisy, at the southern end of the 13th arrondissement. Our guide Claude Marti created an air of drama with his dark eyes, black coat and a black hat pulled low over his eyes. He leaped onto a nearby bench, swept his arms wide, and exclaimed,“Bienvenue au quartier asiatique, le Chinatown de Paris.”*
I looked around. Nothing here resembled the Chinatowns of San Francisco or New York. No arched gateways, no winding streets, no quaint lanterns. The closest thing to an ethnic restaurant nearby was a McDonalds with Chinese lettering. All around were enormous featureless towers. Marti seemed to anticipate my reaction – “This Chinatown must be discovered and uncovered,” he said. “It is a creation of the last 40 years.” I hope it’s here somewhere, I thought, because this is the blandest neighborhood I’ve seen in Paris.
I was wrong. The Asiatic Quarter is a rich and fascinating district camouflaged by modernistic apartment blocks. In the 1960s, a massive urbanization project replaced an “insalubre” workers’ district with dozens of residential towers. Influenced by Le Corbusier’s principles, planners ignored traditional French street life, elevating pedestrian areas onto platforms above street level. This design repelled the Parisian professionals who were the intended residents. Many developments were close to failure when, in the 1970s, immigrants fleeing war in Southeast Asia began to fill the empty towers. Today, la petite Asie includes 200 acres and 50,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao and Chinese.
The high-rise design hides much of the life of the quartier asiatique from the casual stroller. For example, to enter Tang Frères, giant retail flagship of a family empire, we walked down a sloping driveway, around a corner and under a building. But once inside, it seemed that everyone in Chinatown was there, buying rice noodles, lychee juice, coconut milk, octopus – anything edible and Asian.
Around more corners and up a stairway, we stepped out onto the dalle, the elevated pedestrian platform of Olympia, largest of the developments. Its pagoda-style shops are far removed from street level – 30 feet above it. But children played soccer on the open concrete porch; and tucked in a corner of the platform was the temple of the Buddhist Teochew sect, with a welcoming feel and brightly-decorated community room.
Then we descended several flights of stairs for another stop – this time a temple whose entry is in the ramp to a parking garage.
After the tour, invigorated by brisk winter air and new experiences, I decided to run an errand at the nearby Italie 2 shopping center. But when I emerged in the chilly evening, carrying a vacuum cleaner in a bulky box, my adrenaline had run out. I couldn’t face the Métro stairs or the walk across the huge traffic rotary to the taxi stand. I plopped down at Café O’Jules – which brings us back to the beginning of this post. Nursing my aperitif and popcorn, the vacuum cleaner sitting across the table like a dull date, I can’t imagine ever getting up. (“Another One Bites the Dust”, comments the music from the overhead speakers.)
Will I muster the energy to walk to the taxi? Or will I continue to sit here, dreaming of mysterious Chinatown, falling asleep over my glass of Dubonnet? Ask me later. Right now, I’m whupped.
Links and translations
“Bienvenue au quartier asiatique, le Chinatown de Paris.” – Welcome to the Asiatic quarter, Paris’ Chinatown. This district is bordered by avenue de Choisy, avenue d’Ivry and boulevard de Masséna. Wikipedia has a good account of the 60s project to remake the area. Look for the 1891 Panhard buildings, remnants of demolished factories.
Claude Marti, our guide in Chinatown, is a rock star among French-speaking Paris tour leaders.
insalubre – unsanitary
Tang Frères, 48 Avenue d’Ivry, 75013, sells to cooks and restauranteurs from all over Paris.
dalle – in the Asiatic quarter, a pedestrian platform above street level; literally, concrete slab
Temple de l’Amicale des Teochew, Terrasse des Olympiades, offers a quiet retreat, and the Association des Résidents en France d’Origine Indochinoise hosts public events.
centre commercial – shopping center
Café O’Jules, 2 Rue Bobillot, 75013, redeems itself on quiet Sunday afternoons, with comfortable red chairs, dark wood décor – and peanuts instead of popcorn.