People of Chinese descent have long faced prejudice and violence in France. But today a new generation is staking out its rightful place in society.
On 7 August 2016, #Zhang_Chaolin, a 49-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 only had a packet of cigarettes and some sweets on him. He died five days later as a result of his injuries.
The following year, on 26 March, 56-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.
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 more than 15,000 in the Place de la République in 2016 shortly after Zhang’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 is often difficult to find accurate figures, although most estimates suggest a population of at least 600,000–700,000, more than double that in the UK.
There were other surprises, too. In France, where I have travelled and lived on and off for more than 15 years, I have always taken the French habit of calling anyone of east Asian 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 have walked through the Asian neighbourhoods of Paris, shared meals and become friends over the messy issue of mixed identity. They have 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 Boulevard 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 forms the heart of the neighbourhood, the first building I see when I emerge from the Métro bears a sign that reads “hotel la journe / €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, aged 32: “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 (a dishwasher) 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.
“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, in a coup de théâtre, 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 18, 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 – 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 town hall, 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 10 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.”
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, which were completed in the mid-1970s – the first homes to be occupied by the families arriving from south-east Asia.
Laëtitia, age 25: “One of the things my parents often used to say in reprimanding me was ‘tu es devenue trop Française’ – you’ve become too French. Whenever they were angry they also used the term ‘ang mo kia’, which was not intended as a compliment. [It means “white kid” in many of the dialects of southern China, shorthand for rude, rebellious behaviour – western values being of course the antithesis of harmony, both within the family and in society.] I think it came from a frustration that we, their children, had very little idea of what they went through so that we could grow up with an idea of being French, and only French. But then again, they never spoke of their lives before coming to France, or their difficult journeys here, so it’s no surprise that most of us only have a single French identity.
“My parents are Sino-Cambodian, that is to say, ethnic Chinese Teochews from Chaozhou who were born or grew up in Cambodia with a dual identity, both Chinese and Cambodian. During the war, just before the country fell to the Khmer Rouge, they were forced to flee, abandoning everything they had and, in some cases, even members of their own family. They spent the whole of the war trapped in camps on the Thai border. During that time, who knows what kind of horrors they witnessed? I can understand why they wouldn’t want to talk about it. Like many Cambodians, their lives had been all right over there – they ran shops and small businesses. Then, almost overnight: the war, the nightmare of departure, and finally France. Despite my parents’ silence, I knew that they survived unspeakable brutality in Cambodia, and this knowledge is something unspoken that I carry within me, affecting the way I feel about France.
“Intellectually, I can understand why the gilets jaunes are protesting – I’m French after all, I have the tendency to question the way other French people do. But when you know that your parents have survived one of the greatest genocides the world has ever seen, everything becomes relative. When people talk of life’s great problems being the price of petrol and only being able to go to a restaurant once a week, or only having one holiday a year, we can’t feel fully invested in these arguments, even if we understand them. My parents ran a restaurant when I was a child, and I can’t remember them ever taking a holiday. That’s why they pushed me to have a life where I could make choices and have greater agency than them.
“As a rule, I don’t think you’ll find many French people from south-east Asian Chinese families, that is to say Cambodian or Vietnamese, who are passionate about the right to take to the streets. We don’t take the attitude that ‘the government has to do everything for me’. Even back in Cambodia and Vietnam, our families were already outsiders.
“We didn’t benefit from any structural help then, we didn’t come from the dominant class in those countries, we didn’t feel we had the right to demand anything. We knew we had to fend for ourselves. Even though the overwhelming majority of Asians of my generation would consider themselves French and only French, I don’t know anyone who relies on state subsidies to live – two generations of French citizenship are not enough to change the embedded mentality of self-sufficiency.
“French identity is an incredibly powerful idea. Being French is a notion that is inculcated within us from the earliest days at primary school, and it’s a really attractive principle: a project of assimilation to push aside cultural origins to create one single nationality, one people. But the problem is that differences persist, and as my teenage years went by I suddenly began to think there’s something missing, some part of myself that is not acknowledged, and that’s when I began to interrogate the Chinese part of myself, and learn how to be culturally Chinese as well as French.
“You can see the problems in the unacknowledged differences in culture and race when you look at the aggression against Chinese people in certain parts of Paris. Asian and north African communities live in tough conditions and have come to think about each other in negative stereotypes. We can’t speak about it along racial lines because to do so is taboo, totally contrary to the ideas of the republic, of égalité and so on. But the problems exist.
“The rise of China has been complicated for us. Before that, no one really noticed Asian people – we just got on with our lives in a nearly invisible way. Then I began to hear overtly racist comments – the Chinese spit everywhere, they’re filthy, they’re money launderers. The most negative phase was in 2008-9, during the Beijing Olympics, when suddenly the old ‘Yellow Peril’ fears were everywhere. All the time, we had newspaper stories headlined “China: conquering the world”. There were TV programmes like Envoyé Special, which killed Chinese delicatessens almost overnight by screening ‘exposés’ on hygiene standards. My parents ran one of those delis, so I should know.
“I guess that’s why many people from my community say that they are Cambodian, or Vietnamese, to distance themselves from associations with the mainland, and from the newer immigrants from Wenzhou, who’ve only been in France for 20 years or so.
“We’ve been here since the 1970s, and already there’s a sense within our communities of being more French than they are, more part of the community, which gives us a sense of superiority. The things we say about them echo what the rest of France say about us: that they work really hard, they’re prepared to work very long hours for next to nothing, they keep themselves to themselves, and so on. We’re used to being the model immigrants, but there are newer versions of ourselves, and we pass judgments on them. Maybe that’s a sign of belonging to French society.’
Daniel, aged 27: “I would say that among all my Asian friends, I’m in the minority of those who are comfortable with being both Asian and French. A very small number, I guess those who’ve been victims of consistent racism, choose to reject their French identity, but the vast majority are more comfortable inhabiting only a French identity and are prepared to reject any sense of Asian-ness if it clashes with feeling French.
“From what I see in my circle of friends, ethnic Chinese are far more likely to reject their Chineseness than a Maghrebine their Arabness. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s to do with the silence that exists within many families, particularly those from Vietnam and Cambodia, the lack of knowledge about our histories. We’re not connected to our non-French past the way Arabs and Africans are. They tend to have extended families back in Ivory Coast or Morocco or Algeria who provide them with a link to their cultures, their languages. We don’t have that – there’s no one back in Vietnam who can give me that sense of belonging to another culture. In any case, there’s a complication, because my family are ethnic Chinese who speak Cantonese, so which is my ‘other’ culture?
“There’s a question of visibility, too. Black Africans and north Africans are represented in public life – in sports, music and pop culture in general – whereas we are almost totally absent. That means that it’s more difficult for us to identify role models.
“Another pressure is that our parents often live life through us. Their aspirations, all the things they weren’t able to achieve because they arrived in France too late in life, traumatised and with very little money, they invest in us. Part of that means figuring out how to live in France. Many of us have experience of being interpreters for our parents even when we were very small. So, of course, it’s natural we end up behaving like models of French society.
“We don’t recognise ourselves in French history, which is one of the most important subjects at school, because this is a country that has a long and rich history. We absorb all the lessons on French heroes such as Jeanne d’Arc, Charlemagne, Clovis. It’s one single version of history, one story, which everyone, even children of immigrant families are obliged to accept as their own. Even though I tried to feel that it was my story, I couldn’t help feeling a bit detached from it. To accept that version of history as my only heritage felt false – it was a story that rendered us invisible. Coupled with the misleading stereotypes elsewhere, it felt to me that our fate in society was either not to be talked about, or to be talked about inaccurately.
“We were taught next to nothing about Vietnam, which was after all one of France’s most important colonies for 100 years. Colonial history – France’s relationship with countries that would provide large numbers of its minority populations – wasn’t taught much at school, which was a shame. I remember the kids of Algerian origin being very interested in lessons on the war in Algeria. They felt as if it spoke of them – that the whole class was learning about them and their past, where their parents came from, why they were French, how they were French. There was nothing for us, but in some ways that’s natural. Algeria represents a greater presence in the French imagination than Vietnam, even if that relationship is problematic.
“You have to understand, we grow up with the notion that all of us are French – that is the whole point of our history lessons, to give us one single shared identity. I get that. But isn’t it more important to learn why we are so diverse? We’re all French, but these days there are so many different ways of being French. I’d have loved to have learned more about the histories of the different communities in France – their music, art, language. I’d also have liked to learn about the history of racism, rather than have to figure it all out myself.”
Boulevard Voltaire is just a 15-minute walk from the Place de la Bastille and its concentration of hip bars and restaurants, yet it feels much more down at heel. Most of the shops sell clothing, but there are no customers in them; they have names such as Veti Style, Lucky Men and Bella. Many other shops are closed and available to rent.
Emma, aged 19: “Until I was in my mid-teens, I never had any Chinese friends. In fact, I made a point not to hang out with other Chinese kids. I only had white, Arab or black friends – I was born here and wanted to show how French I was. But about 16, 17, I started to change. I’d had conversations with my parents, who’d come to France from Wenzhou when they were young. ‘No matter how you feel inside,’ my father told me, ‘when the world looks at you, they see a Chinese person.’ It was around that time too that I began to realise that all the things I’d accepted as normal – people mocking Chinese accents to my face, even though I speak just like any other French person, casual comments sexualising Asian women and desexualising Asian men – were micro-aggressions, and that I had to embrace my culture, instead of reject it.
“My parents ran a bar-tabac towards the Oberkampf side of the 11th arrondissement. I wanted to do what bourgeois white French kids do, so I applied to Sciences Po, one of the most prestigious of the country’s grandes écoles. Few people in my community thought it was worth it – they couldn’t imagine it possible for me to pursue a career in human or social sciences, and definitely not in politics. There aren’t any statistics on how many Asians there are at Sciences Po, but just from my own observations, there are fewer than 10 per year, which means 30 in the entire school. It’s not like in the US, where Asians are a very visible presence on every major college campus – our elite schools still feel quite foreign to us. Maybe in the more science-based schools there might be more Asians, but personally I really don’t know any. If you look at schools like École normale supérieure, which require you to have amassed great cultural knowledge by the time you’re 18 or 20, the figure is probably zero.
“Whatever the real situation, the general impression within the Chinese community is that the most exclusive schools are bastions that we’d have difficulty gaining access to, so when I got in, it was a really, really big achievement. Things are changing now, but not as fast as you’d imagine. In the French imagination, Asians are studious and conscientious, but if that were true, we would be much more visible in the grandes écoles, which are, after all, the standard-bearers of French education.”