‘Je suis Chaolin’: why the Chinese in France are speaking up about violence and racism

Chinese migrants in Paris and its suburbs are fed up with crime and aggression towards their community, demanding more protection from the state

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 5:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 9:05pm

It was a winter evening in Aubervilliers. The inventory was done, and Jenny Chou was finishing her shift at a shoe store. As the bespectacled 24-year-old walked out on Avenue Victor Hugo, a young man grabbed her purse and ran.

Thefts were becoming alarmingly frequent in this Paris suburb in the past months, and Chinese storekeepers on the same avenue found themselves sharing nearly identical experiences of being robbed, and attacked physically or verbally.

Many shared Chou’s sentiment: “They only attack the Chinese. Why the Chinese?”

For several months now, Chou has avoided walking alone, and heads straight home after work.

“I made a complaint, nothing happened. In China, it’s much better. If someone commits a crime, something is done,” she opined in fluent French.

More than 100 cases of aggression against Chinese residents were reported since November in Aubervilliers alone, the association L’Amitié Chinoise En France said.

Historically a manufacturing town north located along the Saint-Denis canal, Aubervilliers is a centre for textile imports in Europe, with around a thousand mostly Chinese-owned warehouses and showrooms bearing names like Miss Baby Hot Bottom and Flower Bloom, fanning out from Avenue Victor Hugo.

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Bulk deliveries of apparel and footwear, ranging from skinny jeans and puffy jackets to thong sandals and stiletto pumps, make their way down the supply chain, with retailers coming from nearby towns and as far as Iceland and Russia.

An economic partnership with the city of Wenzhou in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province initiated by Aubervilliers’ centre-left mayor Jacques Salvator less than a decade ago paved the way for immigrants to partake in France’s US$32 billion textile import industry.

In China, it’s much better. If someone commits a crime, something is done
Jenny Chou

Richard Beraha, editor of the book La Chine à Paris (China in Paris) and an expert on the diaspora, said farmers and artisans migrating from mountain villages surrounding Wenzhou have established a strong presence across Western Europe. In France, they number around 300,000, about half of the country’s ethnic Chinese population.

“They took advantage of a booming industry, they had knowledge of the buying and selling channels,” Beraha said.

The Chinese take pride in their image as hard workers with an inherent knack for business, and mostly shrug off the typecasting. But increasingly, they say, the notion that they deal mostly in cash and walk around carrying large sums of money has made them a target for crime.

The number of thefts, some accompanied by violence, have tripled in 2016 compared to last year, according to Le Monde newspaper, citing prefecture records.

After Zhang, who’s next?

On August 7, 49-year old textile designer Chaolin Zhang was walking on the residential street of Rue des Ecoles in Aubervilliers, when three men tried to steal his companion’s bag and then attacked him, as he tried to stop them. He suffered a blow and fell to the ground, in a coma.

He died of injuries five days later, leaving behind a wife and two children.

“Zhang Chaolin, mort pour rien. Qui sera la prochain?” (“Zhang Chaolin died for nothing, who will be next?”) was the rallying cry of Chinese protesters in Paris on September 4, donning identical white T-shirts with the slogan, “Securité pour tous” (“Security for all”).

“Ral-Bol”, French slang for “enough”, was splashed on a giant balloon. Young protesters held up a widely shared photo of a Chinese man whose eye was badly swollen and his face bearing marks after he was mugged.

Security is a right. It’s a common good
Aubervilliers mayor Meriem Derkaoui

Thousands of Chinese, many toting their children, filled the Place de la Republique, traditionally a venue for large demonstrations such as last spring’s anti-labour reform rallies and the solidarity march for Charlie Hebdo victims in 2015.

The demo was scheduled on a Sunday, the only day in the week when most Chinese shops are closed. Underneath the towering statue of Marianne, a symbol of France, the protesters screamed out the French Republic’s sacred motto - Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – and demanded that the Chinese living in France be afforded these too.

The estimated turnout of 15,000 was significant, for a community known for its discretion and non-participation in politics. The last mobilisations of such scale took place in 2010 and 2011, when Chinese from the Belleville district in northern Paris protested against growing insecurity and racial discrimination.

As early as then, the community was already facing rising numbers of theft and verbal attacks.

“Now, the risk is death,” said Alain Zhilin Huang, vice president of L’Association Plaine Commune Chine-Asie, which promotes the economic development of Aubervilliers and surrounding towns.

Huang added, “Before, aggressions were happening too, but it was not this dangerous. They were stealing some money, stealing bags. Today, people don’t stop at stealing bags.”

Huang’s group has met with Aubervilliers’s mayor Meriem Derkaoui and with other local and regional authorities to demand greater police presence, more surveillance cameras and faster procedures for reporting cases. Currently, it takes about four hours to file a police report –costing more than a half a day of productivity.

“Security is a right. It’s a common good.” Derkaoui said during the Paris demonstration, promising justice for Zhang and announcing that the three suspects in his death had been arrested and would be put to trial.

“This was a racially targeted act,” she said of Zhang’s killing.

First-time protesters

Among the protesters who marched that day from Place de la Republique to the historic Bastille square was Amei Jin, proprietress of a gown store called 1.2.3 Soleil.

Jin arrived in France in 1985, joining the wave of migrants from Wenzhou. She was prepared to get her hands dirty, and worked in a Turkish-owned garment workshop until she saved enough money to send for her parents. Like her fellow Chinese migrants, her inability to speak French limited her interaction with locals.

“We had to work, we had to eat, there was not much time for other things,” Jin said.

Beraha, the diaspora expert, said of the Wenzhou migrants: “They were peasants, some arrived without papers. They came to build their businesses...they were not capable of integrating in French society.”

After nearly three decades of living in Paris, Jin now speaks French with ease. She has confidently filed complaints at the police station, having experienced robbery attempts at least five times.

It was Jin’s first time to join a demonstration on September 4th. She came with her husband and their friends. For Jin, this was a sign that the Chinese community has become more enlightened and more engaged.

“When we arrived, we were merely foreigners. Now, we read the news, we understand more what’s happening,” she said.

More French or Chinese?

The 55,000-square-metre Fashion Centre mall in Aubervilliers houses 300 wholesale garment stalls sprawled across lanes called Rue Pekin or Rue Chine. Daniel Yang owns Clothe Corner, following the footsteps of his father, who was also a textile trader.

Migrating from Wenzhou, four generations of Yang’s family have lived in France, his grandparents taking care of him and his sister while his parents worked full-time. Despite being born in France, he said, the society never made him feel completely French.

“Teacher, I’m French,” he recalled saying in primary school. “She told me, ‘No!’”

“France is a racist country,” Yang said, claiming that non-white immigrants are less likely to be hired for top jobs in France.

Yang rejects the stereotyping of the Chinese as an insular group, or as tax-evading merchants.

“In the past, it was the Jews. Now, it’s the Chinese. ‘If they’re Chinese, they’re rich, they have money.’ The French, they cry that we’re stealing their bread,” he said.

“We’re taking risks. Thanks to us, France earns more. We are productive,” Yang said, underlining that businessmen like him pay at least 33 per cent of tax, and saying some locals were “lazy”.

Nearly everyone complaining of aggression towards the Chinese had a stereotype of who the perpetrators were- Arabs and blacks, they would say in a hushed tone, adding that these petty criminals were probably jobless or out-of-school.

As Europe battles a migrant crisis that right-wing politicians have capitalised on by instilling fear and stoking nationalist sentiments, the question of how best to assimilate foreign cultures becomes ever more vexing.

France has historically opened its doors to migration, but its formula for integrating outsiders is to make them as French as possible. Residency is incumbent on learning the language and history.

But migrants from China remain strongly rooted to Chinese culture, not the least the language, passing it on to the younger generations.

Beraha has posed this question: “When one is a child of the world’s top economic power, does he really feel like fully assimilating in France? There are many French people living in China. Do we ask them to assimilate into the Chinese society and to become Chinese?”

Yang was winding down at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, to go home to his baby daughter, for whom he would want a two-sided upbringing.

“When I was young, I was French. As I’ve grown older, I’m Chinese,” he said.