cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let's Go Down to China Town

Snack Attack in BellevilleIt appears that in nearly every major city in Europe and in the Americas there is to be found a Chinatown, a Little Tokyo--maybe a Petite Hanoi? a bitty Bangkok, a Seoul-ville? Mini-countries, one inside the other. Of all the world cultures found transplanted into another through immigration, it is the cultures of the East (for me a western-centric egoist) more often than not who profoundly establish a replication of their old world in their new.

Not to imply Asian cultures are the sole builders of ethnic districts-- there are grandiose Jewish quarters found around the world, central European and middle-eastern burrows in small and big towns, and of course (particularly in the southern US) Spanish districts in which foreign culture is streamed in through restaurants, markets, goods, language, entertainment, and society. All of these aspects join together to form not just a "Little Stalingrad" or a "Taco Town" inside a Seattle, LA, Munich, or Paris, but rather a true part of the city's identity, part of the culture, the countries culture, the peoples culture. That is what a cities cultural identity is; there is only one Paris, one that is French, Chinese, Arab, African, Jewish, Muslim, America(s)n; whether you like it or not everyone is affected, the city is affected, the city is made. The world is not big anymore, we all share with each other now. What is New York City without Little Italy, San Fran without Chinatown, and where would the whole world be, for that matter, without that damn street kabob!

But why does it seem that there are more established pockets of Asian cultures in cities around the world than of any other ethnicity? There are many reasons, and I will try a few of them as I sit here munching on a white rabbit (it's a Japanese candy, not an actual rodent lagomorpha, you may rest-assured Alice's pocket watch carrying bunny is not in danger. for tonight at least.) Are the Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese just more organized? maybe. But there is more to it. I think.

One word, you are thinking, mallory kick it with the annalysis--all you need to say is immigration. True, I suppose. Immigration explains how one group of peoples ends up living among another group of peoples. Immigration is quite the interesting subject don't you agree, the United States would not exist without it. Australia-- same as the US. France's immigrant population markedly consists of North Africans and Muslims, which has had a major impact on Parisian culture, food, and even language. Right now Brasil is celebrating its 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration, as we all know, Brasil has the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan. Spokane--Spokane houses a huge number of Ukranian and Russian immigrants. Speaking of Ukraine, Ireland has recently experienced a Ukranian influx of migrant workers. Each community is made different, made better, made itself by the variant cultural makeup of historical and current immigration. But immigration in itself does not explain why there is a Chinatown and not a Ukrainiatown.

Hypothetical (yet evident) reasons: western and eastern cultures are markedly different from one another (no way!) and therefore any "setup" in the other is much more noticeable. China is the most populated country in the world (no way!) and therefore numerically there has, and continues to be more immigrants establishing themselves around the world. The earliest Chinatowns in America, and around the world for that matter, emerged from both need and availability. We don't need to hide our imperfect history, our human historical error of racism--it's a fact. What do people do when faced with racism? They learn to cope, they institute familiarity to bring comfort and a sense of community into their new lives. Often times, centered around food. For the availability--with large communities it is possible to have the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker.

But let's face it, most modern Chinatowns are there nowadays for us, the tourist and visitor. We like the stuff, we want the stuff. Chinatowns are huge attractions for foreigners, as well as nearby locals. Imports and wholesales often times make the markets quite the bargain, and the international charm of the whole experience is enough to pull you down town and over to the international district to buy candy instead of just popping down the road to the supermarket. And besides, who wouldn't rather eat some szechuan chicken and some kimchi cooked by real people who know the food they are actually cooking, who know how to pronounce it, know its history, know its purpose, than say that sticky orange sweet and sour crap smoldering under a hot glass at the deli take away counter at the supermarket. That's what I thought.

There are two Chinatowns--quartiers chinoises--in Paris, the largest and older is in the 13e arrondissement in the southeast of Paris near the porte d'Italie. The second is in the 19e at Belleville, the quartier chinois we will pay a visit to right now.

A bit on Chinese immigration to France: the first major waves hit the country during and after the first World War as Chinese immigrants were welcomed as manual laborers. The Chinese population remained in Paris during and after the second war, briefly taking over the wholesale market in the Jewish district le marais. Through the years the locations of the Chinatowns have changed, leaving only traces of there previous installments. The modern locations have been in establishment since the early 1970's.

What makes a Chinatown? First, a large number of Chinese residents. Second: markets, stores, and stalls that sell Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and or Thai products, oftentimes for very low prices. Third: restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. Fourth: Video, book, magazine, newspapers available in Chinese and other Asian languages. And fifth: street signs are almost always in the the countries language as well as Chinese. A mini country inside of another.

What does Paris Chinatown have? I'll tell you. Many supermarkets selling everyday products you'll find everywhere for lower prices, but located on a shelf next to myriad rice crackers and packets of dried powders and spices. Paris Store is a large chain that is quite popular and found throughout France. Produce markets, restaurants, patisseries where next to the croissants are sesame and wasabi cakes, hair salons and travel agencies , it is really in the end just two cultures smashed up against each other to form a new, better one.

Personally--I was thrilled to find the beloved sweet rice cake snacks available at the markets back home in Poulsbo--not to mention the white rabbits, banana chips fried in sesame oil, and a Thai tapioca pudding whose ingredients consisted of coconut milk, tapioca, green beans, red dates, garbanzo beans, lotus leaves, and algae--- it was quite good.

Chinatown at Belleville--good name, it is quite a belle ville. On the side of an apartment building you will find a mural and the words, Il faut se mefier des mots--be wary of words, but in Chinatown, you do not need to be wary of words, whether you understand them or not, they are welcoming you, as long as you can taste the melon, you don't need to be able to pronounce it, words will come when they come, whether your language or not, you just have to let them.

à bientôt


Anonymous said...

Hey Mal,
You need to have a talk with your editor! Rabbits are not rodents - They were reclassified in 1912 to the new order Lagomorpha. Sort of like tortoises not being turtles! Ha ha ha. Loved the ubiquitous Chinatown story. When are you writing you book/travel guide?

Mallory Elise said...

Dear Anonymous,
My editor was in meetings all day and he wouldn't answer my calls. so i jumped the gun. ahk ahk.

Thanks for the species update--i'll change it right away!

The book? Oh you jest. But perhaps, maybe, when Bourdain retires people will have no choice but to buy my book instead. hehe.

Tartelette said...

My brother used to live in the 13th and we would meet up once a week at Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants and then I moved to the US and was like "Mais c'est quoi ca?! C'est pas du Chinois!"..ahahaha!!!