AVENUE DE CHOISY and the neighbouring Avenue d’Ivry in the 13th arrondissement are the main thoroughfares through the largest ‘Chinatown’ in Paris, although the area is perhaps better described as a quartier asiatique because as well as the Chinese, there are also Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians living in the area.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Avenue de Choisy recording the sounds of the colourful Chinese New Year parade as it processed around the neighbourhood but, spectacular as these sounds are, they’re reserved for the Chinese festive season and don’t really reflect everyday life in the area. I wanted to go back and explore the Avenue de Choisy and record a soundwalk capturing the ordinary sounds of ordinary people going about their everyday lives.
Start of Avenue de Choisy (leading off to the left) at its junction with Boulevard Masséna
A soundwalk is most commonly described as an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, but I think sound walking can be much more than that. Soundwalking is my way of observing and exploring the world around me.
Sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, either metaphorically or in reality, all sounds have a context. So for a sound hunter like me, while listening attentively to the sounds around me is important and a great joy, listening to sounds and exploring their social, cultural and historical context never fails to take me on a fascinating voyage of discovery.
My soundwalk along the Avenue de Choisy is a good example of using a soundwalk not only to listen to and record the contemporary urban soundscape but also to explore and learn things I didn’t know before.
The arrow indicates my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy from Boulevard Masséna in the south to Place d’Italie in the north
The Avenue de Choisy stretches for 1.3 km form Boulevard Masséna in the south to Boulevard Vincent-Auriol and Place d’Italie in the north. Allowing for diversions inspired by my curiosity, it took me almost two hours to complete my soundwalk along the avenue. I’ve edited the soundwalk down to a more manageable length for this blog.
Avenue de Choisy – A Soundwalk:
The Avenue de Choisy began life as part of the Roman road leading from Lutèce (the Roman name for Paris) to Lyon. Later it became the chemin de Vitry and then, in 1672, it acquired the name ‘Choisy’ because it led to the then hamlet of Choisy-le-Roi.
Choisy-le-Roi became significant when a certain Mademoiselle de Montpensier had a château built there, which she bequeathed to the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.
Mademoiselle de Montpensier was in fact Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693), known as La Grande Mademoiselle, the wealthiest unmarried Princess in Europe.
Château de Choisy at the time of la Grande Mademoiselle
The château became a royal residence becoming for a time an intimate refuge for Louis XV and his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour. During the French revolution the château was confiscated, its contents sold at auction and its grounds divided into individual lots and sold. The buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished bit by bit during the nineteenth century.
I began my soundwalk at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, some 10 km north of today’s Choisy-le-Roi.
From here, despite the conspicuous McDonald’s, the Asian character of the street was immediately obvious not only from the sounds but also from the cluster of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and shops and the group of Chinese women selling exotic food from upturned cardboard boxes in the street. The women didn’t want to be photographed but they’re the ones near the McDonald’s behind the lady with the buggy.
But before reaching the McDonald’s, at N°3 Avenue de Choisy I came upon something that hinted at life in this street before the 1970s wave of immigration brought the Asian influence here.
On the wall leading down to an underground car park I found a mosaic of an early motor car designed and built by the French automobile manufacturer, Panhard & Levassor. But what’s it doing here?
Across the street from the mosaic are a cluster of apartment tower blocks, a shopping centre and an underground car park. These are part of the legacy of the late 1960s and early 1970s Italie XIII project, a vast urban scheme to fundamentally transform some neighbourhoods in the 13th arrondissement. Although never completed, perhaps the best known legacy of the Italie XIII project are Les Olympiads close to Avenue d’Ivry and this complex at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, L’ensemble Masséna.
Both were built on the principle of vertical zoning. The ground level is a functional level dedicated mostly to car parking and delivery bays built under an esplanade and consequently more or less invisible. The next level, the esplanade, is dedicated to pedestrians, shops and the main entrances to the tower blocks, while the final level comprises the apartments themselves rising to some 104 metres (341 feet).
And the connection with the mosaic on the wall …?
Well, L’ensemble Masséna is actually built on the site of the former Panhard & Levassor automobile plant so I couldn’t resist diverting off the Avenue de Choisy and walking through the tower blocks to see if I could find any trace it.
I found nothing, at least until I’d walked the full length of the complex and emerged into Avenue d’Ivry, whereupon to my great delight I discovered the birthplace of the Panhard & Levassor company still standing.
The original Panhard & Levassor automobile factory opened in 1891
René Panhard and Émile Levassor founded their company in 1887 and sold their first automobile in 1890, based on a Daimler engine licence. In 1891, they built their first model to their own design, a ‘state of the art’ Systeme Panhard consisting of four wheels, a front-mounted engine with rear wheel drive, and a crude sliding-gear transmission that would remain the standard until Cadillac introduced synchromesh in 1928. A front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive was to become the standard layout for automobiles for most of the next century. The same year, Panhard and Levassor shared their Daimler engine licence with bicycle maker Armand Peugeot, who formed his own car company.
An 1895 example of the Systeme Panhard
Over the years, Panhard & Levassor grew as they developed a strong brand and a core of loyal customers but it wasn’t to last. Faced with falling sales and the need to raise cash, the company was sold progressively to Citroën who took full control in 1965 and in 1967 the marque was retired.
Returning to Avenue de Choisy to continue my soundwalk, at N°15 I came upon the Europasie grocery store and I couldn’t resist going in to capture the sounds.
Leaving the grocery store I walked further on to N°27 where I found another reminder of the former industrialisation of this area, l’Église Saint-Hippolyte.
Built between 1909 and 1924 by the architect Jules Astruc, this church was built on land donated by Hippolyte Panhard, only son of René Panhard, co-founder of Panhard & Levassor. Hippolyte Panhard (1870-1957) was a Director and then Chairman of Panhard & Levassor until 1941 and the church was named in his honour after Hippolyte, his patron saint.
The church does perhaps seem a little incongruous now – a neo-Gothic edifice standing in the middle of ‘Chinatown’ – but it’s very peaceful inside and well worth a visit. And of course, I went in and recorded the atmosphere.
And in the shadow of l’Église Saint-Hippolyte is another, much more recent church, Notre-Dame de Chine, dedicated in 2005 by Archbishop André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris.
Having stopped to look at these two churches I moved on and came upon a surprise.
Looking through some railings I was able to look down on a surviving part of the Petite Ceinture, the Little Belt railway that circled Paris from 1852 until it was abandoned in 1934. La Petite Ceinture never fails to surprise; a couple of weeks ago I found another stretch of it in the 20th arrondissement that I didn’t know was there either.
Across the street at N° 34 is the Fung Shun restaurant, one of many Asian restaurants along Avenue de Choisy, but this one is a little different. It used to be a boulangerie, a bakery with an interior designed by the decorators Benoist et Fils and Albert Raybaud. Benoist et Fils were experts in decoration fixed under glass and their work was carried out for three generations between 1860 and 1935. The storefront and the interior decoration were listed as a monument historique in 1984.
At N° 81 Avenue de Choisy is the Lycée Gabriel Fauré, a high school. Once again, this is a reminder of the area’s industrial past because from 1860 until 1940 this was part of the site of the Chocolaterie Lombart, the Lombart chocolate factory.
Lycée Gabriel Fauré formerly the Chocolaterie Lombart
The Lombart chocolate company, the first chocolate company in France, was founded in 1760 with a shop at 11 boulevard des Italiens.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chocolaterie Lombart was known as the largest factory in Paris employing some 500 workers. When it closed the site became part of the Panhard & Levassor empire and eventually the Lycée Gabriel Fauré. In 1957, the company was acquired by the Menier chocolate company.
The next stop on my soundwalk was at Kawa, le temple de la vaisselle asiatique, at N° 97. This temple of Asian dishes caters mainly for the catering trade but is open to anyone. If you’ve been to a Parisian Chinese restaurant and admired the plates, the bowls, the dishes or the soup spoons then they probably came from here.
Inside, I was intrigued by a lady seeking help from the proprietor about a very specific purchase but since the conversation was entirely in Chinese I have no idea what she was searching for.
Crossing Rue de Tolbiac, I continued along Avenue de Choisy to the north and the Parc de Choisy. Although looking a bit bare at this time of the year this park is a delight in the spring and summertime.
Designed by the architect Édouard Crevel (1880-1969), chief architect of the City of Paris, the 43 000 m² Parc de Choisy was built in 1937. Like other Paris parks of the 1930s, most of the park was built as a modern version of the French formal garden of the 18th century, rather than the picturesque style of the parks of the Second Empire and the Third Republic.
Édouard Crevel also designed the neighbouring red-brick Fondation George Eastman, a dental institute set up to monitor the dental hygiene of children. It was funded by the US industrialist George Eastman, inventor of photographic film and founder of Kodak, who suffered all his life from violent toothache.
The Parc de Choisy also has an industrial connection. From 1836 to 1937 a huge gasworks belonging to the Compagnie parisienne du gaz stood here.
A short walk from the Parc de Choisy brought me to the Tang Frères supermarket.
Tang Frères (Tang Brothers) is an Asian supermarket chain based in Paris and it’s reputed to be the biggest Asian supermarket chain west of China. They have several retail outlets throughout the city and its immediate suburbs, as well as an outlet in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, from where the company’s founding brothers originate.
“Old courtyard, 178 avenue de Choisy”, Paris (XIIIth arrondissement), 1913. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.
Image courtesy: Paris en Images
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Avenue de Choisy was a rural area outside the Paris city walls. In 1860, along with other surrounding suburbs, it was incorporated into the city and a process of industrialisation and urbanisation began. The Panhard & Levassor automobile plant, the Lombart chocolate factory and the gasworks became the major employers.
Housing conditions though were poor; there were slums and pockets of abject poverty. Many workers’ homes were poorly constructed and were greatly inferior to those of other Parisians.
By the 1960s, things were changing. Industry in the area was in decline, the major employers were closing their factories and a wave of immigration was about to begin.
First to arrive were immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa and then in the 1970s, as a result of the war in Vietnam and Laos, and the civil war in Cambodia, refugees, particularly from the Chinese communities in those countries, also arrived. Many of those immigrants and refugees made their way to the 13th arrondissement and the area around Avenue de Choisy.
I mentioned earlier the Italie XIII urban development scheme and its tower block legacy at the southern end of the 13th arrondissement around Avenue de Choisy. This high-rise development was designed to rejuvenate the area by attracting high-flying young Paris executives to live there, which it singularly failed to do. Consequently, the towers stood empty. And since nature abhors a vacuum, the newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees occupied this empty accommodation and consequently saved the Italie XIII scheme from total failure.
Since their arrival in the 1970s, this Southeast Asian community has thrived, prospered and brought a vitality to the neighbourhood.
In conclusion, I want to return to the theme of soundwalking.
I don’t criticise at all those who consider soundwalking to be an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, that’s a perfectly valid explanation of what a soundwalk can be. In fact, I sometimes soundwalk exactly like that, listening attentively to the sounds around me to the exclusion of everything else.
But sometimes I find that listening to the environment can be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Sometimes, listening to the environment, particularly the urban environment, not only paints a picture of the contemporary soundscape but can also summon up echoes of the past.
And it is searching out the association between the contemporary soundscape and the echoes of the past, the social, cultural and historical context of the contemporary sounds, that I find so compelling.
Listening to the environment is my way of observing and exploring the world around me and I hope that my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy has helped you to observe and explore this particular corner of Paris.
“Now, what shall we have for lunch?”
JUST ONE WEEK on from this year’s Carnaval de Paris the streets of Paris resounded to the sights and sounds of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year.
There are three main celebrations in Paris for the Chinese New Year, one around the Marais, another in Belleville and, the largest of the three, in Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement, the one I attended.
In the Chinese calendar this year is the year of the goat, which is associated with the virtues of kindness, warmth, and artistic sensitivity.
Each year the centrepiece of the Chinese New Year celebrations in the 13th arrondissement is the colourful and sound-rich procession that begins in Avenue d’Ivry and then winds through Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena, finally arriving back at Avenue d’Ivry some three hours later.
Sounds of the Parisian Chinese New Year 2015:
As usual, I arrived early and like some of those preparing to take part in the procession I had time to grab a quick bite to eat. For some it was a sandwich …
… but for me it was a take-away to eat on the hoof served by two charming young ladies.
Before the parade set off I came upon this man manhandling a rather unruly horse …
… and a couple of stray lions.
Paris has a large and thriving Chinese community and for the Chinese New Year celebrations they, and many other Parisians, either take part in the procession or take to the streets to watch it with crowds standing ten deep in some places along the route.
In crowds like this recording the sounds and taking photographs at the same time is always a challenge. The best place to record the best sounds is seldom the best place to capture the best pictures but with good planning, a journalistic instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and judicious use of one’s elbows it’s usually possible manage to do both. I believe it’s called ‘multi-tasking’.
If it comes to a choice though, I always put capturing the sounds ahead of capturing the pictures because why wouldn’t you want those fabulous Chinese rhythms and sonic textures, not to mention the chorus of Chinese firecrackers, to take centre stage!