Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Paris Chinatown’

3
Mar

Avenue de Choisy – A Soundwalk … and More

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

02

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.

03

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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?

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue d’Ivry - Panhard & Levassor

The original Panhard & Levassor automobile factory opened in 1891

Avenue d’Ivry - Panhard & Levassor

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.

09

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

17

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy - Parc de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

22

“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.

Avenue de Choisy

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.

Avenue de Choisy

“Now, what shall we have for lunch?”

15
Feb

Parisian Chinese New Year 2016

CHINESE NEW YEAR’S DAY is the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar. But on the Gregorian calendar the date is different each year falling somewhere between the 21st January and the 20th February. This year, Chinese New Year’s Day fell on Monday 8th February.

In the Chinese calendar, 2016 is l’Année du Singe’, the Year of the Monkey, the ninth of the 12 animals in the recurring 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle.

Chinese New Year 2016

In Paris, Chinese New Year is celebrated across the city culminating in the Carnaval du Nouvel An Chinois, the Chinese New Year Carnival in the 13th arrondissement, which took place yesterday.

Chinese New Year 2016

The Carnaval du Nouvel An Chinois is always boisterous occasion. A huge crowd lines the streets to watch the colourful parade circulating around the largest Chinatown in Paris and, as I do every year, I went along to join in the celebrations and to record the sounds.

Chinese New Year 2016

Parisian Chinese New Year 2016:

Chinese New Year 2016

This year’s parade may have been dampened by rain and tempered by the lack of firecrackers but it didn’t stop this annual spectacle from being as exuberant as ever.

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

28
Sep

The Sounds of Rue de Belleville

I REALLY LIKE BELLEVILLE. It’s in the east of Paris, straddling the 19th and 20th arrondissements but it also incorporates parts of the 10th and 11th as well.  Like many of the independent communes surrounding Paris, Belleville was incorporated into the city in 1860.

The people of Belleville played a large part in the Revolution of 1848 helping to establish the Second French Republic and in 1871 they were strong supporters of the Paris Commune.

The French singer and cultural icon, Edith Piaf, emerged from these working class roots. The story is that she was born in the street, in the snow, under a lamp post, outside N° 72 rue de Belleville.

Further down the rue de Belleville is Aux Folies, a former theatre where Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and many others performed regularly.

The Rue de Belleville is the main artery through the commune and it’s home to its fair share of traffic.

Although we accept the sound of traffic as part and parcel of city living it can be irritating and a nuisance, but if we stop and actually listen to the sound of traffic it can often take on a different hue. It’s sometimes possible for traffic and pedestrians to exist in harmony rather than at odds with each other. I recorded these sounds in the Rue de Belleville last Saturday and I think they illustrate the point.

Traffic in the Rue de Belleville:

Today, Belleville has a culturally diverse population and it’s home to one of the city’s two Chinatowns which means that, along with echoes of Edith Piaf and the sound of traffic, there is a rich and diverse tapestry of sounds to be heard.

On Saturday I walked along the Rue de Belleville amidst the Chinese traders selling their wares in the shops and on the street.

I also called into the Chinese supermarket to wonder at the range of Chinese foods and spices most of which I’d never heard of and certainly didn’t recognise.

Chinese Shopping:

One of the features of Belleville that I find fascinating is the Chinese men who gather close to Belleville Métro station in the late afternoon. They form in groups to talk and to exchange news and gossip and although I can’t understand a word they say, I find the sounds endlessly fascinating.

Chinese Chatter:

As I said, I really like Belleville.