Sunday 21 June 2009

The Fabric of Society

Reading an article recently, I was struck by a particular point. I may now have put down blood red roots into French soil, but I will always remain an immigrant. The whole topic of immigration is one that fascinates me, especially how it has shaped Paris throughout history, and forced the city to evolve and develop, and the article dealt with all these subjects. Taking a look at the integration of a Chinese community and the evolution of an inner-city area, the article, published in the influential Triple Canopy online magazine, was written by local journalist Jules Treneer. I decided to speak to him about the article and talk about the subjects he discussed in more depth.

The article deals ostensibly with the problem of monoactivité, namely the fact that a Chinese immigrant community has purchased a whole series of shop units across several streets in the 11th arrondissement and transformed them into wholesale textile plots. But what exactly is the problem here? In this one square mile area (Sedaine-Popincourt), 600 of the 850 shop units are now Chinese owned, and as Treneer points out, all are garish, with “names reminiscent of cheap perfumes: Lady Belle, Show Girls, Miss Coco”. The City Council and local residents believe this domination has killed community life, and a fight-back based around legislation has begun.

However, as Treneer tells me, monoactivité is not just confined to this sector. The Latin Quarter on the left-bank has seen bars, restaurants and food stores swallowed up by upmarket fashion outlets and art galleries, and banks and financial units have taken over much of the 8th arrondissement, but we rarely hear or read about this side of the problem. Is the action to remove the Chinese from the sector, simply, as Treneer mentions, a case of ‘bourgeois aesthetics’, or is it, as he also suggests, discrimination?

My interest in writing this article was not necessarily from a perspective of urbanism but rather about how immigrant populations are integrated into FranceTreneer told me. We were drinking coffee in the heart of a district that has seen waves of immigrant communities from around the world more or less successfully integrated, but what is different about this situation? During his research on the subject, Treneer was always surprised to see that members of the Chinese community were not given a voice in the French media when the subject was discussed, and it is this lack of dialogue which he believes to be at the heart of the situation.

"There is mutual distrust and a lack of understanding on both sides" he points out. Treneer himself had problems finding people prepared to talk about the subject. The controlling Parti Socialiste on the city council refused to speak to him, and it was also a struggle to find a representative of the notoriously discreet Chinese community. As he points out, “change in France has largely occurred through conflict then agreement, but here there has been neither”. Instead, the 'crime' of the Chinese community has been to not respect the unwritten laws of French society.

In the article, Treneer makes an interesting contrast with the previous dominant group in the area - Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman empire. Although they kept much of their culture, they also immediately adhered to community rules and even signed up to go to war. Contrast this with the Chinese who have successfully created a parallel society of their own, with their own shops, banks, doctors, and funeral parlours. They are the very opposite of a financial burden on the state, but the state does not like to feel unwanted and ignored.

The successful running of French society hinges on people playing the game and adhering to a system of cultural consensus" Treneer points out. “What you have to remember though” he adds, “is that the French identity and the concept of community were constructed by the state in the 19th century”. For Treneer, this shared identity, imposed by a paternalistic state, is artificial and ultimately unhelpful, leading to increased exclusion. In effect, the Chinese are now being punished simply because their idea of commerce and society does not match the dominant French model.

The French have always tried to limit the power of the market and inject social constraints into the world of commerce. The solution found by the City Council to combat monoactivité has been to use powers of pre-emption on empty units and fill them with carefully chosen tenants, but a question worth asking is whether we can stage manage city life in this manner. Interestingly, Treneer points out that many of the stores that have been chosen have been idyllic units selling organic food and handmade gifts, but not necessarily what people are likely to use on a daily basis. "Are these really economically viable? If they were, would they need this legislation?".

The truth in this particular case is a very cloudy mix. The Sedaine - Popincourt area has never been particularly picturesque and has always been dominated by textile related trades. The business of the Chinese is nothing new here, and as Treneer points out, it is more the large supermarkets that have killed community commerce. Is this then the French state trying to force a group to comply with certain rules? Treneer is an American and more used to a model of integration through work, "if you are law abiding and hard working in the United States you'll be left alone" he points out. So just what is successful integration? The individual adopting the local culture, or the individual being successful within the framework of an adopted state? Personally I'm trying for both!

Additional Information:
Read Jules Treneer's full article here.
All photography in this post, except the first picture, published courtesy of Romy Treneer.
Jules Treneer will also be working for the soon to launch Faster Times online journal.


PeterParis said...

France has always been an immigrant country. We are all immigrants and you and I are some recent examples! However, I agree that there is a problem with a concentration of one community, not really integrated, into one specific area. Somehow, I would believe it would be difficult not to be of Asian culture if you lived in certain parts of the13th, not to be of Indian culture in parts of the 10th... Why can’t we just mix? I would not be happy to live in a Swedish part of Paris (which fortunately for us all does not exist)! However, the conflict between integration and keeping your own culture is not an easy issue. There are hardly any clear answers?

Cergie said...

Bien sûr tu connais mieux les différents gettos de Paris que moi, mais il m'a toujours semblé que l'intégration autrefois se faisait mieux en France qu'en Angleterre par exemple car les immigrants avaient la volonté de se fondre. C'est à celui qui arrive de s'intégrer.
[J'ai moi même une mère vietnamienne qui ne parlait pas le français. Mon fils aîné sort avec une jeune fille dont les grands parents étaient hongrois, mon plus jeune sortait avec une jeune fille dont les parents ont été boat people dont la mère a monté courageusement un restaurant vietnamien avec l'aide de la "diaspora" et l'entraide familliale ; beaucoup de français que je connais ont leurs anciennes racines à l'étranger, cela ne les empêche pas d'être parfaitement intégrés : arméniens etc.)
Les difficultés rencontrées avec les chinois ou les nord africains ou les africains l'étaient avec les polonais (j'ai un beau frère d'origine polonaise), les italiens ("macaroni", "ritals")
Mes grands parents du coté de mon père étaient alsaciens, les alsaciens apellent les autres français "les français de l'intérieur", on est toujours l'étranger de quelqu'un.

Anonymous said...

Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, our neighborhoods were defined by the various immigrant groups that lived in each area of the city.

So much so, that even Catholic churches within blocks of one another were congregations segregated by ethnic heritage; Italians at Our Lady of the Angels, Poles at St. Francis, Irish at... you get the idea.

Yet even with distinctly seperate religious beliefs, Polish Jews lived within the Polish Catholic Humboldt Park neighborhood, because of the shared language.

One thing all these groups had in common though, was the color of their skin and their desire to be "Americans." They stood out, and were looked down upon, by the immigrant groups who'd settled the city in earlier generations, but these immigrants strove to be as "American" as possible.

One complaint with the latest wave of recently arrived immigrant groups in the U.S., is that they don't follow the pattern of the 19th and early 20th century groups; which is a lack of assimilation.

"Why can't they be like our parents, they came from a different country, but at least they learned how to speak English," is a common complaint. Or, "Why can't they act more American rather than (fill-in-the-blank)."

Is the seperateness still a result of the dominant community excluding the minority - or is there a new twist - the minority community is happy to remain seperate from the majority and live in co-existence, rather than in an assimliated existence?


Gina V said...

I may be being provocative here but the Chinese diaspora the world over has always been mostly insular out of necessity. They do not integrate into the native culture because they are discriminated against and disrespected; they become protectionist and self-sufficient...and they can be as prejudiced against others as others are against them. Subsequent generations may break out and marry outside their own race, and their mixed children may be blended into the dominant society more readily.
I am of Chinese heritage and have been born and lived in countries where the Chinese have been mistreated in the most horrendous ways even as they were brought over to be essentially slave labourers. I have been "westernized" and "integrated" because my family had means and my father was an architect who did not have to work only within his own racial boundaries.
But I can see that this "virulent" economic activity of the Chinese in Paris being construed as eroding the very "frenchness" of French culture and society - don't forget that they are taking over the tabacs as well! Perhaps the only "solution" is to have more stringent regulations regarding immigration policies and investment opportunities, and the city of Paris should dictate the "flavour" of each neighbourhood to conform to what the French in their hearts of hearts truly envision!
[Sorry for rambling, but I am still Chinese even if France is my spiritual home and Paris is where my heart is!!]

Starman said...

You will not likely find a major city that does not have a large population of immigrants. Is it not natural to want to be with, or at least close, to those most like you? But having stated that, what is the point of moving to a place into which you do not want to assimilate? Is that not defeating whatever it was that inspired you to move there in the first place? If all you are going to do is re-create the place you left, why leave? I understand that in most cities, Chinese people are considered something less than real people, and therefore, almost every large city in the world has it's own Chinatown. But that only seems to validate my 'why move at all' argument, doesn't it?

Adam said...

Wow - some fantastic feedback here. Thanks!

If I can just add one point that I didn't find room for in the article it is that Paris has seen three waves of immigration from China, and each time from a different region. There is also very little interaction between these three communities, showing that the groups largely recreate environments they were familiar with in China.

What is interesting though is that this model needs to continue not to be able to send people home to retire as is often the case with North African communities for example, but to be able to send more people over to France from the home community in China. If the community became too integrated in France, they would in effect cut off this chain of immigration.

Gina V said...

They move because they are forced to move out of economic necessity, ie. starving to death and treated like garbage by their own government, and there are exploitative countries willing to take them in to do their grunt work but will concede them very little else. When the Chinese are made to feel "less than real people", as Starman so aptly puts it, where else can you expect them to turn but inwards towards their own kind.

margaret said...

What a deeply thought-provoking IP post and comments. Thanks for providing the link to the Triple Canopy article. This struggle between minority communities and "majority" culture, issues of assimilation, the imposition of "mainstream community" values on non-conforming / alien / outsider groups ... very familiar issues in the US. I'm ethnically Chinese, but am 2nd generation born and raised in the American midwest. There is no Chinatown in Ann Arbor, Michigan--here, in fact, Asians tend to be viewed as the "model minority". We value education, work hard, become professionals, don't have an "in your face" cultural style. We typically keep a low profile and don't constitute a threat. On a personal level, my good education, my English mother tongue and my 100% American cultural foundations make me more than acceptable to the dominant society. And yet, I've experienced racism and its dehumanizing effects. The lack of trust and communication Treneer describes is heartbreaking. Such insularity enforces the sense of "otherness", but it does stem in part from a fundamental sense that one will never be fully accepted by the dominant society. Reminds me of a commentary I heard about why Asian-Americans don't have a strong record getting elected to public office in the US--because they / we are regarded by the mainstream as "super smart, yet evil". .......

Peter (the other) said...

Yup, another great brain teaser Adam.

As one who grew up in a very white Boston of the 1950s-60s, and now lives in the wonderfully multi-cultural Los Angeles, I have to see the multi-culture model as the future. Still, I retain a bit of nostalgia for the mythical France and French (otherwise I wouldn't be readin' your blog, would I?).

Adam said...

More great feedback, and some very interesting first-hand experience. It begs the question of whether discrimination against Chinese communities is stronger than against other communities. Margeret's comment that the Chinese are regarded as "super smart, yet evil" is very interesting and revealing, and probably explains the situation in Paris quite well. Even the most well-integrated individuals are still subject to cheap stereotypes.

Interesting too Gina that you say that there are always "exploitative countries willing to take them in to do their grunt work but will concede them very little else". This explains much of the history of immigration around the world and is not dependant on nationality or race, but isn't the difference with the Chinese community that those who are "willing to take them in to do their grunt work but will concede them very little else" now the richer members of the same community? There was a story here recently of two girls who had been held almost as slaves in the home of a Chinese couple. The couple explained that they were simply treating the girls "as members of the family".

Tim said...

"Pull and Sweat Station": what an excellent name for a shop

cynthia caughey said...

Very interesting post and feedback. I'm from Los Angeles, particularly the Pasadena area where the smartest kids and some of the richest community members are recent Chinese immigrants. They have integrated well but also have a 'separate community' which I understand now that I'm living in France as an expat. There is a comfort zone and familiarity to being with 'your own kind.' Sometimes it's just as simple as having shared experiences allowing for good conversation - nothing prejudiced about that. I do know though of many immigrants folks in LA who have isolated - I taught an ESL class once for Armenians. Some of my students were women who had lived in LA for 30 years and could hardly put together a sentence in English. There needs to be a balance between 'comfort zone' and integration. I'm trying to find that myself. Cynthia in the French Alps

margaret said...

Cynthia's observation about the "comfort zone" is really interesting to me. I may look Chinese, but I don't speak Chinese (my chosen foreign language is French!) and I don't have any special insight into Chinese culture. I didn't grow up supported by a parallel immigrant community or institutions. My comfort zone is certainly based on shared life experience, but more those defined by socioeconomic group / class, education, professional identity ... newspapers & blogs I read, my left-leaning political orientation ... and love for Paris. ;-) When I was little, I found my maternal grandmother perplexingly (sometimes frighteningly) foreign--so old world, sooo Chinese!! One interesting thing I've seen that's having some impact on the way Americans view Asians / Chinese, is the huge number of adopted Chinese babies here in the US. Diversity, it's happening.

ArtSparker said...

Fascinating post, this is one of my favorites (or favourites) . What strikes me as a visual person is that the Chinese storefronts are butt-ugly compared to the glorious late 19th century-ish facade on the Boulangerie. So included, though not perhaps spoken of, is a crime against the aesthetics of illusion in the environment...The quotidian sticking up out of the Parisian fairytale. The aesthetics probably could be legislated, as lawn ornaments and certain house colors are forbidden in some American suburbs. I know this is tangential, really. But there is a conflation of good taste with cultural superiority that is something that recurs which seems quite funny to me. In the film "Back to the Future", check out the tasteful furniture which has replaced the hideous stuff after Marty McFly's Dad has done the heroic thing.

Gina V said...

Perhaps it is basely "Beware the Yellow Peril" continued! I have right-wing bourgeois french "friends" who truly feel that the chinese are taking over the world and it is the end of western civilization [and "good taste"!] as we know it!!
And any poor and long oppressed group will use their new-found economic clout to lord it over the weaker and poorer still..."slave-labour" can also be explained away as the cultural interpretation of certain work ethics!

nathalie in avignon said...

Of course the question of migrants' adaptation to their new country is one dear to my heart. It's a fascinating topic. You did very well in pointing the various aspects of this particular case.

"There is mutual distrust and a lack of understanding on both sides" - YES absolutely, and this is a constant in Chinese immigration anywhere in the world. I saw it in Tahiti and in Sydney too.

But then Gina's and Margaret's first hand accounts were wonderful inputs into the discussion.

I wish we could all get together around a cup of coffee (or jasmine tea? ;-)) and talk further, there's so much more I'd want to hear from you all.

Thanks for getting this started, Adam!

Louis said...

Your post (and the article) reminds me of all the ingrained prejudice (and misunderstanding)I've encountered in my search for an apartment. The place I ultimately decided on is in Belleville, which I'm told is the second "little Chinatown" of Paris, with a few blocks of heavy North African influence thrown in for good measure. My girlfriend and I are excited that it's seen similar waves of immigration as Sedaine-Popincourt, since we're fans of diversity and exposure to different cultures. But various French friends have warned us that the area is "unsafe," "un-Parisian," basically undesirable. I'm hoping to change their outlooks by inviting them over and engaging in spirited debate . . . anyway, thanks for tackling this thorny issue!

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