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Chinese New Year more than just firecrackers in Paris

© AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-02-11

For most Parisians, the Chinese New Year is viewed as a festive and unusually noisy time of year, but there is more to the holiday than first meets the eye.

The Year of the Snake officially began on February 10 with special celebrations planned for over the next week across the world. But images of the slithery reptile were nowhere in sight in Paris’ Chinatown, where thousands of people braved the stinging cold and occasional snow flurries to mark the first day of the Chinese New Year.

On display instead where dancers dressed up as big-eyed and glittery lions performing in front of restaurants to offer the owners success over the coming year, spent firecrackers spread out on the floor like crimson blankets, piles of mandarins on small round plates and clouds of incense wafting through the air.

The celebration is a feast for the eyes for the passer-by, but for Jing Wang, an anthropology PhD student, who has been studying the Chinese New Year in Paris for four years, says important aspects of the celebration remain hidden to most French people, even when they are in plain sight.

“Most people only take notice of the aesthetic part of the celebrations, the costumes, dances and martial arts performances that take place during parades,” Wang noted, “But there is a religious part that is not for the French public. There are statues of Eastern divinities that are part of the parade that many don’t notice. It’s actually a kind of procession.”

Wang does not play down the festive and even political importance of Lunar New Year celebrations in Paris. In fact, she draws many parallels between the Eastern celebration and the December 31 version. But she insists that the holiday is significant in ways that escape easy first impressions.

Underground temples

“Chinatown” in Paris is located in the bustling 13th district in the southeast corner of the French capital, but significant numbers of Chinese immigrants have also settled in the Bellville neighbourhood that straddles the 19th and 20th districts, and Arts et Metiers in the 3rd district.

Colourful and noisy celebrations, which will include at least one large parade, will take place in those areas of Paris until February 17, and draw thousands of curious spectators. But the first day of the year is the most important for Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian families, who flock from all over the Paris region to the 13th district.

Many head straight for one of two Buddhist (Chinese religion being composed of four main traditions: Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism as well as Buddhism) temples near the Olympiades metro stop, which are easy to mistake as grocery stores or retail shops from the outside. One even flanks an undergound car park beneath residential tower blocks.

Annabelle, 20, lights incense and bows three times in front of a giant black and gold urn. In perfect French, she explains she has come with her mother Cecile, who immigrated with her parents to Paris from Cambodia in 1945.

The young woman’s grandparents were originally from China, and their move to France was in fact their second as immigrants. At home Annabelle, who was born in France and recognises no other country as her home, speaks in a Cambodian dialect.

The PhD candidate Wang explains that the story of Annabelle’s family is not at all that uncommon, and that what is commonly called the Chinese community in Paris, is actually a very geographically and linguistically diverse group of people.

Another important, and usually neglected, feature of the Lunar New Year in Paris, is that it is one of the few moments that those very different people can seamlessly come together.

 

Date created : 2013-02-10

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