China in your hand

So far, what with bushfires, strikes and general planetary malaise, 2020 hasn’t exactly given us the best start. But in the cooling embers of January, we have the perfect excuse to wipe the last few weeks off the whiteboard, slap those bad habits round the chops once more, and begin again in the vain hope of turning our fortunes around.

Yes, Chinese New Year is upon us again (officially Saturday 25th January though festivities continue until 8th February) this year bowing to the first animal of the zodiac, the rat. Our rodent friend might not be the most obvious of celebratory mascots, but in fact signifies the beginning of a new day, and wealth and prosperity (and couldn’t we all do with a big dollop of all of that). As a resident of Paris and a huge fan of Roland Rat as a child (yeaaaah!) it seems rather fitting to me.

Celebrated by billions worldwide, the festivities in Paris naturally centre in the 13th arrondissement (check here for event details) known as the city’s ‘Chinatown’, and the largest in Europe. But to set the ‘rat’ amongst the pigeons as it were, here are two fun facts: (1) this is only one of three Chinatowns in Paris, and (2) it’s not really a Chinatown at all, but more accurately the ‘Asian Quarter’ or Petite Asie, home to significant numbers of other Asian populations most notably Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.

Settled first by Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the war in the late 70s and forming a triangle bordered by avenues d’Ivry and Choissy, the area isn’t the prettiest part of town (see above) with distinctly un-Chinese architecture. But never fear, you’ll find plenty of colour in bowls of pho, displays of exotic fruit and veg, and plenty of shops selling lucky paw-waving cats and tea paraphernalia. Add your own colour to various pop hits at ‘Karaoke Laservision’ (I’m so intrigued), green-up the shoebox with a couple of sprigs of bamboo, or brighten up your crockery collection with some beautiful Chinese bowls.

If 70s tower block chic doesn’t light your fireworks, head over to the Chinatown at Belleville (where the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements meet) settled since the 1860s with residents mostly hailing from the eastern Zhejiang province in China, though a great many other nationalities have chosen this spot as their home too, including Armenian, Algerian, Tunisian, Greek and Vietnamese. It would be rude (and nigh on impossible) to leave without stuffing your face, and you’ll be utterly spoiled for choice with restaurants at every two paces. Satisfy your inner Ken Hom at a gourmet version of the famous Tang Frères retail chain, or stock up on noodles and nam pla at sister supermarket Paristore, not forgetting to purchase a cute animal bowl to put your culinary creations in.

The final chopstick in the Chinatown trio is the much smaller Chinese community found at Arts and Métiers in the Marais (3rd arrondissement), occupying just a couple of streets (head for rue au Marie). Originally settled in the 1900s making it the oldest in the city, Chinese workers came over from the Zhejiang province and set up leather and porcelain workshops, particularly during the interwar years, though it’s the restaurant scene that dominates today.

Whilst the rats amongst us will be using their paws to nibble away at the noodle dregs in the alley, you’ll be à table discovering your powers of incoordination whilst wrestling with a pair of chopsticks. Which in French, translates as baguettes. Mind well and truly blown.

Gong Xi Fa Cai rat fans!

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