Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Paris’ 13th Arrondissement
In 2022, the Chinese New Year is on February 1st. Also known as “Chunjie”, or the Spring Festival (“Fête du Printemps” in French), it’s not just the biggest annual event in China, but also celebrated in Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. It’s now the Year of the Tiger, which in Chinese astrology represents strength, justice, independence, and courage. Festivities in Paris take place over several weeks from February 1st through the 13th. Unfortunately, the famous Chinese New Year Parade in Paris’s largest Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement has once more been canceled in 2022 because of Covid, but there are other ways you can get into the spirit of the holiday with a visit to this lively Parisian quartier.
In this article:
Where is Chinatown? The “Triangle de Choisy”
Paris actually has several Chinatowns, which is quite unique in the world, but the largest and best-known one is in the “Triangle de Choisy” a pie slice of the 13th arrondissement bordered by the Avenue d’Ivry, the Avenue de Choisy, and the Boulevard Masséna. You can get here via metro Tolbiac (line 7), metro Olympiads (line 14) or metros Porte d’Ivry and Pore de Choisy (both line 7 and Tram 3a).
There are other well-established Chinatown districts in the 3rd arrondissement (a few streets around Rue au Maire) and in the 19th/20th arrondissements (all around Rue de Belleville). There are also a few large Chinatown districts just outside of Paris, in Aubervilliers and Marne La Vallée (the “new” town built near Disneyland Paris). The populations of these districts tend to be from China directly, as opposed to being from a mix of neighboring countries like you’ll find in the 13th (more on that below).
What to Expect
While there are some typically Parisian apartment blocks still left over from the 19th century, what will catch your eye faster are the massive residential tower blocks built in the 1970s, and the soulless public housing blocks built in the 1980s. To appreciate your visit, you’ll need to look past the architectural train wreck and look for the little patches of beauty. They’re there to discover if you can get past the shock of leaving the postcard perfect center of Paris! If it was obviously gorgeous, it would be full of tourists, right? 😉 And during the Chinese New Year the red banners and lanterns decorating every light pole, restaurant and storefront are a nice pop of color during what’s usually a pretty dreary time of year in Paris, post-Christmas, pre-spring.
A Very Short History of Chinatown
The 13th arrondissement became a part of Paris, like most of the outer districts, in 1860 during the Second Empire annexation of the suburbs. At the end of the 19th century, the area now known as Chinatown was home to the Panhard et Levassor car factory, which built the first Parisian car. The factory had about a thousand Chinese immigrant workers in the 1930s, among the first to inhabit the 13th. When the factory was closed down in the 1960s, the entire neighborhood became an industrial wasteland until the City of Paris had it razed in the 1970s to build the modern highrise apartment blocks you see today, notably Les Olympiades.
These new apartments were too expensive for poor Parisians and too “modern” for wealthier Parisians, but were perfect for the waves of ethnic Chinese refugees fleeing Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 80s – notably war in Vietnam (the former French colony of Indochina), forced labor under Communist Laos, and the Kmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Although Chinese and Vietnamese businesses dominate the district, Chinatown in the 13th has an amazingly diverse mix of Asian cultures reflected in the shops, restaurants, markets, and temples. If you’re used to visiting Chinatowns where most of the population are from the same part of China and speak the same language, you’ll probably be surprised to see (and hear) Thai, Kmer, Korean, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Laotian – and of course French! – influences throughout.
In the Jardin Baudricourt (14 Rue de la Pointe d’Ivry), you’ll see a WWI monument inaugurated in 1998 to the memory of Chinese workers and fighters who died for France. These immigrants were supposed to return to China at the end of the war by ship from Marseille, via the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. Those who didn’t want to return established one of the oldest Chinatown districts in Paris around the Gare de Lyon, which disappeared when that entire neighborhood got the “modernization” treatment in the 1980s.
The inscription in French reads, “A la mémoire des travailleurs et combattants chinois morts pour la France pendant la Grande Guerre 1914-1918” (In memory of the workers and Chinese soldiers who died for France during the Great War, 1914 1918).
The Chinatown Gateway
On February 1st, 2020 (just after the Chinese New Year Parade was canceled because of Covid for the first time) Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the Chinese Ambassador to France inaugurated the new Arche de la Fraternité, a 3-D sculpture of the Chinese symbol for “door” created by artist Georges Rousse with neighborhood community funds to “thank the capital and France for having welcomed many refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s” according to Jerôme Coumet, Mayor of the 13th. It’s a pretty cool sculpture that looks different depending on where you’re standing. It stands at the intersection of the pedestrian Rue des Frères d’Astier de la Vigerie, the Avenue de Choisy, and the Rue Baudricourt.
Street Art in Chinatown
In the past ten years, the 13th arrondissement has become famous for its enormous murals painted by some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Some of the first were created in the heart of Chinatown. The Portuguese painter Pantónio created the tallest fresco in Europe, 66 meters tall, a whirlwind of fish on the side of an apartment block at Place de la Vénétie (20 avenue de Choisy).
Next door is the majestic blue heron, Le Héron Bleuté, by the French artist STeW, in traditional Japanese style.
At the foot of this one is a ground-level mural “La Petite Fille aux Ballons et le Panda” by the French artist from Martinique, Doudou Style.
The prolific street artist Invader created “Space Noodles” at the corner of Avenue d’Ivry and Rue Baudricourt.
People come from all over Paris and the suburbs to shop in this district, as many of the largest importers of Asian products in Paris can be found here. Some of the typical shops sell a mix of anything from home decor and clothing to jewelry and electronics. They range from very tacky to less tacky in terms of boutique aesthetics (the bar is high here in Paris, after all). But that doesn’t mean the items themselves are always cheap. If you know what you’re looking for you can find some gorgeous things of better quality than the storefront may have you think.
L’Empire des Thés (101 Avenue d’Ivry) is one of the more popular shops in Chinatown, selling over 200 varieties of Chinese teas and accessories, “without being snobby about it.” A small tearoom inside also serves their teas in traditional fashion. The “tea flowers” are always a great purchase here.
For books on Chinese culture (mostly in Chinese or French, of course), check out the You Feng Bookshop (66 rue Baudricourt). They also sell stationery and calligraphy accessories.
The World of Les Olympiades, aka La Dalle
As mentioned earlier, Les Olympiades was part of a massive housing project in the late 1960s/early 1970s known as “Opération Italie 13,” heavily influenced by Corbusier’s vertical cities. Les Olympiades is a series of residential towers — each named for a city that hosted an Olympics game: Anvers (Antwerp), Athènes (Athens), Cortina, Helsinki, Londres (London), Mexico, Sapporo, and Tokyo — on a raised esplanade, or “dalle” similar to La Défense, one level above the street traffic and parking.
The shops and restaurants in the center of this esplanade have white “tented” rooftops that many people assumed were made to resemble stylized Asian pagodas, however they were actually supposed to resemble the tents of the Parisian market stalls. Needless to say, the Parisians wanted nothing to do with these modern monstrosities (you could say it’s one of the few building projects that Parisians haven’t changed their minds about all these years later), so they were sold at rock-bottom prices to the newly-arrived immigrants from South East Asia, who immediately made themselves at home. Postscript: because the real estate plan was such a disaster, they ended up only (!!) building 30 of the 55 planned towers in the district, and instead started rehabilitating the older Parisian apartment buildings still standing in the neighborhood
In addition to the tall residential towers (from 16 to 35 floors tall) and shops on the esplanade, there’s a shopping mall, a community garden, and multiple temples. Many of the new immigrants set up businesses as importers, shop keepers, restaurant owners, and local bankers, investing in their community. And as ugly and run-down Les Olympiades looks (especially the shopping mall we’ll see in a moment), it does have its charms.
A Temple on La Dalle
The Amicale des Teochew en France is an Asian community center and Buddhist temple tucked into a corner of the esplanade, founded in 1986 by the Teochew community, the main community of Chinese origin in France, from the south of Guangdong province.
Although I live nearby and have visited Les Olympiades many times, I had never dared to step inside before, thinking it wouldn’t be open to tourists, but on a guided tour of the neighborhood with #ExploreParis, our guide Donatien reassured us that as long as we removed our shoes, visitors were welcomed (plan on wearing your cutest socks in preparation). “You can even talk and take photos, just don’t block those trying to pray.”
Places to burn incense outside the entrance of the community center temple:
One of the altars in the temple, surrounded by fruit offerings and candles:
I don’t know what these are called, but our guide explained that Buddhists trying to make important life decisions come here and shake the wooden jar of what look like long matchsticks, contemplating their dilemma, until one of the sticks falls out (not sure what happens if more than one falls out!). Each stick has a number on it that corresponds to the numbered pieces of “advice” on the pink slips. “The advice has to be vague enough to be able to answer all kinds of questions, so there’s a lot of personal interpretation involved,” explained Donatien.
There are 18 of these larger-than-life statues representing the Luohan, or Guardians of the Law. Each has a role indicated on a small sign at his feet: “the one who holds the bowl”, “the one who tames the dragon”, “the one who makes the lions laugh”, “the one with the long eyebrows” (on the left!), “the one who cleans his ears”…
There are three altars piled high with fruit and burning incense. The three statues are called the Three Jewels. The ones on each side look Thai, supposedly it’s because there are no Thai temples in Paris, so they use this one.
Just as we arrived, there had been a group of 20 other visitors surrounding this woman in prayer, incense sticks held in front of her (there are aluminum-foil-covered trays in front of the cushions to catch the ashes).
They sell brochures in English for €2 that benefit the community center, and there are also donation boxes, “troncs” throughout the temple if you’re feeling generous for their hospitality. Some of the Chinese New Year decorations include red envelopes with the tiger (for Year of the Tiger!) that are traditionally used to give money to children.
A Community Garden
Back out on the esplanade, to the left of this dance school, you’ll see stairs going up, freshly painted red this year. Take the escalator if you’re legs are already pooped out.
Up here you’ll be treated to some nice views over Les Olympiades (if the weather is nice), and on your left, a little community garden:
The Jardin Partagée des Olympiades was created in 2017 and is open to anyone who lives, works, or goes to school in the 13th arrondissement for a membership fee of €15/year.
A cute lizard by the street artist known as LOUYZ, a young Parisian woman who likes to paint animals and nature scenes all over Paris.
Back down on the Esplanade, the Olympiades community association also has opened a “Bricothèque” in October 2021 in the renovated “Pagode”. A bricothèque comes from the French word “bricolage” (do-it-yourself), a place where you can borrow power tools or ladders, or other items for fixing up your home. They also have handymen and women who can be hired to make small repairs or home improvements for you (these services are only open to the locals who are members).
The (Ugliest) Shopping Mall (in Paris)
Remember back at the dance school you went up the red staircase? Okay, if you go to the right of the school, you’ll see the entrance to what looks like is an abandoned, derelict shopping mall from the 70s. Except that it’s open. It’s the Olympiades Centre Commerciale Oslo, aka Galerie Oslo. Brace yourselves for some ugly photos, no filters are gonna save this one.
It was actually pretty calm on Sunday when I took this photo, about half of the shops were closed, but most of the cafés were open. The younger clientele were hanging at the bubble tea shops, which have really multiplied in recent years. The older crowd hang at the café bars that look like they haven’t been redecorated since the 70s opening date. I would have taken pics for fun, but they were packed full of people who didn’t look like they wanted their photos taken.
Otherwise there are the usual clothing, jewelry, beauty supplies, (K-Pop) music, and electronics shops, as well as a lot of hair salons, a butcher shop, and a pharmacy.
The Japanese and Korean shops are a relatively new thing in this shopping center. This is the window display for Querencia, a sort of Japanese home decor and gadget shop:
Seoul Secret is a Korean concept store (with the obligatory K-Pop star cardboard cutout):
Taiyaki Paris is a stand selling a very popular Japanese snack that’s basically a fish-shaped waffle stuffed with either sweet or savory filling, either hot or cold, including Nutella and ice cream. Apparently it wasn’t opened by a Japanese person but a Taiwanese (or Korean?) guy who loved them when visiting Japan and was amazed he couldn’t find a shop in Paris. That’s entrepreneurial spirit for you!
I got a hot Taiyaki with red bean paste inside, aka “anko”, which is popular in Japanese pastries. Look how cute he is!
Don’t burn your tongue on the filling, like I did.
Chinatown Olympiades Restaurant is at the far end of the shopping center, and is usually where the big celebratory meals take place (think wedding receptions or birthdays). They’re serving a special Cantonese New Year’s menu daily through February 6th.
There’s usually live music, karaoke, and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights from 9pm-2am, but Covid has put the brakes on that for the moment.
See the Famous Lion Dance!
They are also hosting the famous Lion Dance on Wednesday the 4th of February at lunch, and throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday the 5th and 6th (I’m assuming you can just be in the shopping center to see it, not that you need to actually be eating at the restaurant).
If you’ve never seen a Lion Dance, here’s one I happened to catch in October outside another restaurant in the neighborhood when I was running:
The Tang Frères Empire
At the bottom of the shopping escalator you’ll find the entrance to Tang Frères. The Tang brothers, originally from Laos, own this neighborhood. They are both importers and shop keepers and deli owners (and probably more). If you go to Chinatown in the 13th, you have to stop at least in one of the Tang Frères establishments.
This is the view of the Galerie Oslo entrance from 44 Avenue d’Ivry with the Tang Frères supermarket. Doesn’t look like much, does it? Again, clearly a lack of any aesthetical beauty isn’t hindering business…
Inside, you’ll find pretty much anything you need for your Chinese recipes (and, I presume Vietnamese and Cambodian and Laotian dishes as well…I’m not an expert on foods from Asian countries, so just enjoy the photos…)
Also a few familiar items, like corn starch (which I usually don’t see in French supermarkets):
And also non-dairy creamer (called Coffee Whitener, oddly) and Quaker “White Oats” (I’m seeing a trend):
The Tang Frères branded organic section is new since my last visit a few years ago, including the trendy bulk bins you see in a lot of Parisian supermarkets now.
Want to do your own lion dance? Or maybe this is a dragon head? Either way, €61 and it’s yours!
A bit further down at 48 Avenue d’Ivry is another fancier Tang Frères, “Tang Gourmet”, as well as a rotisserie stand and a florist. Once again, the street entrance would have you believe they were trying to keep people out (and maybe, if you’re a tourist unlikely to buy three shopping carts full of food, they are)…
…but once past the gate they made an effort to decorate the fancier supermarket entrance to appeal to the Instagrammers everywhere.
On the other side of the Tang Fères supermarket at the Galerie Oslo (again, at 44 avenue d’Ivry) is the more stylish façade of the competitors, Paris Store. They weren’t open today, so no pics inside, but this is where most Parisians know to go to get cool dishes and bamboo food steamers, in addition to any ingredients you might not find next door. They have an entrance directly into the Galerie Oslo from their second floor.
But just in case you forget who owns the neighborhood, which supermarket has their name on every single red banner in the neighborhood? Not Paris Store. 😉
In addition to the two massive supermarkets Tang Frères and Paris Store, there are many smaller food markets in Chinatown for those still feeling crowd-phobic. Across the street at 81 avenue d’Ivry is the Paragon “Big Store”, a great place to pick up fresh produce.
Here you’ll find mangos, pomelos, papayas, mangosteens, pomegranites, kumquats (especially for Chinese New Year), buddha’s hand, dragon fruit, and the spiky, stinky durians from Thailand…if you really must try one, leave it on your balcony, not in your kitchen!
Another Hidden Buddhist Temple
The Autel du Culte de Bouddha is officially located at 37 Rue du Disque, which runs beneath Les Olympiades to a parking garage and Lidl, but you’ll find the entrance just after Tang Frères at approximately 68 Avenue d’Ivry.
It looks all creepy, but just walk along the side so you don’t get run over, and just inside you’ll see the temple entrance on the right.
There’s a small altar for offerings and burning incense just outside the entrance.
This is as far as you can go with your camera, no photos or talking inside (but also, they don’t require you to remove your shoes). This Buddhist temple is one of the most important in the Chinese community, and is where the annual Chinese New Year Parade departs from after making their offerings. It’s run by the Association des Résidents en France d’Origine Indochinoise ( A.R.F.O.I ), whose headquarters are upstairs in Les Olympiades. Inside, altars are dedicated to the deity Bodhisattva Guanyin, the genius of justice, and even a Cambodian Buddha.
Unlike the community center, it’s quiet except for one woman (dressed in what I believe is a wedding gown, but with a coat over it) shaking the sticks to get an answer from the spirits for her dilemma — to show up for the wedding or elope with her lover instead? You can also find fireworks for sale here for €5 (frowned upon in France because someone inevitably shoots their hand off or shoots into an open apartment window, but not illegal).
As mentioned earlier, Chinatown in the 13th isn’t just Chinese. You’ll also see restaurants serving cuisine from Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, and Thailand (and sometimes they mix multiple cuisines together in one restaurant). You’ll also find plenty of options for sweets.
Molle Pâtisserie makes their bread, pastries, and cakes on-site in two locations, here at 99 Avenue d’Ivry and also in the Chinatown district of the 3rd arrondissement (27 Rue au Maire). This one has a few tables outside (with a view of the pastry chefs working inside) where you can enjoy a bubble tea with your pastry.
Vivien and Kele Zhang focus on “original” take on traditional Chinese pastries. You’ll find some pretty elaborate themed cakes (check out their Instagram page for some other fun ideas they do as custom orders), as well as traditional Chinese pastries with red bean filling, cheesecakes, cupcakes (in square containers!) and a few French fusion confections like the Matcha Opéras.
Unlike some of the older pastry ships in the neighborhood, this one has a fresh, modern interior decor that really stands out on the street. I see large crowds here every time I pass by.
Another great pastry and sandwich shop is Pâtisserie de Saison (65 Avenue d’Ivry), which may look new because of the cute decor (check out the painting on the ceiling), but they’ve been open since 1983, and in fact were one of the first Asian pastry shops in Chinatown.
On the sweet side, they do these fun themed cakes (there’s more decoration than cake, haha!), as well as lotus brioche, egg tarts, and “perles de coco” or Lo mai chi (which look like snow balls).
These feuilleté pastries are stuffed with either sweet (“sucré”) or savory (“salé”) fillings such as durian, lacquered porc, taro, red beans, or pandan (a tropical plant popular in Southeast Asian cuisine).
They also make fresh banh mi baguette sandwiches.
Vegan options are usually pretty scarce, but they can do a fried tofu banh mi for €6 (make sure to ask for it without the mayo if you don’t eat eggs).
Xing Fu Tang is a bubble tea chain from Taiwan that can be found all over the world, but is relatively new to Paris, even though there are now multiple locations. Their specialty is caramelized brown sugar tapioca pearl milk beverages, hot or cold, with many additional flavor options. Note there’s no actual tea in these, it’s basically sweet milk (more info here for those of you like me who didn’t know about this beverage trend). There are also the traditional bubble teas made with tea, and ones made with fruit. There are lines down the block on nice days.
I saw they have soy and almond milk options, but only in a few of the drinks. I ordered a hot one with red bean paste. It was pretty tasty, but everything clumped at the bottom after a few minutes, so I’d recommend grabbing a spoon (it was freezing cold and starting to rain, so I took mine home to finish it). As much as people love them (with this much sugar, no wonder people are addicted), it’s hard to ignore how much plastic there is (cup, lid, a “seal” and the immense straw)…a bit embarrassing in 2022.
“Bubble tea is for young people, isn’t it?” asks Donatien to the teens hanging outside as we passed by on our tour. They laughed but agreed.
More Dining Recommendations
There are so many — sooooo many — restaurant in Chinatown. So how do you know which is good? I’ve been told in the past that it “must be a good Chinese restaurant if there are Chinese people eating there,” but a Chinatown local told me that’s absurd. “Parisians eat at McDonald’s; that doesn’t mean tourists should assume McDonald’s is a great Parisian restaurant.”
So…back to how to choose? I usually go by word of mouth, and Fleurs de Mai (61 Avenue de Choisy) has been a trusted favorite now for some years for “typical Hong Kong cuisine.” It’s pretty small, even with the extra seating upstairs, so get there early if you want a spot! Vegan note: almost everything comes with XO sauce, which is made with dried seafood.
Two other highly recommended Cantonese restaurants for purists who don’t want to see nems or pineapple chicken on the menu (not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s what you like!):
Impérial Choisy (32 Avenue de Choisy)
LiKaFo (39 Avenue de Choisy)
Sinorama (23 Rue du Dr Magnan, near the corner of Rue de Tolbiac and Avenue de Choisy)
If you ARE looking for good pho soup and nems (what Americans tend to call spring rolls), try one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants, Pho Bahn Cuon 14 (aka Pho 14, at 129 ave de Choisy). They actually have three other locations in Paris and Marne la Vallée.
The door detail below is from Paradis Thai (132 rue de Tolbiac). Note that the French have very sensitive palates. No matter how spicey they say it is, if you’re looking for the same level of hot you’d get in Thailand, you probably won’t find it in Parisian Thai restaurants!
Some Recommendations…en français
Most of the guides I follow are in French (they tend to be the most up-to-date), which isn’t convenient if you only understand English. If you’re willing to do the Google translate (or just note the names of the restaurants as a jumping-off point in your research), try:
Chinese New Year 2022 Events
In addition to the Lion Dances mentioned above in Les Olympiades taking place this week, there are a few other events you can check out (not necessarily i the 13th):
February 4th: Chinese New Year Food Market – 6-10pm on Boulevard de Belleville between Menilmontant Couronnes, 20th
Le Food Market is a monthly food event where local restaurants serve their dishes at the market for €10 or less, and clients can eat at the large tables set up along the boulevard. This is the 5th annual Food Market celebrating Chinese New Year with typical dishes from the local Chinatown restaurant owners. More info on their FB page: https://www.facebook.com/events/417974320105894/
February 4th: “Silk & Bamboo” Concert by the Chinese Orchestra of Paris – 8pm at 72 Avenue Félix Faure, 15th
Founded in the spring of 2019, this orchestra is a group of young musicians specializing in traditional Chinese music, using traditional instruments and Western instruments to achieve the perfect chord. Reservations required, but pay at the door, tickets €14-16. https://www.patronagelaique.eu/event-details/soie-et-bambou-orchestre-chinois-de-paris
February 13th: Basketball Match – 5pm at the Halle Georges Carpentier, 81 boulevard Masséna, 13th
The annual Chinese New Year “Nouvel An Chinois” match between French League teams Paris Basketball and Cholet Basket, tickets €15-25. There will be a dragon dance, an Asian market, and other entertainment to celebrate the holiday. You can buy tickets online or at the stadium: https://tinyurl.com/nfswtp8s