(Published in the Malay Mail Online on 25 February 2015)
I’m embarrassed to say that it has taken us two years to visit Chinatown Paris. Last Saturday, when the first of the Chinese New Year parades was scheduled, seemed as good a reason as any to finally visit and see the city’s Chinese community at their best.
It was a typical grey wintry day in Paris. We were late, lunch near the Louvre with old friends visiting for the weekend took a little longer than planned, but luck was on our side as we caught the afternoon parade just leaving the Place de La République.
I left my hubby Tom in charge of logistics, so only when we arrived did the penny drop that the parade was taking place in a more central part of Paris, Le Marais, rather than Chinatown in the southeast 13th arrondissement. Oh well!
Still, a festive mood hung in the air. Red lanterns adorned lamp-posts and the crowds cheered loudly from under their colourful umbrellas in an impressive show of defiance against the persistent rain.
The colourful parade included pandas (left)... 'Kung Fu Pandas'? — Pictures by Helen Hickey
Memories of our CNYs in Malaysia came flooding back as a throaty roll of drums began. I was tickled to discover that the uplifting beat came from the back of a pick-up truck carrying an elderly group of seated musicians beating on a colossal drum with their bamboos sticks. Big grins beamed from under their black hats.
Standing on our tippy-toes, Tom and I could just about see the parade, while the kids scurried through legs and bags to get to the front. I saw a group of adults dressed, not as goats or sheep as might be expected, but as giant pandas (“Kung Fu Pandas”, as my youngest called them), young Chinese ladies in floaty pink dresses resembling cherry blossoms and a solitary warrior brandishing his wooden sword, carving his way through the crowds.
We then hurried to the start of the parade, following the clacking of firecrackers and wisps of smoke hovering above heads. Our efforts were rewarded when we caught an eyeful of the golden dragon bouncing, sliding and wriggling its way in circles to the delight of all watching.
The celebrations didn’t have quite the same vibe as the last CNY we experienced in 2012 while living in New York. People, jam-packed into the tiny and characterful alleyways of Manhattan’s Chinatown, the gigantic dancing dragon, the glitter confetti bombs and the crazy atmosphere, it just swept us away.
Saturday’s experience was dampened by the rain and the forlorn-looking homeless people who also lined the streets: one followed the parade from the comfort of his tent, others kept a watchful eye on their dogs making sure they didn’t get spooked by all the noise.
Then there was the small matter of losing Jake. I spent a chilling 15 minutes shouting out his name, frantically looking for a kid wearing an orange jacket and wondering if I’d ever see my 10-year-old again.
No Chinese New Year parade is complete without a dragon (left) and other colourful participants.
After receiving a text message, I found him standing with a nice Italian couple outside Monoprix shop — saved by my new Malay Mail Online contact cards I had popped into each of my kids’ pockets earlier. The cards have paid for themselves already!
Afterwards, we finally headed to Chinatown or Quartier Asiatique (Asian Quarter) as it is called. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting: wide, drab streets shut in by high-rise apartment blocks, it was a bit soulless really.
Among the many Thai, Laos and Cambodian restaurants—it is actually home to several Asian communities — we managed to find an authentic Chinese restaurant to satisfy our and the kids’ longing for a large, steaming bowl of noodle soup.
Next, a trip to a nearby Thai fruit stall selling kaffir lime leaves, tamarind paste, fresh coconut, pomelo, jackfruit chips, galangal ginger, shrimp paste and other goodies we struggled to get our hands on in Parisian supermarkets, put smiles on faces as we headed home.
Back to our homemade red lanterns sitting on the kitchen table and the last of my incessant chants of the day: “G-ong Xi, G-ong-xi Fa Cai!”, met with a predictable roll-the-eyes from the kids.
Wishing you all in Malaysia a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!