While several European cities have been famous for centuries for livening up the dark winter months with grand Carnival parades (Venice, Cologne and Nice come to mind), Paris was never one of them. However, since the late 1970’s, the Chinese community has stepped into the breach with exuberant New Year celebrations.
The Largest Chinatown in Europe
Over the past century, Paris has gradually developed a thriving Franco-Chinese community whose cultural influence is centered on three areas of the city: the historic right bank Marais district, the northeast Belleville neighborhood, and on the southeast side of the left bank ‘s thirteenth arrondissement, the original Quartier Asiatique (Chinatown).
Although it didn’t acquire its current character until the 1970-1980’s, it is by now considered the largest Chinatown in Europe. And it has become home to a massive New Year’s parade that brings together some 2,000 participants representing 40 social, artistic and business groups.
Over 200,000 onlookers line the broad streets of the neighborhood decorated with crimson banners and lantern, to cheer the procession of grinning dragon and lions, shimmering fish and endless serpents. Ornately attired dancing groups and martial arts teams march to the rhythm drums and cymbals. The omnipresent pop of small firecrackers leaves a faint scent of smoke in the air. This is Asian street exotism on a grand scale.
After three hours of elbowing to maintain a good viewing space in this boisterous and a tad chaotic affair, I am ready to work my way to the southern edge of the district to Tricotin for a dim sum fix.
A Rainy Day Alternative
Alas not every parade day is blessed with propitious weather. This year not being one of them, an indoor alternative is in order. I head for one of my favorite Paris museum, Le Musée des Arts Asiatiques (Museum of Asian Arts). All the artistically rich cultures of Asia are represented here. Better known as Musée Guimet, after his nineteenth founder Emile Etienne Guimet, it is home to one of the largest collection of Asian art outside Asia.
Its Chinese section alone includes some 20 000 objects spanning seven millennia, from the earliest times to the eighteenth century. Additionally today, in honor of Chinese New Year, the instructors and pupils of the local LWS Pak Mei Kung Fu School are performing traditional dragon dances and martial arts demonstrations.
The Treasures of the Musee Guimet
In deference to the millennia of human evolution that brought us these mythical dancing beasts, I head for the Chinese archeology area. It begins with jades and ceramics from the Neolithic period before continuing on with bronze works for the Shang and Zhou dynasties (thirteenth to eighth centuries B.C.).
In the statuary section, I lose myself in an extraordinarily varied collection of exquisite mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and Tang (618 to 907 A.D.) dynasties. These are statuettes of fashionably dressed ladies, fine horses and camels that were buried with the defunct in the tombs of the highborn to ease their passage into the next world. Today, they bear witness to the luxury and sophistication of the lifestyle of their age.
There are also rich collections of harness equipment, bronze mirrors, coinage, and bronze vessels incrusted with gold and silver. The decorative arts section outlines a comprehensive history of Chinese ceramics covering the major centers of production and the evolution of taste. The furniture collection includes major lacquer works and rosewood pieces. Painting is represented by hundreds of works spanning well over a millennium from the Tang to Qing dynasties.
Like any major museum, the Guimet is best savored in measured bites. Mercifully, it is opened year-round and seldom crowded. It is always a wonderful place to revisit. Or for any tourist with a bit of time on their hands, it is a unique treasure trove to discover.
Good to Know
- When? Unlike its Western counterpart which always falls on the same day, the Chinese New year changes each year, following the lunisolar calendar. The first day of the new year always falls on the new moon, between January 21 and February 20. The date of the Thirteenth Arrondissement parade varies accordingly. It is published several months ahead on the various Paris tourism information websites. It is usually held on a Sunday.
- Where? The parade traditionally starts at 44 Avenue d’Ivry, at the métro station Les Gobelins (Line 7). From there it meanders along the Avenue de Choisy to Place d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac and Boulevard Massena before returning to Avenue d’Ivry. One day earlier, on Saturday, the Marais and Belleville also hold their own neighborhood parades and celebrations.
- Foodie Alert – After the parade or any time, my favorite drop-in for Dim Sum is Tricotin, 15 Avenue de Choisy, Paris 75013. Tel: 01-45-84-74-44. This is canteen-like, high decibel place but the service is quick, the prices friendly and the freshly made dim sum varied and delicious. Service is non-stop from 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. A few steps up the street the Impérial Choisy, 32, Avenue de Choisy. Tel: 01-45-86-42-40, is a local institution with an endless menu of traditional Cantonese dishes. It is open from 12:00 noon to 11:00 P.M. Make a reservation or expect to stand in line. For a bit more decorum and delectable offerings seldom found on menus in western cities, head for the other end of Chinatown to La Mer de Chine, 159, Rue du Château-des-Rentiers. Tel: 01-45-84-22-49 between the métro stations Place d’Italie and Nationale (Line 4). Open every day for lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:30 P.M. and dinner from 7:00 to 11:00 P.M. Reservations recommended.
- Meanwhile back the Guimet – Founded and constructed by nineteenth century industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, the museum was inaugurated in 1889. Starting in 1996 it went through an extensive five-year renovation to reopen in 2001 with 5,500 square meters (60,000 square feet) of permanent exhibit space. The flow of the space now enables visitors to better appreciate the relationships and differences between the various artistic Asian traditions.
- Getting there and getting in – The Musée Guimet is located at 6, Avenue d’Iéna, Paris 75016. http://www.guimet.fr/en/. Tel: +33 1 56 52 53 00. Metro station Iéna (Line 9). It is opened daily from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. except Tuesday, May 1, December 25 and January 1.