Indochina refugees take advantage of colonial French connection. Since the fall of Saigon 120,000 Asians have settled in France
Paris — Moon cakes replace eclairs in the patisseries. The aroma of ginger and kumquats fills the markets -- and covering some of the buildings is the roof of a pagoda. Unlike the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco, Paris's full-fledged Asian area is new.
France colonized Indochina in the 19th century and the French-Asian cultural connection has been strong ever since. The Impressionists collected Asian art, and many of China's original communists, including Chou En-lai, studied in Paris. But few Asians settled here until the recent political upheaval in Southeast Asia. Then they came in a wave.
Since the 1975 fall of Saigon, some 120,000 Indochinese and Chinese have settled here. Under its new family reunification law France admits about 700 Asians each month.
The influx dramatizes how this country has turned into a melting pot. Not long ago, Frenchmen could be sure they were Caucasian and Roman Catholic. Now, almost 3 million black Africans and Maghreb Muslims as well as Indochinese live here, each in their own distinct communities.
``We don't want to be just like the French,'' says Chhay Lieng, a Cambodian film director and writer. ``We don't want to lose our own roots.''
France does not easily accept this attitude. As the recession bites, the foreigners have suffered from an upsurge in racism. The escalating protests come from across the political spectrum. Yet for the most part, the Asians have escaped criticism and created successful lives in France.
Why? Unlike the Arabs and Africans who came searching economic benefits here, the Asians fled political persecution. They benefit from refugee status -- and French compassion.
``We sympathize with their problems,'' says the Rev. Thomas Elhorga, director of the France-Asia Center, an organization that helps resettle Asian immigrants.
In addition, whereas the other immigrants hoped eventually to return to their native country, the Asians want to remake their lives. The African or North African worker lives alone in a dormitory, an outcast. The Asians come as complete families and appear to be model citizens.
``For most of us, the past is over,'' says Van Loc, an official with the Franco-Vietnamese liaison society. ``Very few believe it is possible to return home.''
Other immigrants work in factories and are blamed for taking away jobs from Frenchmen.
In contrast, the Asians keep to themselves. Often, they set up their own businesses, usually restaurants or laundries as in the United States. But many also study and become professionals. A solid middle class is forming.
``Most buy a house and car within four to five years,'' asserts Fr. Elhorga.
Neighborhoods such as that across from Notre Dame Cathedral on Paris's Left Bank are almost self-sufficient. Cultural associations strive to safeguard native languages with after-school classes and traditions with festivals such as the May dragon boat race. Voluntary associations provide for the needy. The result is that many Asians have little contact with the larger French world -- and little reason to come into conflict with it.
``We just want to start our lives over again and to preserve our identity,'' a group of young Cambodians say.
Often, that goal proves difficult. Despite their ghetto instinct, Asian children go to French schools. There they learn French and many will forget the Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Chinese they learn at home. The traditional family structure, with child demuring to parent, weakens. Women even become feminists.
``The separation of families and the loss of culture is striking,'' says Elhorga. ``Even the ghetto, the environment which for the time being has preserved the Asian culture, will disappear with the next five years.''
Such a prediction probably exaggerates -- but Asians do face more and more challenges to their relatively comfortable place in France. The positive image of hard-working, quiet, family-oriented Asians is being eroded by a growing reputation for drug-trafficking.
Wherever there are two Chinese together, the standard police joke goes, there is a secret society. Racketeers with ties to Hong Kong proliferate. Interpol says they control about one-third of Europe's drug trade.
Some 300 Asians have been arrested for trafficking during the past two years, and last January, French police caught the proprietor of one of Paris's best Chinese restaurants, ``Chinatown'' Saint Lazare, with some 124 kilograms (273 pounds) of heroin.
More generally, there are signs that the Asians may finally get caught by France's xenophobic backlash. As more and more Asians arrive, they push more and more Europeans out of their neighborhoods. In parts of the 13th arrondissement, it is now impossible to find the traditional French baguette, and Jacques Toubon, the Gaullist mayor of the district, worries.
``The European population reacts badly,'' he says. ``It feels like it's being run over by a bulldozer.''
The measures taken by the Socialist government to limit the number of immigrants, while directed mainly at Africans and Arabs, also will hurt the Asian community. From now on, it will be harder to reunite families. More than ever, Asians will be at the mercy of government grants of refugee status.
A sense of uncertainty pervades the community. The Asian immigrants must find a new balance between their ethnic and their French identities, all the while treading a fine line with their neighbors.
``We can only hope and wait,'' concludes a philosophical Chhay Lieng.