Friday, May 8, 2015

Touring Chinatown, Belleville

A guided walking tour of Belleville a couple of weeks ago revealed a world I would otherwise not have stumbled upon. Belleville straddles the 13th and 20th arrondissements. I have only been as far as the Père Lachaise cemetery and the Hotel and Bar Mama Shelter. This tour revealed an entirely different side to the Belleville I know.
A walk around is a sensory feast - from the open air markets selling everything from the 'Made in China' plastic ware to heaps of dragon fruit  to the supermarkets with their shelves lined with products both exotic and unfamiliar;  the working ladies - seemingly incongruous- plying their trade in the middle of the day right next to the école maternelles and children's parks, on the leafy tree-lined boulevards.

There are old ladies minding their grandchildren, groups of even older men on the public benches in deep discussions, teenagers hanging around graffiti-covered walls and the raised voices of mandarin speakers everywhere. Our guide was a Frenchman who speaks fluent mandarin. He lives in Belleville and at every turn greeted and held brief conversations with the shopkeepers, the grandmothers, the ladies selling the boiled peanuts at the corners. We talked with the owners of Chen Supermarket, who seemed unfazed by the group of people wandering through their shop asking questions, had a taste of the boiled peanuts sold on the street, tried some warm sesame seed nougat made by the bucket-loads in a sweet shop, and saw the ubiquitous red colour everywhere - in the awnings of shops and as part of the decor in restaurants - an auspicious colour to the Chinese meant to herald happiness or good luck.

Lunch was a small restaurant along Rue de Belleville called Wen Zhou or Chez Alex which was packed with locals, and offered plates heaped with noodles, meat and vegetable dishes as well as their specialty barbecue-stuffed dumplings - all on the very cheap. After which we all parted ways as we retreated back to our less colourful neighbourhoods. 

Roasted duck hanging in the shop window.
Boiled peanuts
Sesame seed nougat 
Bucketfuls of a donut-like dessert in the sweet shop
The Association of Indochina - inside of which is a small temple with offerings 
The tree-lined streets

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