It was like home and yet nothing like it. There was that familiar sweet-sour smell of frozen seafood and the cacophony of monosyllables that rolled hard and fast on the tongue. On the shelves, she recognised many of the condiments she used for cooking back home. But this was far from the comforts of home. The woman was more than 5,000 miles away from Heilongjiang and her 14-year-old daughter. She was in the centre of Belleville, Paris’s second largest Chinatown in the 20th arrondissement. She had been there for weeks, combing through the streets for a job she could not find in a country whose language she could not speak and whose Chinese community, startlingly, despised her. Around her, the storekeepers and customers took in her tell-tale fishnet stockings and dyed hair, throwing her sideways glares. As she pawed through the shelves for inflated condiments she could barely afford, One Plum Blossom (一剪梅) started playing on the store’s radio. The soundtrack of the famous Chinese TV series that had given her so many hours of joy back home sent tears flowing down YuanYuan’s cheeks.
Belleville, despite its name, is not a pretty neighbourhood. People lurk around with a sort of alert idleness around the corners of buildings, dotting the sidewalk of Boulevard de Belleville and waiting between shopfronts. The men, mostly Arab and black, thrust their hands deep into their pockets and have eyes that travel sideways. They stand apart from each other, seemingly occupied with the same business of waiting and discreet observing, but always in mutual disassociation. You get the sense that they do this rather often, and that it has something to do with their livelihood. The women, nearly all Chinese, stand around in plain sight along the boulevard, a broad road that is divided down the middle by a long, concrete garden space lined with benches. With them, it is clearer what they are waiting for.
“Standing the streets”
At first glance, you wouldn’t have made much of the women on the streets. For the most part, they are modestly covered and wear loose-fitting garments. But then you realise it is not about how much skin they show. The women prefer subtle signals such as black fishnet stockings, make-up and a small hint of personal glamour: a gaudy pendant glinting on an open neck in the dead of winter, leopard prints, a brightly coloured coat, heeled boots. Many have long, straightened hair dyed too long ago, with the roots showing halfway down the shoulders. They often stand in groups, hands in their pockets, laughing like they are high-school friends waiting to be picked up for a date.
If not for the odd fact that they are so plainly waiting for something, and that there are so many of them, nearly 30 along a single block on both sides of the boulevard, it would be easy to overlook them as part of the Chinese-dominated neighbourhood. The difference is that the average Chinese person is often in motion: a mother hurrying her child to the métro station, a man walking briskly with a suitcase, students flying past on their bikes. Everyone has somewhere to go. But for these women, “standing the streets”, a Chinese euphemism for prostituting oneself, is the prevailing momentum of their work.
Perhaps the most telling difference is how they fit into the neighbourhood – they don’t. The Belleville Chinese avoid these women like lepers. When I found her, YuanYuan was leaning back on a piece of scaffolding outside a Chinese restaurant on the boulevard. She worked alone. She had been waiting for hours and her posture betrayed it: her knees were locked in tiredness. Her face is kind and plain as old cabbage, heavily powdered to conceal the wrinkles. I approached her with my friend and colleague RuoLin, pretending to be newly arrived Chinese students checking out the neighbourhood.
“Don’t live here,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s a filthy area. The people are no good.” The 42-year-old mother was referring not only to the shady reputation of the neighbourhood, but to the southern Chinese community that dominates it. Coming from Dongbei, which means northeast China, YuanYuan was a social outcast in Paris’s second largest Chinese community. And like herself, all the other women “standing the streets” along the boulevard were from Dongbei.
“They do not want to make this their life”
Police estimate that in 2003 there could not have been more than a hundred prostitutes of Dongbei origin, but Lotus Bus – a Doctors Without Borders programme that specifically provides support to these Chinese prostitutes – says that today there are more than 750 of them. They are considered “cheap”, charging as little as five euros for sex.
YuanYuan’s profile as a reluctant and unhappy sex worker in Paris is a reflection of these hundreds like her. According to a 2009 survey by Lotus Bus, the average Dongbei prostitute is 42 years old. 90 percent of them are mothers with a child back home. Most of them “stand the streets” in Belleville because they have no other options and opportunities. Jérémie Meyer, 22, a former Lotus Bus volunteer who speaks fluent Chinese, explained that the women often come to France with huge expectations and end up severely disillusioned. “They see Europe as an El Dorado,” said Meyer. “They come and sometimes find work in manufacturing, usually underground manufacturing. But often they are only required for three to four weeks and then they are laid off.”
The women are not willing to be full-time sex workers. “They do not want to make this their life,” Meyer said. “They try to work for southern Chinese families as nannies, but they are badly treated in many cases. That is why they end up in prostitution.”
“They hate us”: The stigma of being from Dongbei
From the outside, the roughly 700,000-strong Chinese community in France appears monolithic and united. In truth, it is deeply fractured between southern and northern Chinese, a consequence of decades of socio-economic inequality in China. With wealth increasingly concentrated in the south, those from Dongbei are considered to be uncouth and backward by the southern Chinese, who hold a reputation for their entrepreneurial skills.
In Belleville, Dongbei women like YuanYuan are cut off from valuable networking and resources, making it nearly impossible to get a decent job. This discrimination, seemingly innocuous enough to begin with, has created a vicious cycle. The more the southern Chinese reject the Dongbei women from their circle of opportunity, the more the women are mired in prostitution, the very line of work that intensifies the repulsion against them. “They are already badly treated by the southern Chinese in China, but when they come to prostitute themselves, they are even more despised,” said Meyer. “This makes it difficult for them to mix with the Chinese community in Paris.”
YuanYuan is originally from Heilongjiang, a province in Dongbei. When she first arrived in Belleville in 2011, she was surprised to find that the majority of Parisian Chinese were from Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province midway down the coast of China. Coming from Dongbei, it was not good news for her. In China, the further south you go, the more they despise you for being a northerner. In the eyes of the southerners, people from her region were stupid, shiftless, and brutish. But perhaps abroad it would be different, she thought. We are after all Chinese.
No such luck. YuanYuan quickly realised how little being Chinese meant in this overseas diaspora if you were from Dongbei. The stigma that was so prevalent in China was all the worse in Paris. With so many of the Dongbei women prostituting themselves, the Wenzhou community not only shunned them, they despised them. “There are no jobs here because they are all taken by the Wenzhou Chinese,” said YuanYuan. “It’s not possible to work in a restaurant or a shop. They reserve jobs like that for each other. They hate us.”
Dongbei Chinese continue to be a minority group in France. As part of the first wave of Chinese immigrants to France, the southern Chinese form the majority of the community today. According to a 2004 study by MIRE (Inter-ministerial Research and Study Mission), 58 percent of Chinese migrants to France were from Zhejiang alone. As a result, generations of Zhejiang Chinese coming mostly from the city of Wenzhou already have an established livelihood in France. Over time, these settlers have built and now dominate the Chinese industries, mostly related to food and clothing. They are willing to help break in newcomers from their region. Newly-arrived southern Chinese usually have relatives and a community ready to absorb them.
But these privileges are out of reach for women like YuanYuan. “It is a stigma,” said a southern Chinese butcher working at the New Wenzhou Supermarket in Belleville. “The Dongbei Chinese have the reputation of being very lazy and brutish. You don’t want to hire them. As nannies, they drug their kids to put them to sleep.” Prejudices like these are rampantly reinforced throughout the community. For example, job referrals to be a nanny for French families are prized, and kept strictly within the southern Chinese community for themselves.
“They didn’t treat me like a human being”
Like hundreds of other Dongbei women, babysitting for a French family was YuanYuan’s original plan. But since she did not speak French, she could not find work in a French household without any help. In the end, she took up a job as a nanny for a Wenzhou family, moving into their apartment to care for their two children. For three months, YuanYuan became their live-in cleaning lady. “They didn’t treat me like a human being,” said YuanYuan. “They had a washing machine and a vacuum, but I wasn’t allowed to use them. I was forced to do all the cleaning by hand. It got so bad that my hands started to look bad and they hurt.” She pulled her hands out of her pockets and thrust them at me. They were red from healed sores around the knuckles. YuanYuan also had severe back pains caused by a slipped disc in her spine. She had difficulties getting out of bed and working on her knees, but was often forced to get up in the middle of the night for menial tasks. Nobody in the household offered medical advice or kind words.
Eventually, YuanYuan claimed that the treatment she received was so abusive and degrading that she would rather “stand the streets”. “I couldn’t take it any more,” she said, a hard edge coming into her voice. “I decided to quit.” It is difficult to imagine the point at which hundreds of women like YuanYuan decide to prostitute themselves rather than to work in Wenzhou households, but it is a clear preference for those who have gone through the experience. “A woman from Heilongjiang told me I should ‘stand the streets’ instead,” said YuanYuan. “She got me into the business. What is there to say about this type of work? It’s hard, it’s not what I want to do. But I will not work for a Wenzhou family again.”
Her transition into prostitution has only intensified YuanYuan’s hatred towards the Wenzhou. “Once, I was yelled at publicly in the street,” she said, nearly spitting with anger. “One man came up and just shouted at me: ‘Why don’t you go and die? You are shameful!’ Aren’t I also a human being? I’m also a mother. I also have children. I have a family I need to feed.” She paused for breath. “I’m telling you, Wenzhou people lack morals.”
Indeed, the question of morals is a murky thing in Belleville. Although Dongbei women are maligned for the indignity of selling their bodies, they are rarely treated with dignity by the Wenzhou in the first place. This double standard is not apparent to the Wenzhou Chinese, who appear to believe the women choose to become prostitutes because of poor moral character and work ethic. “Frankly, I don’t understand them,” said the same butcher, shrugging. “But what is there to say? People will choose how they want to make their money.”
He paused in reflection. “I’d say there are two types of prostitutes. One type does it because they have have no choice. The other type is just lazy and refuses to find proper work. But if you don’t speak French, how can you find proper work?”
The search for El Dorado and the quick descent into debt
Dongbei, the northeast tip of China, is the country’s traditional base of industry. Since the birth of the People’s Republic, Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning were the frontrunner provinces of the Chinese economy, in large part due to the industrial infrastructure inherited from Japanese occupation and support from the Soviet Union. However, China’s shift to a market economy in the 1980s helped the rest of the country to catch up, creating intense competition for firms in the northeast and damaging the region’s economy. In response, the Chinese government launched Revitalise Northeast China, a policy that saw privatisation as the preferred method of reform. The ensuing wave of privatisation across Dongbei forced millions out of jobs. In 2002, a report by the International Labour Office said about 20 million urban jobless were living on a minimum living standard allowance of about 30 US dollars per month.
With many men out of jobs and the rising cost of living, many Dongbei women decided to take on the role of breadwinner and support their family by working abroad. Often, they place the children – always one child and therefore all the more precious – in the care of their grandparents, promising to send home money for their education and living, and leave China in optimism.
YuanYuan arrived in France a year ago after having paid 170,000 renminbi to have the trip arranged for her. These fees usually include the flight, a tourist visa, and a passport. Most women arrive with a nine-day tourist visa and then stay on illegally “without papers”, the French term for illegal immigrants. Once they arrive in France and make it past immigration, they are met at the airport by someone who brings them to Belleville and introduces them to their living quarters. Typically, these women rent a bed for roughly 150 euros per month, in an apartment that has been refurbished to look like a dormitory. A few weeks into living in Paris, with the high cost of living and constant derision from the neighbourhood residents, the women sink into desperation. Living together, the women fall into a rhythm of despair and collective solitude. From there on, the descent into prostitution is quick and easy.
Like the southern Chinese, the Dongbei women have a loose network that slowly absorbs more of their people into their line of work. A sociological study by Meyer and a couple of classmates during his studies at Sciences Po Paris records various interviews with women who say they entered prostitution after being advised to do so by other Dongbei women who had been in the neighbourhood longer than they. In the study, one woman says:
“We really tried for days to talk to people and to find work. One day, our neighbour spoke with us and we learnt about this other activity which could bring in money. Seeing as we could not find a job and that we had to repay our debts as soon as possible, it was the only opportunity that was open to us… These women had been here longer than us. They told us how to do it, and especially, that we could always rely on the Lotus Bus, which gives free condoms.”
It was the same with YuanYuan. “School fees are very expensive in Heilongjiang,” she said, comparing the living cost to that in Beijing. ” I came to France because I thought I could find work with better pay here. Instead, what I am doing is not fit for a human being.”
About a third of the Chinese prostitutes in Paris arrived within the past year. They have debts ranging between 7,000 and 15,000 euros, which they have to pay back before they can return home. It is a huge amount of money which YuanYuan says is impossible to earn within a year, since they send most of their savings back home. But initially, the women believe they will easily pay off the debt in no time.
Meyer, who volunteered for 10 months at Lotus Bus, remembers his first evening shift on the bus, which goes around Paris to distribute condoms and gels, also providing medical and legal consultation. “It was my first time facing a woman who was willing to prostitute herself,” said Meyer, who had to interview her and collect her records. “She was 35 years old and she was from Dongbei. What struck me was how little expression there was in her face. She looked like she had really made up her mind to get into this harsh line of work. She told me: ‘I came to France because I thought it was here that I could make a lot of money and very quickly.’
“You could feel the disappointment in her tone. She had been here for several weeks and she hadn’t found any jobs. Coming from China, it was an illusion. She really thought she could pay off her debt and even make profit in a very short time.”
“In China, it is a great shame”
The most difficult thing for most of the women to bear is their estrangement from their children. With one child per household, the mother’s pain in missing out on the child’s growth and development is all the more acute. Many will never see their children make it into university, as they leave China while the children are still young and are unable to come home before paying off years of debt. None of them reveal the truth about their life in Paris. “The families generally do not know that their daughters, or mothers, prostitute themselves,” said Meyer. “In China, it is a great shame.”
Hiding the truth maintains some semblance of normality, reminding the mother of what she is in Paris for. It is a merciful lie that keeps the mother-child bond alive, the most precious thing most of these women have. The obvious problem is that few in Dongbei ever learn the truth behind their estranged mothers, so more continue to go to France to fall into the same trap.
Although it is expensive, YuanYuan calls home every night to speak to her 14-year-old daughter. “I think of her everyday,” she said, her voice growing softer. “She will be starting school again soon. She will need new clothes, new books.”
“When she asks how I am and how was my day, I always say: ‘Good! I’m good! Everything is very good!’ ” YuanYuan’s voice slipped a pitch, cracked, and turned into a half-whisper. “How can I tell her?”
I quickly look away so she can wipe her tears.
The moral and bodily insecurity of sex work
The growing noise over the philosophy of free choice as well as feminist reclamations of the female body has made prostitution a particularly complicated debate. Many academics and feminists advocate the legalisation and regulation of prostitution, arguing that it is legitimate for one to choose to sell one’s body for sex. But can a woman choose to become a prostitute if she doesn’t have opportunities and options to begin with? Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who spent years investigating prostitution circles across the world in her book Slavery Inc., argues that this sort of philosophical moralising allows dangerous norms to pervade the female body. These women, Cacho writes, “have been conditioned to sell their bodies, and believe prostitution is the only way for them to make a living.”
Indeed, the Dongbei women only move into prostitution when they run out of options and when they see others like themselves doing it. According to Meyer, the Dongbei women try to find other jobs whenever possible. “It’s just a temporary condition that they accept to live with, but it’s not something meant for the long-term,” said Meyer. “Sometimes at work, I can see from a woman’s records that she hadn’t come for four months. I ask her why. She usually says oh yeah I had a petty job, a small job, but then I was laid off. This is when they come back to ask for condoms, so they can get back to work. ”
In this line of work, there are two things the women fear the most: the threat of being expelled and the danger of assault. Soliciting, even passively, for paid sex is an offence in France and is punishable by two months of imprisonment and up to 3,750 euros in fines. The women furthermore face the risk of expulsion if they are forced to produce documents. The 18 March 2003 Internal Security law, adopted when Nicolas Sarkozy was Interior Minister, has had a particularly repressive effect on the women. The mere possession of condoms is theoretically enough for the police to charge the women, deterring them from carrying too many on their person when they are working the streets. A 2009 press statement by Lotus Bus condemned the law as a harmful obstruction to healthcare:
“How is it that an indispensible tool of [STD] prevention has been turned into a tool of repression?”
As irregular migrants, the women avoid the police whenever they can, making them particularly vulnerable to robbery and physical violence. “It is a conflict that is not too different from victims of domestic abuse,” said Leroux, an officer in the police headquarters of the 20th arrondissement. “These women choose to hide their problems and suffer through them.”
As it is, migrant communities rarely have much love for local law enforcement. Within the Belleville neighbourhood, many cases were suspected to have gone unreported. For Leroux, it has been a matter of gaining trust from the local Chinese.”It used to be worse,” said Leroux, a large man with scars on his arms. “The Chinese used to stick to themselves and resolve their problems internally. I couldn’t tell you how, but they used to be very closed. We are working very hard to earn their confidence. I have the numbers of some of the shop-keepers and I check in with them from time to time. They say things are calmer these days.”
Police measures to step up prevention and security in Belleville involve up to four arrondissements – the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th. Given the diversity of the neighbourhood, the French police have had to make a real effort to cater to non-French speakers. “We have a few officers who speak Chinese, who are real Sinophiles,” said Leroux. “When they come in to make a complaint, we also bring in interpreters.” Indeed, the Paris Prefecture of Police has downloadable PDF brochures available in both French and Chinese on its website, encouraging people to come forward and lodge reports.
But the women are nonetheless distrustful of the police. Many are not aware of their rights. Lotus Bus reports that they are often detained on the grounds of soliciting and forced to sign the minutes of the report, which they cannot even read.
“Old heaven has eyes”: The Lotus Bus
Instead, the women come to rely overwhelmingly on Lotus Bus, which was founded in 2002 and visits four neighbourhoods across Paris – Strasbourg Saint-Denis on Mondays, Porte de Choissy on Tuesdays, Crimée and Belleville on Wednesdays. In each neighbourhood, the bus parks along a main street to distribute condoms, gels, and to provide medical and legal consultation. “It’s not very sophisticated,” said Meyer, who used to be one of four people usually on board. “We have a doctor but if the medical problem is severe we have to redirect her to specialists, usually gynaecologists.” Occasionally the team also redirects the women to the Red Cross, which provides free and anonymous monthly HIV tests. The results can later be picked up at the Hospital Saint-Denis, about half an hour’s walk from Belleville.
“On a harsh evening in Belleville, the squad can see up to 200 women,” Meyer said. It is a heavy load for a small outfit with a bare-bones setup. The bus itself looks more like a van. It has no windows and is divided into two compartments. The front is used as a reception area, where volunteers distribute condoms and gels. The back is a private space for personal consultations and first-time registrations. Women are asked basic questions for the purpose of data collection and record-keeping.
“It’s an anonymous process. The only thing that we ask for is the birthdate and the province of origin. If they lose their card, we can manage to find their profile again not by their name but by these details,” said Meyer. “Anonymity is crucial for gaining their trust. We managed to do well over the years. We could not even pass any useful details to the police if they ask for it.”
It seems to have worked well. The women speak fondly of the team at lianhua che (莲花车), the Chinese name of the Lotus Bus. YuanYuan even knew the volunteers by their names, which she had mentally transcribed into Chinese phonetics. She kept referring to Tianmu (天目) and Laula (捞拉) with great affection, her face softening as she spoke about them. At first I wrote down a different character for mu, meaning wood, but YuanYuan corrected me with her preference, a mu meaning vision or eye. “This mu gives it a better meaning,” she said.
With YuanYuan’s mu, Lotus Bus coordinator Tim Leicester’s name means the eye of heaven, or as she put it: “old heaven has eyes” (老天有眼). “These are very good people,” she said. “They were the ones who helped me with my back pain. I was referred to a hospital where they made it a lot better.” Her eyes suddenly hardened. “I tell you: The French are kinder than the Chinese.”
Despite the veil of anonymity on the bus and the vast numbers the squad attends to, the women who come often enough are remembered by their faces and spoken of as individuals. Not knowing any of the women’s names, the Lotus Bus squad often made up their own nicknames for them. The one with the blonde tresses. The one who wore this. Who said that. For Meyer, one stood out amongst the rest of the brow-beaten and bone-tired Dongbei women. “She was one of the very few with whom we spoke French,” he recalled. “She was learning it on the side from her boyfriend, who was French. She had been in the country for three years and for someone with no higher education, she spoke well. She created enthusiasm around her.”
“Even though she was not prettier than the others, she was attractive for her optimism. We called her La Belle.” The Beauty.
Because the number of Chinese prostitutes in Paris is not superlative by the standards of most trafficking and prostitution figures, because their story is sociologically complicated and doesn’t belong to the embedded narrative of most Western media, and perhaps because I’m a student, most international news organisations I’ve approached declined to investigate the situation faced by the Dongbei women in Paris. Very little information on these women is out there in English.
But their story holds personal significance for me. As a diaspora Chinese, it was a little too familiar to interview a prostitute of Chinese origin. The close shave in fate made me uneasy. She could have been my grandmother, who left China half a century ago in search of better economic opportunities. She could also have been my mother, who left her village to find a job in the big city right after high school. By some stretch of the imagination, she could have been me. YuanYuan is just another Chinese migrant looking for a modest version of the American dream, not very different for most people of Chinese origin that I know.
I originally reported this story as a long-form assignment for school. I’m sharing it here now because I think more people need to understand what goes on in the lives of these women.
YuanYuan’s real name has been changed to protect her identity. RuoLin YANG, my friend and colleague, contributed to the reporting for this article.