Originally published in A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN 

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Women are starting businesses twice as quickly as men. Now, these game-changers are beginning to meet their own needs.

In 2011, independent game developer Brianna Wu faced one of the most terrifying moments in her career that had nothing to do with Gamergate harassment. Her lead animator, Amanda Warner, had just told her that she was pregnant.

Wu, the outspoken founder of indie-game development studio Giant Spacekat was then working on Revolution 60. It was to be the company’s very first game, slated to be released in 2013. Warner was her best employee – they had founded the company together – and this was crunch time. How would they make it?

But when Warner had first sat Wu down to break the news to her, Wu had already braced herself for the worst: was she moving? Quitting? Found a new job? A pregnancy was going to be tough, Wu thought, but they could work with it. They had to. Wu decided to bet the future of the company on it… 

If you liked this article, check out the rest of A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN.


Originally written for my final project at the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism, dated 27/05/2013. PDF version here.

Suicides in France: A Public Act?

From subways to self-immolation, public suicides are becoming disturbingly frequent in the country of joie de vivre. That can leave a toll on witnesses and those unwittingly involved in ending a life. Photography by Jérôme Verony.

suicides in france - a public act?

The morning before Valentine’s Day, a dark-haired man in a black coat stood at the far end of a subway platform, counting down until the next train arrived. It was around 9am at Odéon, a busy hour at a centrally located métro station. He wouldn’t have to wait long. As the figures “0:00” started blinking on the overhead clock and the tunnel filled with the roar of an approaching train, the man took a deliberate step towards the platform edge. He bent over, put his hands on the ground, and quickly lowered himself onto the train tracks. The horror of what was about to happen instantly dawned on everyone on the platform. Screams of “Non!” filled the station. The man disappeared as the train slammed into him. It was over in seconds.

Standing two paces away from the suicide, Fanny saw everything. “I saw him go down,” she said. “I had the reflex to turn away. There was a loud thud. Everybody was screaming.” The train screeched to an emergency halt in the middle of the station. On board, people lurched and toppled forward like a line of dominos from the inertia. “The passengers didn’t know what had happened,” said Fanny. “But they saw the faces of the people on the platform and I think they understood.” The 26-year-old marketing manager had been idly watching the man from behind just moments before he ended his life, and the horror hasn’t left her since. In her mind, she still sees the man on the tracks. He had been standing sideways, frozen in a sort of stride. At the time she’d had the wild and absurd thought that he would never cross the tracks on time. “I remember thinking: what is he doing?” she said. “But there was no doubt about it, he wanted to die.”

After the impact, people had quickly made for the stairs, emptying the platform. “There was someone continuously screaming and sobbing,” said Fanny, who believes it might have been the train conductor, a middle-aged woman. “But she couldn’t have done anything. Nobody could have. It happened so fast.”  The indelible memory of how the tunnel went cold like a crypt that morning still gives her the chills. “It was like a place of death,” she said. “It didn’t feel like a place you go to everyday.” Fanny declined to share her full name, saying her experience could not compare to the grief faced by the man and, by now, his family.

There are 11,000 suicides in France each year, a fraction of the 195,000 people hospitalised following a suicide attempt annually. According to OECD figures, France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe – twice that of the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Germany and the United States. It is the first cause of mortality for French people in their thirties. A further 2,200 people take their lives each year without making the official lists. Many family members jump on the slightest shadow of doubt and would sooner call a death an accident than a suicide – a possible remnant of French Catholicism, which considers voluntary death a sin. The fact that there is no option to list “suicide” as a cause of mortality in French death certificates and no systematic inquiry into the causes of non-natural deaths – unlike in most European countries – further helps to mask these numbers.

Many different reasons can drive a person to suicide, and it is often a challenge to decipher the motives behind such a final, fatal decision. But in France, suicides tend to be more public in nature than anywhere else, lending a particular authority to what voluntary death means. In the most recent context of the euro-crisis and growing disillusionment with the country’s future, the phenomenon of public suicide is being seen as a sort of protest against society’s failing conditions. Above all, it is sparking a painful and contentious debate over France’s oppressive workplace conditions and its consequences.


Last Tuesday, May 22, a 78-year-old man entered the Notre Dame cathedral amidst a throng of tourists, went up to the altar, stuck a shot-gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Dominique Venner was a far-right award-winning historian who had been campaigning hard against the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage, signed into law last weekend by French president François Hollande. “New spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness,” Venner wrote on his blog, just hours before the act.

On May 16, a 50-year-old man with a history of mental health problems forced his way into a nursing school near the Eiffel Tower and shot himself in front of 12 school children aged six and seven. Later, one boy told a French news channel that he had thought the school had been invaded by terrorists.

On February 13, a jobless man burnt himself to death in front of a public job search agency in Nantes. Frustrated after a long period of futile job-hunting, 33-year-old Djamal Chaar wanted his self-immolation to be a public statement about France’s socio-economic malaise. He hasn’t been the only one. At least a dozen men and women have set themselves on fire since 2011 for similar reasons.

The overall suicide rate, while stable, has actually decreased slightly over the last few years. Yet despite this decline, railway suicide is becoming an increasingly common form of these “spectacular and symbolic” deaths. French transport operators are relatively discreet, referring to railway deaths as accidents graves or serious accidents, but it is no secret that suicides on the rails are a disturbingly frequent phenomenon. France’s national railway SNCF sees up to 400 fatal accidents each year, of which a large majority are voluntary deaths – almost double the annual number of suicides on British railways. The phenomenon is on the rise: according to SNCF president Guillaume Pépy, there were 30 percent more railway suicides in 2012 than in the preceding four years. In the Paris métro, which carries the highest volume of traffic in Europe after Moscow, at least one person kills himself in the subway every three days. Paris transport authority RATP says there were 195 such suicides in 2008. By contrast, the New York subway averages about 26 suicides a year.

“There is a collective dimension to this particular type of suicide,” explained Rébecca Hartmann, a psychologist who has been working for France’s national railway for nine years. Although large French firms have in-house doctors, SNCF went a step further in 1997 to create a specialised department dedicated to providing psychological support for staff, as they kept running into suicide attempts. To die by throwing oneself before a train, according to Hartmann, is a cry to the collective. “It’s not at all like a suicide in one’s room,” she said. “It’s not a private affair. The idea is to shout out to the collective about one’s poor wellbeing. The person knows that this will affect hundreds of people who are stopped in their day, so there is a message somewhere to society.”

Indeed, France’s high suicide rate is being widely seen as a sign of the country’s socio-economic malaise. When Hollande called the self-immolation of Djamal Chaar a “personal drama” in March, he was met with scorn. To the French, public suicides are widely understood not as acts of personal drama but as an outcry against an ailing society. It is not difficult to see where this angst is coming from: France is experiencing its highest unemployment rate in 17 years, leading to increased pressure in the workplace. The country’s waning influence in the European Union has led Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to ask if France is “a peripheral country” – a burning point of shame for the French, who have been eyeing Germany’s stable economic growth and burgeoning political clout following the euro-crisis.


Various studies have sought to capture France’s moody disposition during this time. A 2012 European quality of life survey, commissioned by the European Union, found that the French are the least optimistic about the future after Greece, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. A public opinion survey released by Pew Research Centre this month concluded that the French are becoming dispirited faster than anyone else in Europe. A recent study by sociologist Claudia Senik at the Paris School of Economics went even further: her study, titled “The French Unhappiness Puzzle”, suggests that it’s not the crisis, silly – gloominess just happens to be an integral part of French culture. The consensus is overwhelming: something is rotten in the state of France.

It is unsurprising then that in such a context, public suicides are being seen as cries of protest. Sociologists say these are emanating from “the most vulnerable” in society. Typically, suicide is considered an act of desperation for those who are unable to accept or deny their social circumstances. But in France, the public aspect of suicide gives the act a particularly vindictive tone. It is a ghastlier version of the child in tears throwing a fit, whose intuition is: “One day I’ll die and you’ll be sorry.” Each public suicide is – so goes the reasoning – akin to holding a mirror to the face of society. The idea is that this will force society to examine itself for having created the hopeless conditions for such wasted lives. The message is being delivered in collective overtones, and increasingly, it is being heard. In an op-ed for leading newspaper Le Monde, French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg proclaimed that “today…individual suffering is a declaration that has value for acting on a common problem.” But what is the common problem?

For the past three years, Fabienne Leonhart has been working at Suicide Écoute, a 24-hour hotline that receives 22,000 calls a year. Over the telephone, Leonhart’s grandmotherly voice has a calming and non-judgmental tone – an important quality that has played a part in pulling hundreds away from the brink of death. According to the 43-year-old, it is too simplistic to single out a factor as the main cause of suicidal depression. The answers could be a conflation of anything ranging from mental health issues to workplace stress. “Which caused what? It’s impossible to say! It can all be related,” said Leonhart, who has fielded crisis after crisis from callers with obvious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The conundrum, she says, is whether to read depression as a cause or as a symptom: is something caused by depression or the other way around?

Since the economic crisis, however, Leonhart admits the hotline has been receiving an increasing number of calls from people who have unemployment or work-related issues. “We are in a difficult economic climate,” she said. “There’s no denying that there is an enormous amount of pressure in companies. It is a phenomenon of the crisis.” When asked how she went about convincing these people not to kill themselves, Leonhart swiftly corrected the question. ”It’s not that they want to die,” she said, sounding a bit pained. “They want to stop suffering.”

Involuntary killers

Suicide always leaves behind the indelible aspect of trauma. And in the case of a public suicide, this trauma extends beyond the circle of family and friends to complete strangers. Few experience this as frequently and as intimately as train conductors, who are the first to see the silhouette of a person on the tracks, the last to see him or her alive, and the ones who are directly implicated in the destruction of a life. It is a peculiar and rather grotesque hostage situation. “Although railway suicide is a violent decision,” explained French national railway psychologist Hartmann, “it is also an act of passivity”, since it transfers the act of killing to someone else. In this case, a train conductor and his train unwittingly become the agents of destruction. “The train conductors are thus taken hostage,” writes Éric Fottorino, former editor of Le Monde, in his latest book Suite à un accident grave de voyageur. “Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill. He kills, despite himself.”


“When it happens, there is practically nothing we can do,” said Cédric Gentil, a train conductor who blogs for French newspaper Liberation and author of Mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît. “By the time you understand what is going on, it’s too late. The distance needed to bring the train to a stop is too long.” The 33-year-old still vividly recalls the woman who had leapt in front of his train a few years ago. Horrified, he had acted instantly. He pulled the emergency brakes, hit a switch that released sand onto the tracks, and cut off the electric current in the rails. These gestures would later be extremely important, not only for the woman, but for Gentil himself.

Then he waited helplessly until the train came to a halt. “When you’re in that situation, the wait is endless,” said the tall, brown-haired man. “I felt as though time was passing in slow-motion.” Once the train finally stopped, he could no longer see the woman from his window. Heart in his shoes, Gentil came out of his cabin and looked in front of his train. He had stopped just 40cm in front of the woman. She was dazed but completely unharmed.

Most of Gentil’s colleagues have not been so fortunate. According to Hartmann, every train conductor experiences on average one railway suicide attempt during his career. Many risk prolonged psychological trauma and some enter depression, often replaying the death in their minds. In 2012, SNCF’s team of psychologists made 50 emergency on-site visits to the scene of the suicide in order to quickly stem the overwhelming sense of shock and guilt. “Even though they know in theory that they couldn’t do anything to prevent it, they go through the ‘what ifs’,” said Hartmann. “It is a feeling of total helplessness, to have been active in the death of someone.”

One of Gentil’s female colleagues struggled from crippling guilt after running into two suicides. “She took a long time to get over the first one,” said Gentil. “She was really traumatised. Then it happened again. It’s like all the work that she’d had gone through to recover, it’s as though it’s for nothing.” For Gentil’s friend, the memory of the man’s face is particularly horrifying. The person killing himself had stood on the tracks and stared directly into her face, as though to “defy her”, until her train rammed into him.

“I’ve asked myself many times why people choose to die this way,” said Gentil. “We talk about it a lot amongst us. I don’t think it’s an innocent act.” Amongst train conductors, there is a flash of anger against railway suicides that appear premeditated. Gentil remembers being confused by the simultaneous relief and rage he felt when he was speaking to the woman who had tried to kill herself. “I was facing her alone, nobody else would have heard me if I had said how I felt to her,” said Gentil, suddenly looking very tired. “But out of respect for the woman, I could never have done it.” Instead, he said to her: “Don’t worry, you’re safe now. Help is coming.”

Gentil has no illusions about how lucky he had been this time. “I don’t ask if it’ll ever happen to me,” he said of the possibility of killing someone who jumps in front of his train. “I ask when. It’s like having the sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I know it’s going to fall on me someday, I just don’t know when or where.”

It is never a clean death. Gentil says it can take firemen at least three hours to recover the grisly remains of a body. “They have to look for pieces of the corpse under the train or in the tunnel where it’s very dark and difficult to see,” he explained. “Sometimes someone will have to move the train a bit backwards in order to remove the body.” Only half of the suicide attempts are successful and survivors are never quite whole again. “A train weighs hundreds of tons,” said Gentil, who drives the RER A, a suburban train with one of the highest volumes in the world at 1.2 million passengers a day. “If people do survive, they are mutilated for life.”


The ramifications of each railway suicide touch thousands. It takes seconds for a suicide to throw a line into complete bedlam, and hours before things go back to normal. Traffic is disrupted for at least three hours, a halt that snowballs into more cancelled trains and delayed schedules. This knock-on disruption is likely the point of such a public death. Yet for the most part, passengers who are not privy to this cinema of horror react either with indifference or simple irritation. “It’s sad but true,” said Gentil. “When most passengers realise there’s been another serious accident, they roll their eyes and go: ‘Pfffff’!” In his book, Fottorino points out the irony of this final failure: “Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras,” he writes. Despite their public act of desperation, “nobody will try to remember them…the ones who try to shake up the very society that rejects its most vulnerable.”

But it’s not entirely true. First-hand witnesses like Fanny are often stirred by what they have seen. The trouble is finding the company they crave. In the virtual world, many witnesses eventually find their way to public transport forum They anonymously share their experiences in comments threads so they can feel less alone in their shock and grief; there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of the reactions of other witnesses. For days after the métro suicide, Wolf hungrily scoured the internet for something, anything, to lace a human feeling around what she had seen. It was on this forum that she found some solace and my request for an interview. Wolf needed to talk about it. It helped her feel better.

A form of protest against the workplace? 

The growing drama of suicides in France is putting the focus on large firms, many of which shed thousands of employees through ‘voluntary’ departures between 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the media spotlight fell on France Télécom for its wave of 30 suicides each year. Although this number is in line with the French national average of suicides and thus not especially high, some of these acts were especially dramatic. One man allegedly stabbed himself – harakiri-style – in the middle of a meeting. A woman leapt from a fifth-floor office window. Another employee jumped off a highway bridge. Similar stories abound from La Poste and Renault. Perhaps because some work-related suicides have been particularly imaginative and perhaps because they are the simplest to identify and control for, they have become a frequent headline in French media. In March, Le Monde dedicated a spread to la souffrance au travail, where a series of articles analysed French suffering in the context of high workplace stress, unemployment, social tensions, and suicides.

Side-by-side, the numbers and commentary are compelling. According to the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Cese), at least 400 suicides each year are directly related to work dissatisfaction. In a 2008 survey of 1,210 employees, Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist at Sciences Po, found that many experienced work-related disorders (mood 72%, sleep 70%, psychological disorder 52%), anxiety (60%), and abnormal fatigue. According to the OECD, the French incidence of depression was about twice that of Germany’s in the mid-2000s. One governmental study found that French consumption of anti-depressants amounted to 543 billion euros in 2000. At France Télécom, some employees keep anti-depressants on their desks, out in the open.


“For too long, mental suffering at work has been considered as the exclusive result of the personality of the employee,” wrote Michel Debout, a prominent doctor and one of the founders of the National Union for Prevention of Suicide, in one of the articles published by Le Monde. “Managers try to make this a medical problem: they speak of ‘fragile people’ and rarely of ‘people made fragile’.”

Indeed, the French are increasingly outraged at the capitalist ills of large private firms. Last year, former France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard was probed for the firm’s many suicides in 2008, the result of harsh and surreal administration that placed unnecessary pressure on workers in order to get them to voluntarily resign. On May 7, a leaked internal document dated 2006 reveals how Lombard had spearheaded the aggressive shedding of 22,000 workers by 2008. In the document, Lombard declared: “We need to stop being the mother hen…In 2007, I will make these departures happen one way or another, by the window or by the door.”

To explain the particularly violent case of France Télécom and the country’s persistently high levels of workplace dissatisfaction overall, some economists have pointed fingers at France’s rigid labour regulation. According to a 2012 study by Wasmer, high levels of stress are typical in countries with a lot of job protection. Indeed, with its generous employment protection, France has one of the worst levels of workplace stress amongst OECD countries. It is an ironic proposition about the perverse effect of “too much” job security: when labour regulation makes it too difficult and costly to fire employees, managers resort to piling pressure onto workers or neglecting them until they resign. According to Wasmer, firing someone can be as personal and formalised as “filing for a divorce”. The result is varying levels of workplace harassment, known in France by the more profound term harcèlement moral. And with the current economic climate, more employees are willing to suffer workplace harassment than to look for a new job. The price of job security becomes their mental and emotional wellbeing. “Employees initially feel that they are doing this for their family, their children, so they are capable of accepting a lot,” said Jean-Louis Bally, a member of the Observatoire de stress, an independent organisation composed of academics and labour activists and whose main purpose is to monitor and lobby against large firms that create risques psycho-sociaux – occupational stress and suicide risks. “But when it becomes personal, when the management starts to disdain them, they become unhappy,” said the 69-year-old. “They take more sick leave, they fall into depression, and eventually you get suicides.”

The former France Télécom employee has strong views on whether enough prevention is being done in large firms. “It depends how you view prevention,” said the white-haired, bespectacled man contemptuously. “If you view it the way big companies do, then prevention is just about hiring psychologists to help depressed people. But that’s just treating the consequence, not the cause.” In truth, there may be no better way to do it. Most outreach programmes, including the French government’s national strategy for tackling suicides, are also based on identifying and providing psychological support to those at suicidal risk.

Venner, Chaar, and hundreds of other unknown suicide victims appear to grasp intuitively the social implications of self-destruction. Unhappy with their lives and with the societal conditions that made this unhappiness possible, they lashed out at the world by choosing violent and public deaths. It is their final act of vindication, the ultimate protest. In France, voluntary deaths like theirs are laden with social value, intended by the suicidal and interpreted as such by the living. The collective unity of this understanding is perhaps unsurprising, given the country’s particular cultural and intellectual authorities. Although he argued against the act himself, philosopher Albert Camus, whose works are taught in many French high schools, famously declared that suicide was the only serious philosophical question: it represented the rejection of an absurd life in a mute world. France also gave us Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, who in 1897 presented the world’s first monograph on none other than the topic of suicides. In his seminal work, Durkheim stripped away the moral overtones of the church, presenting suicide for the first time as an explicable social phenomenon. Voluntary death is an act of choice, he reasoned, the terms of which are entirely those of this world: it is a rejection of life by those who are poorly integrated in society and morally confused.


But it may be the French Revolution that best explains the sentiment behind France’s public suicides. According to Patrice Higonnet, professor of French history at Harvard University, voluntary death was seen as a libertarian and individualised gesture. Suicide – l’acte le plus libre – was just one more facet of man’s right to be free. During the French Revolution, Jacobins and Montagnards alike saw communitarian value in public self-destruction. Voluntary death would “shame their enemies and serve as a pedagogical example” for their peers. These suicides were, Higonnet explained in a 1989 conference, assertions of martial dignity and political high-ground.

With a background like France’s, suicide turns – perversely – into an index of high civilisation. As in “tell me your suicide rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication,” explains Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God. Richard Brody, a Francophone film critic at the New Yorker and one of several commentators who criticised Senik’s happiness study, believes so too. A “self-consciously intellectual” society like the French, he wrote in March, may just be less willing to say they are happy. The unfortunate price of this sophistication, of course, may be the country’s high suicide rate.


But for all the grandiose intellectual overtures and thoughtful academic studies surrounding suicide in France, too much scrutiny is still considered taboo. Most studies tiptoe around meaningful details such as linking demographics and causes to modes of suicide. For example, SNCF’s department of psychological support may specialise in railway suicides, but they have yet to compile data on what sort of people throw themselves in front of trains. “It’s a taboo subject,” said Hartmann carefully. “We don’t have any study on the profile – so to speak – of people who kill themselves. Why choose a train over overdose? It is delicate to interpret this. We should avoid hasty interpretations.” The SNCF psychologist is not the only one to use such cautious language; although suicide is a trending point of discussion in France, talk of the phenomenon often takes on a tone of clinical reverence, inevitably creating distance from the subject itself.

It raises a troubling question: is it possible to understand the motives of suicide from a perspective so rationalised and formal that we use language the suicidal does not? Camus himself declared that not naming things properly adds to the misfortune of the world. Perhaps, suggests Fottorino in his book, it is impossible to understand something well without being tempted by it too, thus the reluctance to tread the murky waters of a suicidal mind. The problem is contagion: talking about suicide “can give ideas, like dangling fire before a pyromaniac.” It is amongst the reasons for which French transport operators prefer to call suicides “serious accidents”, explained Gentil. First, “it’s a legal thing.” You can’t call a suicide a suicide unless a formal police investigation concludes as such. Second, “the word suicide is too strong,” he said. “It would make people uncomfortable.”

These euphemisms no longer soften the blow for certain métro users like Fanny. More than ever, the term brings her back to that cold morning when she watched the man disappear under a train. Although she was badly shaken by the incident, she forced herself to go back the next day. “You have to resume your journey, your life, your day,” she said. “I knew I had to face it sometime, so it was better to do it as soon as possible.” Standing where she had last seen the man alive, she gingerly checked the railway tracks for any sign of his suicide from the day before. There wasn’t a trace. Around her, people behaved as though nothing had ever happened. This time, the train docked normally, and people got on and off. Like so many others before this one, the loss of a life had made but a fleeting dent in the clockwork of Paris. But some things will never change for those involuntarily involved in a public suicide. A couple of paces away from Fanny, a woman stood a little too close to the edge of platform. The sight made her go cold.

On the night of May 5th, just as the results of Malaysia’s general election were becoming apparent, signalling yet another five-year rule for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), pleas for foreign intervention started going viral on social media. Petitions to the White House as well as to the United Nations were created on Sunday night, with hundreds of thousands of Malaysians sharing and signing them within hours. Memes such as this one were created, urging Queen Elizabeth to take over Malaysia because “I don’t want it independent this way.” Hundreds switched their profile picture to black, mourning what they called the “death of democracy”.

Opposition Pakatan Rakyat supporters cheer on for candidate Hannah Yeoh, defending her seat in Subang Jaya. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

These have been some of the more extreme reactions amidst the collective despair of Malaysians who had voted for the opposition party and who were highly anticipating the end of BN’s 56-year rule. It was crushing for me personally to hear the results, but simultaneously shocking to see how Malaysians were reacting to them. I stayed glued to my laptop that day, watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds refresh with growing wrath in response to the flickering numbers of the election results.

It is a thick wave of disappointment that is being further fuelled by allegations of electoral fraud and sour, divisive remarks by BN politicians. Bersih, a local NGO that campaigns for electoral reform, is withholding recognition of the election’s results as they claim it was “marred with violations of election laws, code of conduct and endless political violence from the beginning to the end”. In response to BN’s worst election showing in history, its politicians have been blaming ungrateful Chinese voters and the Chinese “tsunami“.

Yet these are not new problems. Highly racialised politics and vote manipulation have been around since the country’s independence. Throughout the 60s and 70s, my parents watched their parents and the rest of the neighbourhood’s first-generation Chinese migrants – who barely spoke any Malay – coerced into buses that would take them into the next village. There, they casted their ballots in a process they did not understand and for parties they did not even recognise. They were told that if they didn’t do so, they would be sent back to China.

Malaysians are reclaiming political agency

“Kami mahu ubah” was a key slogan in this year’s election. It translates as “We want change”. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

The real novelty of this year’s election is the startling level of engagement of Malaysian civil society. Voter turnout was pegged at 80 percent, highest in the country’s history. The scale of anticipation leading up to Sunday and the overwhelming displays of collective disappointment following the results that night are unprecedented. Before 2008, the predominant sentiment was “anyone but BN” and then a resigned shrug at the announcement of BN’s expected victory. When BN first lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 most voters were overwhelmingly surprised, almost in jubilant disbelief at the change they brought with their votes.

Expectations have grown exponentially since then. It suggests that the Malaysian electorate is regaining its agency in a political process that was once frozen by soft authoritarianism – a term used by political scientists to describe a system that “softens” authoritarian rule with selected democratic features. Since the previous election people have become more personally invested in nation-building than ever, aligning themselves to movements that purport to oust a corrupt incumbent government. Former colleagues of mine and previously apolitical friends volunteered to be polling agents and independent observers. Many more participated in the huge Bersih rallies leading up to the election and in yesterday night’s post-election rally to protest the results.

Indeed, the despair and extreme disappointment that many felt on Sunday night was the strongest show of solidarity in the country that I have ever witnessed. To me, the extreme and far-ranging reactions towards BN’s latest victory are evidence of Malaysia’s growth pains at experiencing the first election that has ever felt this “real”. By believing in and anticipating ‘ubah’, the Malay word for change, opposition coalition Pakatan’s defeat felt like the first real loss for an electorate that is not traditionally accustomed to political engagement. This is especially true for those in their early to mid-20s, like myself, who anticipated change with their very first vote.

Xenophobia during the elections

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to "prove" he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to “prove” he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

But the freshness of the experience is creating a feverishness that cuts both ways. The fervent political mobilisation across the board is also causing a paranoid wave of xenophobia and fear-mongering amongst voters. Malaysians urged each other all weekend to bust phantom voters or what many were calling “hantu”, which means ghost in Malay and carries derogatory connotations – all in an effort to counter electoral fraud following allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had paid for flights to move tens of thousands of voters into marginal constituencies for Sunday’s election.

Individuals were singled out and harassed based on their appearance, with vigilante “ghost-busters” circulating videos and photographs of them and their identity cards widely online. In one viral video (pictured above), a suspected fraud voter was forced to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd of Chinese voters to “prove” he was Malaysian. He slipped up on one word, causing a man to jump belligerently on the mistake and a whole group of people to roar at him to get lost. He is one of many alleged Bangladeshis, referred to derogatorily as “Banglas” by many Malaysians, who became a victim of discrimination and harassment on Sunday.

In the heat of the moment, the irony of trying to oust incumbent BN with its race-based policies while hunting down Bangladeshis appear to have been lost on many over-enthusiastic voters. Part of the reason was the spread of unverified information and fear-mongering claims through social media and mobile technologies, causing paranoia and fear amongst many voters. These messages fuelled public insecurity and motivated excessively aggressive behaviour towards the ‘other’ – i.e. non-Malaysians.

Lack of reliable information


Indeed, reliable and level-headed information was a rare thing on Sunday. A stampede of alarmist pictures and messages claiming all sorts of things including the arrival of buses of Bangladeshis at various voting stations, suspicious blackouts across the country, and the “magical” appearance of ballot boxes were viralised online as well as through texting and Whatsapp, fanning public rage. Most of this information continues to be unverified and a concrete link to the doctoring of election results has yet to be proven.

Even the numbers of the election results were disputed across different sources throughout the night, creating confusion amongst the electorate. Suspicious of mainstream media, some did not know where else to go to consult live updates of the election results. Facebook user Jason Lim wrote on Sunday: “This election is so freaking confusing and non-transparent. I can’t find impartial information anywhere, even if I were trying to just find the facts. How come the Counting Agents are silent? Why are numbers different depending on the sources I visit?”

A handful of websites such as MalaysiaKini and the Democratic Action Party‘s (DAP) provided live coverage of the results, but these were reportedly too slow and inconsistent. No organisation managed to pick up on and address the tide of rumours spreading online.

Growth pains of moving away from soft authoritarianism

These are growth pains of Malaysia’s slowly maturing civil society. After 56 years of BN’s rule, people are emerging from the trappings of soft authoritarianism to increasingly participate in the political process, whereby people mobilise, express political beliefs, and protest for positive change. From the many comments on social media, it was clear that many still do not fully grasp the concept of democracy as their own, calling it a “first world mentality”, and misunderstanding it as a status that could be earned by a country’s economic and social merit.

In view of the xenophobic and often racist comments flooding online feeds, some claimed despairingly that Malaysia did not “deserve” democracy. In view of what many saw as unfavourable election results, some claimed melodramatically that democracy was “dead”. For outsiders to Malaysian politics who were seeing such exchanges online (like the viral pleas for Queen Elizabeth to reclaim her colony) for the first time, most Malaysians must have appeared desperately passionate and simple.

Yet there is a lot to commend in terms of how far Malaysian civil society has come. The swift outcry and mobilisation in response to the election results is yet another sign of the increasing progressiveness of the electorate. Just five years ago, I could not comment publicly on Malaysian politics without my parents hushing me, saying that I was asking for trouble. This cautiousness has since evaporated. My father was one of the most active Facebook users on Sunday, spreading and sharing any information related to the election (yes, even the rumours).

Democracy is far from dead in Malaysia. In fact, it is more alive than ever. Certainly more is happening on the ground than ever before. Malaysians were hoping for a change in government, but this is ‘ubah’ too. And it is coming from the bottom-up. Can BN, the longest ruling coalition in the world, meet them halfway?

Note: Originally posted here.



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”

Source: MEDINA

Source: MEDINA

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.”

In 2010, the Chinese community organised a demonstration in Paris (Source:

In 2010, the Chinese community organised a demonstration in Paris (Source:

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 - Northeast China

Dongbei – Northeast China

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. ”

Police brochure in Chinese

Police brochure in Chinese

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

Lotus Bus

The Lotus Bus making its rounds. (Source: Lotus Bus, Credit: Diane Grimonnet)

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.


Not your ordinary newspaper vendor, Ali Akbar is a local celebrity in the affluent boulevard Saint Germain of Paris. He left Pakistan at a tender age in search of a better life and has now lived for 40 years in France. Initially an illegal immigrant, Ali finally gained the right to stay in France when François Mittérand’s government retroactively regularised illegal migrants in the 1980’s. His humorous headlines (“Sarkozy assassiné! Sarkozy assassinated!”) and emblematic personality has won him much popularity in the quarter, an asset which has helped him build a life in France. Today, he is father of five sons and the author of two autobiographies which have been translated into more than 10 languages.

I spent an afternoon with Ali on his daily route in the 6th arrondissement to document his life as a newspaper vendor and his longstanding popularity in the quarter. You can view the original photo essay on the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism’s student blog Migrants in Paris. I’ve also turned the photo essay into an interactive photo slideshow on Vuvox.

Selling to the elite

Around 12.30pm, Ali starts making his habitual rounds on the affluent Boulevard Saint Germain. Despite his diminutive size, he walks at a breathless pace, often cutting across traffic to get to the other side of the road, and always with a stack of French newspaper Le Monde in arm which he sells to the French elite.

“Ça y est! Ça y est!”
“That’s it! That’s it!” Covering more than 10 kilometers a day, Ali’s signature cry is instantly recognisable by the quarter’s inhabitants – a tactic which has won him much sales and consequently much popularity with his employers. He often furnishes his pitch with the headlines of the day. Sometimes they are real. Sometimes they are cheeky, blatant lies such as Sarkozy is dead. Today, he cries: “Strauss-Kahn candidat! Strauss-Kahn candidat!” Strauss-Kahn is running for president.

In the restaurants
All the restaurants in the area know Ali well. He kisses the cheeks of the female waiters, gives them big hugs, shakes the hands of the managers. His loud cry throughout the dining hall bothers no-one. He knows the floorplans so well that he can easily cover a restaurant within a minute (if no loyal clients stop him for a chat), coming in through the front door and zipping out through the rear entrance like a fresh gust of air.

Les fidèles
Ali has friends – the loyal ones – in every café and brasserie. They expect Ali everyday and never fail to buy a paper. This Turkish man is, amongst dozens of others, his “very good friend”. The two warmly embrace and exchange updates. The man smiles after Ali as he runs into the restaurant to make his rounds. “I have known Ali for nearly 35 years. I know his whole family! His five sons, his wife. He’s quite a character, isn’t he?”

Tempted to stay
Ali often sits down with his loyal ones while passing them the day’s papers, chatting easily as though they have known each other forever. For this group of men, forever does not seem like much of an exaggeration. They have been friends for 40 years. One man is an astrologist, the other a palm-reader. The conversation runs naturally and Ali is always tempted to stay for a coffee. “I cannot stay,” Ali says ruefully but firmly. “If I do, it means I get less sales.” The men understand. “Allez, au travail!” They wave him jokingly back to work.

A ladies’ man
Groups of ladies greet Ali as though they are his grandmother, clucking at him affectionately although they cannot be very different in age – Ali is 57. One lady inside the brasserie raps sharply on the window and beckons him. “Are you forgetting about me?” she calls out. Ali is by her side in moments, giving her a warm hug and kisses. The ladies pass him bills which he swiftly exchanges for small piles of coins. He works so quickly that the lady inside the brasserie has to call him back to her: “I still need to pay you for yesterday!”

Hailed on the streets
Between cafés and restaurants, Ali is often stopped on the streets. Sometimes these are also loyal ones who do not want to miss buying a paper from their favourite vendor. Sometimes they are strangers who turn at the sound of his cries. One loyal one laughs knowingly as he spots the Pakistani. “Who died today, Ali?”

Bonjour around every corner
Ali is never too busy to respond to shout-outs on the street. People lean out of car windows to call out to him. Old men walking their dogs wave to him. Being with Ali is like going around with a social passport in the 6th arrondissement. His friends seem to all be friends with each other, as though they form a club of his loyal ones. Even I get friendly waves.

Weaving through traffic
Ali transports his papers from one end of the Boulevard Saint Germain to the other using a sturdy old bike with a basket on the front and back. He weaves through the traffic in the narrow streets with complete ease, but the sight of the small Pakistani man in his haste makes it terrifying to watch.

A local celebrity
“Ça y est, Ali! Somebody is following you!” A couple of waiters call after him while keeping their eyes on me. Ali responds jovially between his trademark cries. “Yes yes, she is my friend. A journalist from Malaysia!” They laugh and pull him over gently by his arm. They want a picture with their local celebrity.

Ali also sells to restaurants. At Le J’Go, he hands over a pile of Le Monde papers and special issues and is given a glass of red wine in return. He tells me confidentially: “I don’t always drink. Only once in a while. I never take advantage, you know. That’s not what friends are for.” The chef and the bartender are cool dudes: no hugs and affectionate gestures here, just laid-back shows of mutual respect and camaraderie. “I like this place,” Ali says. “The atmosphere is good.”

Sharing his views
Nearing the end of his route, Ali gets us a couple of glasses of red wine (again on the house). He grows philosophical while reminiscing about his life, speaking of how there are good and bad people in the world, but the good are in the minority. I ask him how he feels about the most recent crackdown on work permits. He replies thoughtfully: “In life, it is good if you are forced to suffer a bit. It is more difficult now, so what? This means you will work harder. You cannot really appreciate happiness if you never work for it.”

Lunch break
Around 3pm, Ali makes his way out of a brasserie and into a Chinese caterer. This is where he has his daily lunch. “The food is good and cheap here. Asian food is always cheap, you know,” he says. He picks out a box of white rice and some shrimps and dumplings to go with it.

“I make the world laugh, but the world makes me cry”
Ali’s first book and the one he is best known for – Je fais rire le monde… mais le monde me fait pleurer! – is an autobiography which traces his journey from Pakistan to France as well as his personal struggle with his family. It is an alternative source of income besides his newspaper, but only a modest one. “I make 80 cents per book when a bookshop sells it.” Ali carries a few copies with him in his bicycle whenever he goes on his newspaper route. For someone who has never gone to school, his writing is unexpectedly alluring – the language is simple, the narrative startlingly aware.

Immortalised as the Loved One
In 2011, the district council of the 6th arrondissement held a poll asking residents to nominate the “Loved Ones” of the quarter. The only foreign nominee, Ali emerged with the most votes. His portrait has been immortalized on the wall of a building on Rue du Four, a collaborative painting which he himself participated in. The mural is located here.

a boy too big for his shoes. or at least, too big for his clothes. lithuanian, brown-eyed, tall, taller than anybody in ucsd that i had seen except perhaps for the couple of dutch boys. standing, his pants were belted too high. seated, his pants pulled up several inches too short. a giant slouched over the library table, his hands were too big for his mobile phone, books, sleeves—large as a bear’s paws. he handled his items gracelessly but with care. education was important to him. he had a boyish face, a youthful light in his eyes that had been bought over by ideas of legitimacy and wealth in the finance industry.

“i want to work in an investment bank,” he said.

small, old-fashioned glasses balanced on his broad nose, the gold metal lending an intellectual glint to his tawny face. why were all baltic men so golden-colored?

“no, it’s not that common. they didn’t even know how to translate my transcript. i told them, here, i got 85%, that’s really good, and they said okay, we’ll take you.”

he grinned. large teeth, a smile wide with ambition.

“yeah you gotta work really hard. i know these people, they work for months to get into the top banks in london. me? i work one month and i think: wow that’s pretty good now i can relax, but actually it’s not enough. it’s competitive, you know. i signed up five times for different accounts on the same website so i could take the tests over and over again. i took screen-shots of the questions and worked on them. i guess if they checked IP addresses, they would see how dedicated i am.”

the textbook lay dwarfed in his enormous hands. he thumbed through the pages earnestly, bent-double in concentration. a giant humbled into a man because he was trying to understand the Phillips curve.

“basketball is huge in lithuania. what’s the biggest sport in the US? football? yeah basketball is 10 times that in lithuania. we go crazy over it. i had a friend i used to play with – two years ago he got into the national team. he’s made a million by now. me? nah i’m not so good at it that i would have got so far. anyway, education is more important, that’s what i think.

“i’m not even that tall. i was maybe third in my class back home. oh, my sister used to have the same complex, but i think it’s okay for girls to be short. i like them small and delicate.”

another flash of his warm, ambitious smile. heading to the library, he slowed down for me, great strides turned small for the small asian by his side. a mammoth’s easy saunter wound down into tight, awkward steps.

“22? wow you are old!” his two years shy made him exclaim. suddenly, i was less small, not so delicate. two numbers had diminished the large boy. i imagined a flicker of hesitation, a quick recalculation. on the surface, we continued talking amiably, his long strides cut short alongside my small feet as we headed towards the library.

a small heap of papers, crumpled but earnestly scrawled on. a collection of graphs copied from the textbook, wobbly lines in black ballpoint ink tracing his future. i chatted furiously away on Skype, laughing at something a friend said. he knew how to concentrate, ignore all distractions. he stayed hunched, towering over his tiny book, cradling the spine in his large hands. physical hands, broad fingers that looked clumsy but loving like a bear’s paws, capable of terrifying force. hands once meant for strength and brutality, hard and honest labour, sweat and blood. hands now gripping the spine of his economics textbook, gingerly flipping the pages and creating wobbly lines on notepaper explaining the link between joblessness and why things get expensive. i watched out of the corner of my eye.

don’t fall for it, i wished silently. don’t go for the big dream. be the giant you were intended to be.