A taste of Chinese New Year

Two personalities in the 20th discuss the holiday and how they celebrate

Chinese New Year fell on February 12 this year. On this bitterly cold, bright sunny winter day in Belleville, home to one of Paris’s largest Chinese communities, however, celebrations to ring in the Year of the Ox went largely unnoticed to the general public. The parades the neighborhood is used to seeing were again cancelled this year to due to Covid. 

“We’ve held a Chinese New Year celebration with a parade in the central median of Belleville every year since 2012 until last year, when we had Covid,” says Martin Shi, vice-president of the neighborhood association that organizes the celebrations. The holiday marks the beginning of a new year on China’s traditional lunisolar calendar, as well as the end of winter and the arrival of spring. This transition is celebrated from New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival, held on the 15th day of the year. The New Year is one of the most important holidays in China and for people of Chinese origin living in France and abroad.

“It’s a holiday where we meet with family and friends, and we will have a big meal. The Chinese are like the French: all big moments are related to cuisine, to food, to meals, to family,” says Donatien Schramm, sinophile and go-to guide to Belleville and Paris’s other Chinese quarters.

Symbolism is highly important in the choice of dishes and the way they are prepared and eaten. “The Chinese love anything that’s a word game, anything that’s a play on shapes, etc. They attach great importance to all these symbols,” Donatien says. For example, a common New Year’s food in the north is jiaozi. “These dumplings are shaped like a Chinese gold ingot, and are therefore a sign of wealth,” he says.

In the south, Martin says, glutinous rice cakes called nian gao, homophone for “higher year”, are common. Other symbolic foods eaten for the New Year are longevity noodles (symbol of a long life), fish (homophone for ‘abundance’), and mandarin oranges (seasonal fruits that are the color of gold and are round, symbolizing family). Many people eat ten dishes for the New Year’s Eve dinner “because ten is perfect,” Martin says. 

[PHOTO : Takeout dishes from Chez Alex Whenzou, 24 rue de Belleville]

“We usually eat this meal at the moment we pass from one year to the next,” Donatien says, adding that “on New Year’s day, we don’t cook because it’s a day when we must not use knives.” Avoiding knives is one of several myths and customs associated with entering the new year, such as paying off debts, setting off firecrackers to chase away evil spirits and sickness, or performing dragon or lion dances to bring good luck.

“Sometimes gifts are exchanged, but mostly we give a gift to children called hongbao, red envelopes with money in them. My children love Chinese New Year because their grandmother gives them hongbao,” Donatien says.

Donatien fell in love with Chinese culture after watching the film “The Magic of the Kite” as a boy in Marseilles. Later in Paris, he met his wife, a Parisian woman of Chinese origin. “That revived my love of China, and I wanted to understand why her family had left Qingtian for France. So I did a lot of research on the Chinese presence in France,” he explains. Donatien taught himself Chinese, learned to prepare traditional foods by watching his mother-in-law in the kitchen, founded the intercultural association Chinois de France – Français de Chine, and became a tour guide based in Belleville, where he’s lived for 30 years.

“This is a magnificent neighborhood, with very, very different communities. The Chinese presence in lower Belleville is visible and so it’s one of the first that people see and are interested in. But the Chinese world is often very poorly understood, and the French have a very, very vague idea of Chinese culture,” he says, using the example of foods often thought to be Chinese in France: nems are in fact Vietnamese, and riz cantonais was invented in France. Donatien also stresses that China is 17.5 times the size of France, with strong differences among regions. “In Belleville, the largest community is from the coastal city of Wenzhou and the countryside around it. This community has been living in France for more than a century and arrived in Belleville at the end of the ’70s.”

Martin, who is from Fuqing some 400 km south of Wenzhou, also insists on regional differences. Martin arrived in the 20th arrondissement in 2000. In 2011, he helped found the association Les Commerçants Bellevillois to address the security of Chinese business owners in the neighborhood. Once the situation had improved, the association decided to take on a more pleasant cause: cultural exchange, with events such as tea tastings and New Year’s parades. 

Today, Martin lives with his wife and children in the Charonne neighborhood, and he has just ended a term as deputy mayor of the 20th. For this New Year, he says: “We didn’t do much. We just had dinner on the night of the 11th. We ate nian gao. We ate some fish.” He hopes the parades will be allowed to continue sometime soon. “But really, if you want to discover the Chinese New Year, you have to go to China to see,” he says with a laugh.

Guided tours by Donatien Schramm