Walking around Paris’ Belleville neighborhood, one sees a very different side of the City of Lights: gone are the glitzy buildings, the Napoleonic architecture and the well-dressed Parisians. The borough is a dense mass of working-class blocks that have served as home to the city’s immigrants and its poor for hundreds of years. Famed singer Edith Piaf lived in Belleville, as did many starving artists and musicians of decades past and present.
Since the 1980s, Belleville has become home to one of the city’s largest Chinese communities. At any given hour, on the neighborhood's main streets, bevies of Chinese women—mostly in their 40s or early 50s, dressed in miniskirts, fishnets and full makeup—congregate near Metro stops or in front of rows of shops. They chat, giggle, and tease each other like schoolgirls. Some hug Louis Vuitton knock-offs close to them, while others clutch purses that show the wear-and-tear of daily use. By five in the afternoon, at just about every entrance to a building, the women seem to linger alone or in pairs.
These are Belleville's sex workers. The nongovernmental organization Medécins du Monde (Doctors of the World) has worked closely with these women for nearly 10 years—it runs a mobile medical facility called Lotus Bus, which visits the women on the streets where they work. The service is offered in Chinese, as most of the women speak little French, or none at all. While receiving medical attention, the sex workers also are given legal help in terms of understanding their rights and how to take care of themselves.
Many of the women come by the center on Thursdays to meet with the social worker and the rest of the team for more in-depth discussions. It was during one of these meetings that I met some of the women. When I arrived, they were all gathering around a table, looking at drawings for an upcoming brochure aimed at helping women who have just gotten into the sex trade.
Lan* is one of the younger prostitutes attending the meeting. Her long black hair hangs past her shoulders, and she is wearing a heart necklace that catches the light as it grazes her pink top, along with a short skirt and black see-through tights. She smiles often, which warms up her face. She’s one of the more vocal participants, and laughs louder than everyone when the image of a woman wearing dark clothes and a pout is circulated as the potential image to represent a sex worker in the brochure.
The other women agree with her: the caricature in the brochure looks too much like a girl, and too rebellious looking. They want a woman who is softer and sophisticated.
Most of the women here are from the same northeastern Chinese region of Lioaning, part of Manchuria. Historically, it was one of the wealthier parts of the country with heavy industry and lots of jobs. Many of the women worked in factories that produced steel, chemicals or wires, or some may have worked in the smaller companies that dealt directly with the factories. But in recent years, as the region's industries packed up and went further south in China, the women were often the first to lose their jobs.
With children and elderly parents to look after, many women believe they will have a better chance of finding good work abroad. And so, after borrowing money from friends and family, an agency is paid to ‘produce’ the necessary documents to obtain a French visa. Upon arrival in France, they are told to claim asylum. With the French bureaucracy being what it is, it will take some time before they receive a response. In the meantime, they are safe from deportation, but are left without any legal working papers.
Arong* sits close to me. She's dressed in beige capris, a loose-fitting T-shirt, and a pair of flower flip-flops. It’s hard not to quietly compare her outfit to the others and wonder what she might normally wear. She’s more willing than the others to explain how they all came specifically to France. “Through friends we heard it’s easy to find work” particularly as a housecleaner or in clothing factories in Paris. However the women unravel this myth only upon arrival here. “While we have a visa to stay, we do not have a visa to work. So if we ask around the community for work, people will say no. The only type of work that we can find is as a nanny.” However, Arong explains that working under the table as a nanny means you are easily exploited, as many of the women can attest to. She herself was lucky, and worked for a good family, but the others were overworked, and poorly paid.
While the majority of the women here come from the north, the established Chinese community in Belleville hails primarily from the south. Entrenched regional differences and prejudices have replicated themselves in the host country, says Tim Leicester, the coordinator of the Lotus Bus. He explains that because the northern regions have historically been stronger economically, many of the inhabitants there attended school to at least the age of 16 or even 18, and thus have a higher degree of education. By contrast, the southerners are often derided by northerners as simple peasants. Here in Paris, the traditional roles have been reversed—which often breeds animosity and can translate into a lack of empathy for the newly arrived immigrant women. Without papers, the women are often refused work, even under the table. Without a community to support them, and with nannying work that is often de facto indentured servitude, many turn to prostitution to pay down hefty debts and to avoid the shame of returning to China empty-handed.
Arong tells me her experience as a nanny for seven months. “I was lucky to work for a good family who treated me well.” But, when the grandmother arrived to France to take care of the children, she found herself once again unemployed. Without papers, and a growing debt to pay off, she turned to the sex trade as a last recourse.
Many of the women hear about working the streets through friends. According to Leicester, most of the women work without a pimp, so they do keep the money they earn. But the cost is often steep. According to a study released by Médicins du Monde, 86 percent of the women surveyed had been confronted with violence at work. It also discovered that the majority of the women were naive about sexual health and protection from STDs.
Many have fallen victim to rape, and physical abuse either at the hands of clients or even the police. As Leicester notes the most difficult thing in his work is “when we are witness to a lot of unjust treatment by the state of France.”
As of 2003, it became illegal to solicit sex in France, but not to prostitute. As such, many of the women are harassed by the police for ‘passively soliciting’. The authorities often monitor the sex workers, stopping them to search their bags even when they are not on the job. If the police find condoms, the women are often then accused of soliciting and arrested. At the hands of the police, the women say they have been beaten up, and some have even reported sexual violence.
The study released by Médecins du Monde in December 2012, entitled “Chinese Sex Workers in Paris” (Travailleuses du Sexe Chinoises à Paris) has documented cases of police harassment of some of the Chinese sex workers in Belleville. When I asked the police about this point, they neither denied nor admitted to harassing them, but said “the fight against soliciting, especially in the neighborhood of Belleville, remains a priority for the police services who only intervene if there is material proof of such an infraction.”
Another study put out in March of this year by the League for Human Rights (Ligue des droits de l’hommes), entitled “Investigation mission. Institutionalized harassment—The Chinese prostitutes and the offense of soliciting in public” (Mission d’Enquête. Un harcèlement institusionnalisé. Les prostitutées chinoises et le delit de racolage public) also has documented cases of police violence against some of the Chinese sex workers after they had been arrested for allegedly soliciting sex. The League asked the police to participate in the study, but they declined. When I asked the police why they refused to participate, they responded, “we did not refuse to participate in the study—we simply indicated that if these women feel they had been victims of violence, they should direct their complaints to the police.”
However, even as an asylum seeker, the women still have rights under French law—a point they don’t often realize and that the legal team at Lotus Bus tries to point out to them.
With most of the women fearing police involvement, much of the violence perpetrated by clients goes unreported. Arong explains “eventually if you have papers, then you can go report an incident to the police.” But she quickly points out that most of them do not have papers, so getting the police involved is not really a viable option. Instead, the women look out for one another. “If there is a man in particular that has caused problems, we try and warn the others…or we survey one another, so if someone has left for a long time, then we start to try and contact her.” She adds that without police protection, this is their only form of defense.
That leaves the women in a highly vulnerable situation. Since they worry about being arrested for soliciting, many of them now work when it is dark, or are more likely to get into the car of a client for fear of being caught—all scenarios that up the risk of a threat to their safety.
After the medical group released its study, it realized the need for a brochure to warn the sex workers about potential dangers. One of the diagrams on the proposed flyer shows a woman speaking to a friend and pointing to an approaching client: she is pointing out to her colleagues which men should be avoided, even though they may seem safe.
“It's very important because we tell ourselves, one day so-and-so could come across a client who appears safe but in fact puts her in a very difficult situation. But that could easily be any one of us the next day. That’s why we all have to prepare ourselves for the likeliness that one day we’ll come across a dangerous situation. So it’s really important that we work together and help each other to minimize the risk of finding ourselves in such a precarious scenario,” says Arong.
She also points out that when a woman starts working the streets, she doesn’t know how to defend herself.
In between browsing diagrams of how to put a condom on and discussing the unlikeliness of ever using a female condom, the women tell me how long they have been here in Paris: “three months,” “six months,” “two and a half years." They all hope to return to China one day.
Occasionally, a woman is able to scrape together the money to leave Paris. Leicester tells me about one sex worker who recently returned to her natal village. Her family had used the remittances she sent home to build a new three-story house. Others, however, have less fortunate fates. One woman was en route to China when her roommate allegedly phoned her family to tell them about her sex work in Paris following an argument between the women. When the woman landed, Leicester says, her husband attacked her with a machete. She scraped together enough money to buy another visa and has since returned to Paris to work the streets.
None of them have told their families what they do to make money. “I can’t talk to them. I keep it private,” says a shy woman named Xiao*. An attractive woman in her late 40s named Mei*—who is the only one of the group to speak French—says she has a 21-year-old son back home. When I ask her what she tells her family, she tells me how she could never explain what kind of work she does here. She adds that prostitution is still a very taboo subject in China. If her family and parents were to find out, “they would never talk to me.” But, she adds, "We all want to return home."
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women in this story.
Anne-Marie Bissada is a Paris-based freelance news and culture journalist. Originally from Canada, she worked as an investigative journalist for CBC's 'the fifth estate' in Toronto before moving across the pond. She now freelances for Radio-France International, and time-permitting, works on her blog about Egyptian culture and food at abissadacooks.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abissada.