Migrant Lives

In Paris, Chinese Prostitutes Driven Into The Shadows

In the Paris neighborhood of Belleville, home to a thriving Chinatown, prostitutes with no other prospects work to support families here or in China. And now, new dangers loom.

Qiu Lan in La Marcheuse
Qiu Lan in La Marcheuse
Florence Aubenas

PARIS When seeing the crowd on the Boulevard de La Villette in Paris, the women initially thought it was a police operation, which are frequent here. Two of the women hid in a Chinese supermarket, and others hurried down the streets leading to the canal. One of them approached us, discreetly. A movie was being shot that day, in the Asian parts of the Belleville neighborhood; the woman even went as far as to apply for a role. After all, the film was about a Chinese prostitute. Like her, a woman without papers. Like her, or rather, like them all.

Looking back, months later, the woman shakes her head when thinking about her crazy idea, as she imagines her face on a giant screen all over the world, perhaps even back in her hometown in the Manchuria region. Then, people would have found out that she doesn't work as a secretary in Paris.

La Marcheuse ("The Walker"), Naël Marandin's first film, was released in cinemas on Feb. 3, the same day that France's National Assembly considered a controversial prostitution bill. The bill would make it illegal to pay for sex and toughens the penalties for clients.

A few blocks away, some women seek shelter from the rain in a Chinese-style café with dragon-adorned teapots. On the other side of the window, high school girls are laughing in the rain, cheery and well-dressed. The women sitting in the café are between 40 and 60 years old, looking like ladies from the ghetto, dressed in dark overcoats and cheap jeans. There are 300 of them in the area, representing one-third of the Chinese prostitutes in Paris, all gathered in the neighborhood of Belleville.

Usually, their prices range between 20 and 60 euros. These days, some accept 10. It's been a tough winter, and in the cafe the women argue over who will pay for the espressos.

"We had nothing else"

"At first, we could not imagine we would sell our bodies," says a petite blonde. "But at the age of 40, a woman is worth nothing." In Paris, other girls — mostly French — have dubbed these women the "proletarians." Almost all come from northeastern China. In the late 1990s, a series of governmental reforms were initiated there during which everything closed for months. "We had nothing," the blonde says. In the sock factory where she was working, employees were advised to "take something, sell it on the sidewalk" because they weren't coming back. Meanwhile, at the other end of China, a new economy was built through textiles, electronics and enlisting battalions of rural youth. One working class replaced another.

In the café, a woman with professor-like glasses says she was a saleswoman, artisan, entrepreneur. But after the Chinese reforms she emigrated to the West. There was only one way of doing it: She paid 11,000 euros in cash for a fake temporary visa. After flight transfers in London and Frankfurt, she arrived in Paris. "You understand the reality when you get here," the blonde says. "Emigration for us is like a man who goes to war: We hope to return victorious. For us, that means money," says one woman. She says she has no recollection of her first time with a man here. "How can you forget? My heart has turned cold," the petite blonde retorts.

On the opposite side of the street, Naël Marandin, a 35-year-old film director and a neighborhood resident, sits in a bar. After graduating from the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, he was inspired by one of his professors to turn to movies. As a kid, Marandin enjoyed theater, and played the lead character in Les Allumettes suédoises ("The Safety Matches"), the best-selling Robert Sabatier novel that was adapted for television in 1995. At 19, he left for China seeking adventure. Marandin learned the language, worked as a bartender and TV presenter, was part of an NGO in Tibet and then starred in a play.

A risky business

When he returned almost two years later, he started working for associations engaged in Chinese emigration. The Lotus Bus is one of them, a program in which doctors are working to improve health access for sex workers. One night a week, the Lotus minibus stops in Belleville.

"The project has grown with the influx of highly vulnerable Chinese women, who we saw arrive after the 2003 Sarkozy statutes," says Nathalie Simonnot, one of the pioneers at Lotus Bus. "Before, they were able to find jobs illegally, but the tightened sanctions against employers hiring illegal workers limited their options." At the same time, another law was passed, making passive soliciting an offense. Simonnot characterizes it as "a huge mistake" because "the women now take refuge in more remote places, putting themselves at higher risk."

More than half of these women have experienced physical violence: 38% from rapes and 28% from kidnappings, says Jean-François Corty, director of the French humanitarian group Doctors of the World.

At the cafe, the blonde talks about her daughter, who lives in Manchuria. "She studies design," she says, lowering her eyes to veil her pride. "A parent must give everything to his or her children. Everything, everything, everything. We just do not live for ourselves."

Another girl with curly hair jokes, "I have no children." The blonde asks her, "To do what we do, you need a compelling reason. What is yours?" Everyone grows silent and their faces all turn towards "Curly Hair." She hesitates. Even among each other, they avoid giving details because they value their privacy above all else. They want nothing to be traced back to them.

The blond insists, "So what's your reason?"

The girl looks down and answers, "We live in a mountain village. We own a table, a bed and a little rice. We had to borrow money to look after my father, then we purchased a pig in hopes of paying off the debt faster. The pig died. I was the only chance to save the family honor."

Suddenly, someone screams, "Police! Police!" The Belleville intersection is the junction of four districts, each with its own police station. Sometimes the uniforms make raids — eight people were arrested Feb. 1 — to harass or to protect. Over a period of 10 years, five Chinese prostitutes have been murdered. The last became an icon. Witnesses saw her leave with a man who was known to be violent. She knew too. But she needed money for her daughter. It was a 30-euro job; she was stabbed 24 times. The daughter stayed in Belleville, preferring to die here as her mother did than tell her family about the circumstances of the murder.

In reaction to these events, a group of women created an organization called Steel Roses in 2015, and its members wear masks for public appearances. Like other associations, they were consulted by parliamentarians when the prostitution law was being drafted. They realized that no one believed them when they said they were "slaves to no one."

"People fail to see that it's possible to perform sex work without a gun to your head," says Morgane Merteuil, a spokeswoman for the union of sex workers. "Which doesn't mean that there are no big economic constraints, like finding accommodation. It's less spectacular, but not necessarily easier."

The war of associations

For the first time in France, the new law will offer a "prostitution exit route" with rights, housing, benefits and training, including a temporary residence permit for undocumented people. But how to nurture real integration? In December, French Human Rights Defender Jacques Toubon stressed that the problem isn't the prostitute but the existence of prostitution itself. He said that merely leading these women out of prostitution isn't enough. This is one of many disagreements between associations involved in the issue.

But the question of penalty may be the most contentious. On Feb. 3, the Assembly decided not to remove the famous 2003 "offense of soliciting" law, which criminalizes clients. Does this law better protect prostitutes, as claimed by the movement Le Nid, or does it, on the contrary, entail a secrecy that enhances the dangers for these women, as Amnesty International suggests?

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Paris's Belleville neighborhood — Photo: Nelson Minar

In general, Qiu Lan avoids Belleville. She came to Paris 15 years ago after falling in love with a French businessman in China. In Paris, she learned French and got into theater. A former dancer with the Peking Opera, and daughter of a renowned composer, Qiu Lan tried "to keep the lowest possible profile" when Naël Marandin took her to Belleville.

La Marcheuse is her first real role, and she was excited to play a prostitute. "It's a challenge, but that's my nature," she says. She recalls that women were ashamed, "especially in front of other Chinese." Southern Chinese immigrants, in particular, know that Parisians don't like them. Well-established Belleville business people who have lived there for generations regularly offer to pay for their return ticket in an effort to "re-establish a good image of the community."

After two years, the other girl has repayed some of her debt to the smuggler. In three more years, the petite blonde will have paid for everything. She could have done as other women have and married a local. A French man did propose to her, but she didn't like him. "Is it really right to do it only for the papers?" She refused.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
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