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3) Visit Europe's Largest Chinatown

The best walk through the Corbusian Les Olympiades and Quartier Chinois in Paris

Les Olympiades, Paris Chinatown

Many cities in Europe have a Chinatown. London has a small Chinatown in Soho, for example, but Paris actually has not one, but two Chinatown districts or Quartier Chinois.

The two Parisian Chinatown quarters are the gritty Belleville in the 20th arrondissement and Les Olympiades — the largest Chinatown in all of Europe — in the 13th arrondissement. Belleville is decidedly rough around the edges, but Les Olympiades is solidly working class as well as architecturally distinctive and more worth a visit. Even though Les Olympiades — technically the Quartier de la Gare named after a previous train station — is easy to reach on the nicest Metro Line in Paris (Line 14), tourists in the district are uncommon and suggests that it should receive far more attention than it does.

Although other portions of the neighborhood retain a bit more of the traditional small street Parisian charm, the focal point of the district is the cluster of Modernist concrete highrises known as Les Olympiades that lends the area its most commonly used name. Designed by architect Michel Holley from 1964 to 1969 — with heavy theoretical influence from French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier — and built starting in 1970, Les Olympiades is unlikely to win many fans in today's architecture circles. The eight tallest highrises, all 104 meters (341 feet) tall and named after cities that hosted the Olympics — Anvers (Antwerp), Athènes (Athens), Cortina, Helsinki, Londres, Mexico [City], Sapporo, and Tokyo — effectively are identical, and the concrete platform that connects them —  formally the Centre Mercure — is painfully sterile. However, the project is mixed-use with residential, retail, recreational, and office space together, and it was designed with people on foot in mind. It ties back into the street grid, also. Certainly, the neighborhood is a more pleasant stroll than around the Arc de Triomphe or the Place de la Concorde that tourists regularly visit.

Furthermore, Les Olympiades is interesting in a cultural context because Modernist ideas were improved and expanded upon in Asian megacities like Hong Kong and Singapore, so even the built environment in Les Olympiades feels rather Asian in character even though that was not the intention when it was designed. For example, the mall in the back of the complex — in the squat concrete building named Olso — with its "cheap and cheerful" restaurants, clothes, and other day-to-day goods would not be out of place architecturally, culturally, or commercially in a modest neighborhood in much of Southeast Asia.

Les Olympiades likely became home to a large Asian population at least partially because of timing. It was built in the early 1970s and provided a whopping 2,855 apartments, but the local market showed limited demand. In turn, there was a large influx of migrants to Paris from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and China in 1975 after the Vietnam War, or the American War, if you consider the Vietnamese perspective. These new arrivals needed a place to live, and this area was a feasible option.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that so many refugees from Asia settled in this particular neighborhood. It is a safe bet that the economic activity generated by these hard working new arrivals to Paris is one reason that Les Olympiades is a more economically successful area today than many Parisian housing projects. You might enjoy making a point to visit Tang Frères in the area, founded by brothers from Laos in 1976 and now one of the largest Asian supermarket chains in the West. It's not a tourist attraction, but it's definitely a genuinely Asian experience.

To eat in this neighborhood, it's hard to go wrong with Asian food. At one time or another, we enjoyed Phở 13 for Vietnamese, Bambou d'Or for Khmer, and Thai Yim for Thai. If you would just like a snack, the bubble tea at the Taiwanese Bubble House is a good choice, although the lines can be long around lunch time and again in the mid-afternoon when nearby schools release their young captives. There's also a McDonald's in the neighborhood if you're feeling less adventurous, although even it has signage in Mandarin.

Below, we've mapped out our preferred walk in the neighborhood. This walk takes you from Olympiades Station, up, over, and through the Les Olympiades complex, down the pleasant people-only Rue des Freres d'Astier de la Vigerie, and up the Avenue de Choisy through the commercial heart of the district to the Porte de Choisy Station for a convenient loop back into the heart of Paris.

How to Get Here: Take Metro Line 14 to Olympiades station. Take Exit 1 and make a 180-degree turn (over your shoulder) to start our suggested walk. In about a block, the escalator up to the main promenade of Les Olympiades — the Centre Mercure — is to your left. A logical departure point is Porte de Choisy station on Line 7.

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  • Writing & Photos By Brock Kyle. All Rights Reserved. Last Updated/Verified 26 January 2018. Feedback.