I guess I have to admit off the bat that I knew that they were hookers. A line of Chinese women scantily dressed, standing in front of the store fronts on the south side of Boulevard de Bonne near the Strasbourg St. Denis metro. They aren’t particularly attractive or inviting but I’ve lived here for long enough to know what’s up. One of them, a plump woman in her late 40s, is decked out in a faux mink coat, her bleached yellow hair curled in ringlets fastened with a huge rhinestone clip that glitters from a block away. She seems to be clinching the deal with a salt and pepper gentleman who looks mildly embarrassed to be there.
This neighborhood is deliciously trashy and so are its characters. There’s no way I’m leaving this place without taking a photo.
Just past Madame Glitter-locks stand two more Chinese women, their expressions vacillating somewhere between boredom and hostility. The backdrop is perfect, with the duo wedged between the colorful Sephora storefront on one side and a gaudy clothing boutique on the other. In my usual sniper-quick manner, I snap a photo.
The one in the fishnets spots me immediately and she’s got “Oh hells no” written all over her face. Oh shit. I’ve reasoned with enough angry photo subjects before, it’s all right. I do my best to keep my cool as she bull rushes me. Her sidekick runs by her side, slightly less manic. Fishnets screeches out something in Chinese with her alarmingly loud voice and Madame Glitter-locks runs over. I’m guessing that she’s the madam of this troupe. Within six seconds, a hoard of twenty or so hookers is closing in on me, screaming in Chinese. Fishnets is understandably the most aggressive, grabbing my wrist and trying to get to my camera.
From this proximity, I can see the colorful makeup settling into the wrinkles around their eyes, their tattooed-on eyebrows, the valleys depressed around their mouths gaping open like dark voids in their round faces. There can’t be a single one of them under forty. The whites of Fishnet’s eyes are exposed all around her beady black irises. She’s enflamed with rage. Something’s not quite right about her face and I try to figure out what it is. Her skin is oddly taught and pulled back, except for the furrow between her thin eyebrows. Her head is ballooning to a cartoonish volume and her toothless mouth bobs open and shut like a fish in feeding. She screams some more at me in Chinese.
“Désolé, je comprends pas.”
Sorry, I don’t understand
“Tu l’effaces! Tu l’effaces!”
Erase it! Erase it!
“Je peux pas! Regardez, c’est un appareil argentique!”
I can’t! Look, it’s a film camera!
I show Fishnets my camera, my knuckles white from the grip. She takes another swipe at it.
Glitter-locks steps in, the only calm one amongst the group. The women back up reverently as she approaches me. She’s befittingly dignified, considering the situation.
“Vas-y, efface-la et c’est bon. Pas de problème.”
Go ahead, erase it and it’s ok. No problem.
“Madame, désolé, c’est pas possible. Écoutez, je ne vais pas l’utiliser, ne vous inquitez pas. C’est que pour moi-même.”
Madame, I’m sorry. It’s not possible. Listen, I’m not going to use it, don’t worry. It was just for myself.
“Non, non, tu vas la mettre dans les journaux, je sais. Là, t’enleve la pellicule et tu me la donnes. Sinon, tu bouges pas et j’appelle la police.”
No, no, you’re going to put it in the newspapers. I know. Remove the film and give it to me. If not, you stay here and I call the police.
Lady, there’s no way in hell I’m about to give up a whole roll’s worth of photos just so Fishnets here can stay under wraps. She was already standing in the street, for feck’s sake.
The group pushes up against me and Fishnets takes a hard shove, thrusting me against the trashcan behind me.
“Attends! Qu’est-ce qui se passe là?”
Wait, what’s going on here?
Two young Middle Eastern men wedge their way into the circle. They’re dressed in the typical fashion of beurs, (descendants of Arab immigrants in France) with their closely razed haircuts, oversized track jackets, and layers of yellow-toned bling.
“Elle as pris une photo de moi! Efface-la! Connase!”
She took a photo of me! Erase it! Bitch!”
Fishnets grabs my arm and digs her fingernails into my skin.
“Et alors? Elle est une touriste! Paris est une jolie ville! Elle a la droit!”
So what? She’s a tourist! Paris is a beautiful city! She has the right!
The taller one gestures theatrically upwards to the buildings. I laugh to myself. I have to give it to the guy. His friend looks concerned but remains silent.
Fishnets claws my arm and snags the sleeve of my sweater.
“Aidez-moi! S’il vous plaît! Vous restez avec moi!”
Help me! Please! Stay here with me!
I lock into eye contact with the young man who nods at me reassuringly.
“Awww, aidez-moi… des conneries!”
Awww, help me…bullshit!
She rolls her eyes and mimics my voice in an undulating whine. She’s a funny bitch. She takes another lunge at me.
“Arrete! Laisse-la tranquille!”
Stop! Leave her alone!
In one swift tug, the two young men pull me out of the circle and hurry me down the sidewalk, one on each arm with the hookers still screeching behind us.
I shove my camera into the hands of the young man who puts it under his jacket.
“Gardez-la pour l’instant! J’ai peur!”
Keep it for now! I’m scared!
“T’inquietes pas. Elles travaillent là. Elles ne vont pas bouger.”
Don’t worry. They work there. They’re not going to move.
I stare at him blankly, my heart still beating frantically.
“Elles sont des putes. Tu sais? Elles travaillent dans la rue. Elles sont jalouse.”
They’re whores, you know? They work in the street. They’re jealous.”
“Vous m’accompagnez jusqu’à la station de metro?”
Will you accompany me until the metro station?
He shrugs and obliges as his silent friend walks alongside me. The two of them walk me to the station and I gratefully utter my thank yous before running the fuck down.
After the incident, I noticed these Chinese prostitutes everywhere in my own neighborhood in Belleville. I realized that these women in short skirts and bright makeup were indeed prostitutes, going about their daily business. They’d do their shopping, lunch together, and stroll around in their working garb, presumably between shifts. Once in a while I’d even see them with their young children, hand in hand.
Upon doing some research, I learned that these women come from the Dongbei region in northern China, which is far isolated from the concentration of wealth in the south. Shunned by the rest of the Chinese population in Paris, these women resort to prostitution after coming to France in hopes of an easier life like many other immigrants.
After unsuccessfully attempting to get work in the shops or restaurants in the Chinese dominated neighborhoods of Belleville or Gobelins, these women are often forced to take to the streets. Many of them have children back home to feed. The majority of them never could have imagined before that they’d one day be hooking to survive. Arriving to Paris illegally with no papers and facing an impermeable language barrier, these women find themselves in a vulnerable situation where they are lead to believe that they have no other choice.
The Lotus Bus, a non for profit sector of the Doctors without Borders program is one of the few institutions in Paris delegated to servicing these women. Beginning in 2004, the bus stops in various quarters of Paris three times a week to provide condoms, gels, as well as to administer HIV tests to the women in the evenings. It’s colorfully decorated in stereotypical “Chinese” inspired motifs including a dragon and a lotus flower, a well intentioned but sadly cliché attempt to remain discreet. The women queue up to the side of the bus where inside delicate paper flowers hang from the ceiling and an informative preventative poster in Chinese is displayed on the wall. A floral printed curtain separates the back of the bus where the women are seen privately by a Mandarin speaking doctor.
The women are often wary at first, but eventually begin to trust the team of nurses and doctors on the bus as they come to know each other on a weekly basis. According to statistics provided by the Lotus Bus, most of the women are between the ages of 35 and 50. There are new batches who arrive every week, who have never used condoms and are not cognizant of the methods of transmission of AIDS and other diseases. The newer ones have a particularly desperate air and occasionally ask for help in finding another way.
The women have a certain world weariness about them. They are required to stay up the entire night, sometimes in freezing temperatures. They travel around in groups, presumably to protect each other. Some of them charge as little as ten euros for sex, reputedly driving out competition from other prostitutes of different ethnicities.
Outside the bus, several johns in their fifties stand around, waiting to pick up one of the women as they descend. The women line up dutifully along the sidewalk, staring out into nowhere, the whispers of passers-by falling onto deaf ears. A police car cruises idly by and like magic, the women disappear into the dark stoops between shops. They wait until the car clears before popping up silently back into their positions. It’s only 8:00pm and there’s a long night ahead of them.