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I started noticing them two years ago, in the summer of They stood in groups of two or three along the promenade of the Boulevard de la Villette at night; Chinese women of indeterminate age dressed like schoolmarms — skirts below the knee, bulky sweaters, occasionally stockings with a lace pattern, the only sartorial clue as to their true business.
But there was something else going on here. These women stood in their ugly clothes with an eye on passersby. Admittedly I know nothing about prostitutes, but I thought that this business required a bit of indecent dressing to bait clientele. The Belleville hookers looked miserable, like they had just been flown in from some backward province, wardrobed in a rush at the Salvation Army before being hustled onto the boulevard to do some heavily discounted tricks.
Since the summer of these so-called ladies of the night have started working in broad daylight, and their numbers have quadrupled. According to various sources, these women hail from Dongbei in the North of China. Here, the factories which flourished during the Maoist era have closed down, leaving a huge population of women jobless and disenfranchised. How the Dongbei are lured to Paris and under what conditions remain a mystery to me, but the only way out of prostitution, at least as they see it, is to find a French husband.
Few, I suspect, do. The landlords, or rather bedlords, are predominantly Wenzhou, a population that has been settled in Paris since the 80s. There are also designated flats where the Dongbei dames take their clients; I know this because a good friend of mine lived next to one and finally had to call the landlord about the constant comings and goings.
Her neighbor, a Chinese man, had rented to a compatriot who, unbeknownst to him, was making a pretty profit subletting to the Marcheuses de Belleville. The call put an end to the commerce in that particular flat; but as it is in the nature of commerce to move around, the girls relocated to flats where the neighbors were willing to turn the blind eye.