The first generation of Chinese nationals to settle in France, most of whom arrived in a wave in the 1970s, rarely if ever expressed themselves publicly.
Many lacked legal working papers and struggled to learn French, but still they found a foothold as workers in textile businesses and restaurants in the French capital.
Now their sons and daughters — who were born and educated in France — are speaking up in anger over the police killing of a Chinese national in late March.
Chinese immigrants “saw it as a bad thing to criticise the police, and they considered themselves strangers in France,” said Richard Beraha, author of a book dissecting the Chinese experience in France.
But this new generation of Chinese-French is not afraid to make demands, and the older people, “who were reluctant, are joining the movement,” he said.
Shaoyo Liu, a 56-year-old father of five, was shot by a police team called to his apartment in northeast Paris over a suspected domestic dispute.
Authorities say he attacked a policeman with a knife, causing injuries, and that another officer opened fire in self-defence, killing him.
The dead man’s family disputes the police version of events.
The incident caused tensions between Paris and Beijing as well as sparking nights of protests from members of the French capital’s up to 300,000-strong Chinese community.
Zhou, a 20-year-old student who came to protest in Paris this week, drew parallels with the case of Theo, a young black man who sustained severe anal and rectal injuries during a police stop-and-search in early February.
The case prompted such an uproar in France that President Francois Hollande visited Theo in hospital, appealing for calm following a week of sustained riots in mid-February.
“When a Chinese person is killed by police, there is no official response,” Zhou said.
– ‘Guarantee safety’ –
About 45 people have been arrested in the series of protests in Paris over the Chinese man’s killing, with many waving banners bearing slogans such as “colonialist police” and “Wake up French Asians! You are still oppressed in this country”.
The anger has also spread online where a petition calling for “justice and truth for Shaoyo Liu” has gathered nearly 50,000 signatures.
In a rare move reflecting the shock in China over the shooting, Beijing said it had filed an official complaint to France.
Beijing called on Paris to “guarantee the safety and legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens in France and to treat the reaction of Chinese people to this incident in a rational way,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Tuesday.
On Saturday, however, the Paris police stressed that security for the city’s Asian community is a “priority,” outlining new measures for dealing with complaints, including an improved translation system.
In the course of a meeting with Jun Zhai — the Chinese Ambassador to France — and members from various Chinese immigrant groups, Paris police chief Michel Cadot “expressed his condolences to the Chinese community and his sympathy to the family,” a police statement said.
In August 2016, similar street protests erupted for greater security after the fatal mugging of 49-year-old tailor Zhang Chaolin in the Aubervilliers suburb north of Paris.
Violent robberies tripled in 2016 in the suburb targeting the Chinese community, where ethnic Chinese are seen as lucrative prey as they are thought to carry large sums of cash.
At the time of the tailor’s death, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese flooded the streets of Paris, protesting against “anti-Asian racism”.
“Chinese people were asking for nothing more than to be safe, but were scorned by the government,” said Yehman Chen, 49. “Today, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Ethnic Chinese have routinely complained about frequent attacks in the community, but say little has been done to help, said accountant and mother Weirong Zhang.
“The first time was in 2003, I had been here a few months and my luggage was stolen, everything I had” she said. “I went to the police. They asked me if I had papers, a credit card. No? So, they discouraged me from filing a complaint.”