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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: De Guangzhou à Paris : la vie de la pasionaria cantonnaise

by Marie Barbier

From Guangzhou to Paris: the life of the Cantonese Pasionaria

Translated Wednesday 10 March 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Gene Zbikowski

Fengqun Yang arrived in France six years ago, and she came out of hiding four months ago when she joined the undocumented workers’ strike. She is the delegate for the 700 Chinese strikers.

She answers “present” at every battle: at the demonstrations, the meetings, you see her everywhere, on the front line, her fist raised to demand the legalization of undocumented workers. Everybody calls her “Feng” – her full name is Fengqun Yang, and she looks very stylish with her perfect make-up and little sequin-spangled scarf. The only French speaker among some 700 striking Chinese undocumented workers, she has become their spokeswoman, condemning their living conditions and talking about their struggles and their expectations.

For example, there she is, on this Monday Feb. 27, at the Paris Cinémathèque. Filmmakers have come to present their “film manifesto” for the legalization of undocumented workers. Standing next to Laurent Cantet, Tonie Marshall and Mathieu Amalric, Feng takes the floor. Mesmerized, the public listens to her tell the story of these hundreds of undocumented Chinese workers who have emerged from hiding to enter the struggle: “We work in the restaurant trade, as personal care providers, as garment workers for brands like Camaïeu, Naf Naf and Etam. Not having documents is too hard for all of us, and that’s why we need you to support us.”

Exile is almost a tradition in her family. Feng’s two brothers left China before her, one for Canada, the other for New Zealand. Her parents will soon join her elder brother. “We aren’t leaving for political reasons,” she explains. “I came here to earn a little money. A native of Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China, Feng studied English before finding a job as a substitute teacher. But her meager wages did not suffice to raise her little boy, born in 2000. She decided to leave China and chose Paris, not for Montmartre hill or the Eiffel Tower, but because of the cost of a visa: 3,000 euros, much less than the astronomical sum of 15,000 euros required for a U.S. visa.

She had absolutely no idea of what she would find here. Feng thought she would leave for “five years, maximum” before returning home which her arms loaded with presents. Life in Paris is very different from the dream... Having arrived on a tourist visa in June 2004, the young woman quickly found herself without valid documents. A Chinese restaurant owner hired her on the underground economy. She was working six days out of seven, ten hours a day, for 1,000 euros a month. Two years of hell before changing bosses. Better wages, better hours, and a very particular idea of labor conflict... “It’s my boss who sent me out on strike,” Feng insists, not the least amazed by the paradox: “He told us he wanted to see us legalized, he called the CGT trade union to ask how it could be done. We launched the strike; he is very supportive of us.”

On October 23, 2009, 26 undocumented Chinese strikers occupied the seat of the MEDEF, the French bosses’ association, in Seine-Saint-Denis. They were quickly evicted by the police, but the very same day they occupied the premises of the labor-management organization in the hotel trade the FAFIH. Feng informed the Chinese living in France of the strike through Chinese-language websites: they were joined by 700 workers. But on December 29, they were evicted again.

Since then, the Chinese strikers have not had a site that they occupy, and their struggle has grown weaker... “Some have gone back to work, but not many,” Feng insists. “They’ve got to feed their families, after all.” Feng, with other delegates of the undocumented strikers, occupies an office at the seat of the CGT in Montreuil, where she is trying to get the necessary promises to hire from the employers. [A promise to hire is required in the legalization process.]

She misses her little ten-year-old boy. “He is very intelligent,” she says proudly. “More intelligent than my husband.” Her husband does not understand the struggle into which Feng has thrown herself. He is worried and calls to ask her to stop. “He told me that it is dangerous to go on strike. I explained to him that it is not the same as in China. He does not understand.” She shakes her head in disappointment, and adds that “It is very hard for a woman to be alone in France, without documents.”

Today, Feng no longer envisages returning to China. She has decided to make this country, which has received her so poorly, her second homeland. She insists that she is too old (at 36!) to find work in China. Her husband slaves away for 200 euros a month. She has fought too hard to go back to the bottom of the ladder.

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