Chasing the Forbidden Dragon: Lyon’s Quartier Chinois

We were in France, and by god, I was going to get some Asian food.

Before your jaw drops off in horror (sacre bleu!), let me back up for a minute and explain my mad logic. The UNISG masters students had arrived in Lyon, a land of fine haute gastronomie…and the third largest Chinatown in France (after two enclaves in Paris). At lunch, we had just gorged on a stunning French meal, accoutered with boisterous grand chefs, wine, and healthy doses of cream and butter. The University was allotting us a stipend of €15 for dinner, which does not go a long way in Lyon. Besides, I was itching for something chili and umami-laden. According to Wikipedia, Lyon’s Quartier Chinois could be found in the city’s 7e arrondisement. Our hotel clerk had marked “Le Guillotière” on the map, and armed with that knowledge, we set out to search for the best bowl of pho in Lyon. It might not have been French food, but it was at least French colonial food?

After wandering across the Rhône river, I saw a number of Moroccan restaurants, African barbers and veiled women. Hmm…it appeared as though we’d found an “ethnique” section of town, but not Chinatown per se. I craned my neck searching for ideographs, as we wandered further east and north from Le Guillotière. It was time to break out my expert Franglais. “Pardon monsieur, pouvez-vous me dire où est le Quartier Chinois?” Again and again, this question elicited quizzical looks and head scratching. “Er, le Quartier Chinois? Je ne sais pas…il y a un quartier chinois?” No one even knew of the neighborhood’s existence; it was as if we were trying to find Diagon Alley.

As it turns out, I made two erroneous assumptions that night. Mistake #1: I thought that the Quartier Chinois would be clearly marked, gaudily decorated with fire-red arches and ceramic dragons, and teeming with Asians. After all, in Chicago and DC, the train stations are directly named “Chinatown.” How hard could this be? Mistake #2: I figured that we could rely on word of mouth to get directions to Chinatown. Isn’t this the third largest Asian community in France? It would be like asking people to point at their house, right?

Much peripatetic ambling later, it was getting rather late and we were feeling despondent. It was time to cut our losses and hop on a train back toward the hotel. Plus, we had to be ready to get on a bus at 6:45 AM the next morning. With a sigh, we hopped onto a subway car, hoping to grab a quick dinner at a brasserie near the hotel. “Wait,” Wendy interrupted. “Why don’t we just get kebabs?”

Earlier that day, I had spotted a kebab shop near the town center, so I steered us toward it now. With relief, we spotted glowing neon lights and stepped inside to the blaring sounds of a football match. Three kebabs please, we said. The man behind the counter looked at us with curiosity. I explained that we were students of gastronomy, visiting from Italy to learn about traditional French cuisine and food culture. The Algerian proprietor nodded and grinned as he handed us warm pita rounds, overflowing with juicy meat and tastebud-igniting harissa. A butter and dairy-free meal. A successful night.

Afterwards, I did some more careful research and discovered that Lyon’s Chinatown is centered at the intersection of Rue Pasteur and Rue Passet, and extends for a radius of a couple blocks. Here is the area on Google StreetView. Bam, a supermarché asie and all the pho restaurants you can shake an escargot shell at. We were so very close. Le sigh.

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