Take a walk down Hollywood Road and you may be forgiven for thinking that French, not English, is Hong Kong’s second language. In recent years, an influx of French residents and businesses has infused Hong Kong’s oldest neighbourhood with a distinctly Gallic atmosphere.
“I think there’s a cultural thing here,” says wine importer Cristobal Huneeus, who is one of the owners of La Cabane, a Hollywood Road bistro and wine shop located in the heart of what has become Hong Kong’s French quarter. “The Central, Sheung Wan side, near the PMQ, it feels very French – lower buildings, smaller shops. It has a little bit of the Parisian feel.”
It isn’t just Sheung Wan that is feeling the effects of the French wave: “Stanley feels like a small French village,” one of its residents told the Wall Street Journal last year. Over the past ten years, Hong Kong’s French community has more than doubled in size, to nearly 20,000 people, according to estimates by the local French consulate. Hong Kong now has the largest French population in Asia.
“The growth of the French community in Hong Kong is so big, we’ve doubled the number of students in ten year’s time,” says Christian Soulard, headmaster of the French International School.
Meanwhile, the latest edition of Le French May opens this month with a three-day bash at the PMQ, followed by two months of music, theatre, film, art and food events held throughout the city. Since its launch in 1993, the festival of French culture has grown into one of Hong Kong’s biggest annual happenings. “What we would like is for people to s’approprier – to take charge, make it their own and to say, this is something we can’t miss,” says Anne Denis-Blanchardon, Hong Kong’s French consul for culture, education and science.
It’s a good opportunity to pose a question that many have been wondering about for years: just why is Hong Kong’s French population growing so quickly? And what does it mean for Hong Kong?
As with all migrant communities, the French population has grown through a combination of government policy, economic opportunity and word of mouth. “A lot of people are finding opportunities here, more than in other parts of Asia,” says Huneeus, who moved to Hong Kong with his wife and children in 2011. He sees several distinct types of French migration to Hong Kong: traditional expats who work for big companies like Société Générale or LVMH, entrepreneurs who come here to start their own business and young people who are escaping a notoriously calcified French economy.
Hong Kong has responded to French interest in various ways, most notably by making it easier for French people to get visas. In 2013, Hong Kong signed a working holiday arrangement with France, which has prompted an annual influx of young people looking for work, often at French-owned businesses like La Cabane. “Before, you had a lot of young guys who were arriving in Hong Kong with no visa except a tourist visa for three months,” says Huneeus. “In France, a lot of young people who graduate cannot find jobs. They find they can work a few hours in a coffee place, they can be an intern for 18 months in a company, but there is no real potential. Every young person I have hired here, they are not desperate, they just want to work, and they’re curious.”
Hong Kong is not alone. London’s French expat community is now the largest in the world, with around 300,000 French nationals living in the British capital. In Canada’s largest French-speaking city, Montreal, the number of French migrants has grown to 110,000, a nearly 50 percent increase over the last ten years.
“We’ve been telling the young ones in France it’s nice to have an overseas experience,” says Denis-Blanchardon. “French people feel this energy in Hong Kong, this dynamism – it’s easy to come here, easy to start a company.”
The benefits go both ways: people in Hong Kong have never had as much access to French gastronomy, art, music and culture. This year’s French May includes a panoply of events. Every Saturday in May, Serie Serie will present a free rooftop screening of French television shows in Lai Chi Kok. On May 20 and 21, world music ensemble Paris Combo performs with local East-West group SIU2. Le French Gourmay will bring the cuisine of Alsace to 110 restaurants and 80 shops around town, along with a dozen workshops that give you a chance to try your hand at making food from the German-influenced region in the east of France.
Many of the events attempt to build a bridge between France and China, such as an exhibition of paintings by 19th century artist Auguste Borget, who visited Macau, Guangdong and pre-colonial Hong Kong in 1838, producing a suite of detailed pencil sketches and watercolours that will be shown this summer at the Macau Museum of Art.
Denis-Blanchardon says the festival’s goal is to balance events that appeal to Hong Kong’s French residents with those that are accessible to the Cantonese-speaking majority. “We try to diversify the audience,” she says. “This is why we have events in shopping malls and in theatres in the New Territories.”
There may still be some way to go before that happens. Though audience numbers have grown every year, many aren’t aware of how extensive Le French May’s programming actually is. Shop manager Joey Chung attended a play during the festival’s 2013 edition, but she hasn’t been back since. “I have been to some of their free markets and events by chance, but it wasn’t a big push from their marketing,” she says.
Local support is growing, though. While it started with funding from big French businesses, Le French May is now sponsored mainly by local companies and individuals. “There is almost not a penny coming from the French government,” says Denis-Blanchardon. The local consulate does lend its support in other ways, though. “The French foreign office puts a strong emphasis on doing diplomacy through culture. Culture is a good way to touch people, to build a bridge.”
“We have a lot of French customers,” says restaurateur Joshua Ng, who runs the laid back and trendy coffee shop in Sheung Wan, Common Ground, along with pancake-focused Sai Ying Pun restaurant Stack with his brother, Caleb. “I go for some independent movies and [get to] know some French culture” during Le French May, he says.
It seems as though the bridge between France and Hong Kong is only growing stronger. Christian Soulard thinks the local French community is putting down roots. “We’ve got more than 50 percent of our community that has been in Hong Kong for more than five years,” he says. “Before, families stayed for four years, five years, and then they would go to Singapore, Tokyo or back to France. now they stay in Hong Kong.”
Le French May opens April 30, 2016 at the PMQ and runs until June 30 at various locations around Hong Kong. Click here for more information.