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China's France Fetish

The new rich want wine, cheese, and savoir vivre. Underemployed Frenchmen are glad to deliver it.

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“Au revoir,” said the grocer.

“Au revoir,” said the man in chic little canvas shoes. He had a bottle of champagne under one arm, and a bottle of “C’est la vie” chardonnay sauvignon blanc in hand. One elbow cradled a three-foot baguette. With an artful little pirouette, he piloted his cargo out the door.

Elsewhere in the little shop, customers were picking up blood sausages and Roquefort cheeses. Two men were debating the merits of the vacuum-bagged quiches. Or at least I thought so: Like nearly all the other customers, the men spoke with luscious French accents to match their fashionable outfits—a tableau that makes an American like me feel both linguistically and sartorially schlubby.

Such is life for an expat: Making foreigners feel like unsophisticated rubes is as French as tarte aux pommes. Of course, I’m not an expatriat in France. The scene took place 100 paces from my apartment in Hong Kong.

As anyone who has visited Hong Kong lately can tell you, the city is teeming with Frenchy things. Certain areas of the island have become Little Frances, with French schools, wine shops, and boulangeries. My tiny neighborhood, Sheung Wan, is the newest of them: By my last count, we have two French groceries, two cafes, a rotisserie, a bakery, a wine shop, a creperie, a French kindergarten, and at least three French restaurants. In certain establishments, I am as likely to be greeted with “Bonjour” as “Hello” or “Lei ho.”

Hong Kong, with its unusual political status and its well-established finance industry, has long been home to large foreign populations. But even as the territory’s relative clout has dwindled in comparison to mainland cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the Franco-migration has accelerated. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people registered at the French consulate has increased more than 70 percent.

Much of this has to do with the state of the job market back home. “With the economy, the government and the [EU] environment, everyone is trying to leave France,” says Jean Nijdam, 25, who moved to Hong Kong as a marketing strategist for Pernod Ricard, the luxury liquor company behind Chivas Regal. “In France you have basically no chance to find a job. I feel very, very lucky.”

But while the migrants may be motivated by economic conditions specific to the early 21st century, they’re also part of a much older tradition: For generations, Frenchmen have taken their culture abroad to service the aspirations of nouveaux-riches around the world. Once upon a time, this meant French governesses in Czarist Russia and French restaurants in Gilded Age America. These days, it means French luxury goods in the booming markets of East Asia. France’s second-biggest trade surplus in the world is with Hong Kong; it stood at nearly $5 billion last year. China's infatuation with upscale French products is the driver.

Well beyond the former British enclave on the southern coast, French goods have become the status symbol par excellence in boom-time China. Their national economy is built on mass-production and a “happy with crappy” ethos. Pricy French imports, on the other hand, are seen as synonymous with craftsmanship and prestige. A recent survey by the Hurun Institute found that upscale Chinese shoppers esteem French brands more than any other: Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, and Cartier took four of the five top brands for gifts. In the downtown shopping districts of Hong Kong, mainland Chinese buyers line up around the block to buy bags plastered with Louis Vuitton’s iconic LV. (Less picky consumers can snatch up knockoff Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags in nearly every urban market on the mainland.)

This perception of quality extends to food. Liu Yang, a Chinese cheese-monger who lived six years in France, says locals were wary when opened his Beijing shop in 2009: China’s culinary tradition doesn’t involve cheese. Now, just a few years later, almost half his clientele is Chinese, drawn by the belief that French food—or for that matter, nearly any food not made in China—is healthier and safer. “Young parents, old people—these kind of consumers care very much about what they eat, about the nutrition and the quality of their food,” says Liu.

Red wine consumption is likewise booming, its prestige similarly buttressed by new popular beliefs about the drink’s health benefits. As with Hollywood DVDs or designer fashion, the surest sign of its popularity comes from the criminal enterprises it encourages. China wine analyst Frankie Zhao believes that 70 percent of all bottles sold under the Chateau Lafite Rothschild name in China are fake. Back in Europe, Chinese investors have already bought some 30 Bourdeaux vineyards, and are in talks to buy 20 more.

"Wine has become a trendy thing the last three, four years,” said Andy Cheung, founder of a French wine importer in Hong Kong. "For most Chinese drinkers, it's a business tool, and they just drink the whole glass in one go, so they don't care what it is." 

But even if China’s new Francophiles are just as crass and unsophisticated as the stateside tycoons of yesteryear, the Parisians keep coming for a rather crass and unsophisticated reason of their own: The money is good. A baguette that would cost $1.50 in Paris costs $2.50 here. Champagne that sells for $140 a bottle back home sells for nearly $300 in China. Chanel bags that run for $3,800 in Europe sell for over $5,800 on the mainland.

In a way, the roles have reversed. During France's roaring 19th century, China represented a world of leisure, artistry, and wisdom that France had lost in its race to modernity. Now it's France that represents an idealized image of what modern China sacrificed in its own quest for growth: quality, continuity, savoir vivre

To that end, more Chinese are visiting France than ever before: In 2010, some 900,000 Chinese tourists visited France, a figure 23 percent higher than the year prior. Rich Chinese couples have taken to flying in groups to Tours, France in order to get married along the Loire Valley.  “They have this image of France being a romantic country, which is living in the past, and about the French lifestyle in particular,” says Sylvain Holtermann, an instructor in the French department at the University of Hong Kong. “The students don't realize we live in a globalized world, and people are working as much in Paris as in New York or Hong Kong….They think we take two hours for lunch, two hours for dinner.”  

It’s not much of a surprise that disappointment often sets in when China’s new rich actually see the real thing. One 2012 survey in France found that less than 40 percent of Chinese tourists felt satisfied with their visit to “l’Hexagone.” And they were particularly perturbed when French customs got in the way of vistors’ desire for better service at restaurants and in transit systems. “Our Chinese staff here is always amazed, ‘Oh they have all these holidays, and all these companies close down,’” says Jean-Yves Chatté, who runs a French food and wine shop in Sheung Wan. “You never have that in Hong Kong, so to them it’s very surprising.”

As with France’s absorption of Chinese aesthetics in chinoiserie of the 18th and 19th centuries, China’s adoption of French ways is selective, distorted, and occasionally parodic. In Beijing, one tycoon has spent $50 million to replicate the palatial Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte, including the chandeliers and frescoes. South of the Yangtze river, China has not one but two 350-foot-tall Eiffel Tower replicas.

“In France, they have liberté, egalité--I think freedom is very important to French culture," says Liu, the cheesemaker. "In France, people encourage creativity, free imagination…In China, we do a lot of things mama-huhu [in a careless, messy fashion]," he continues. "That’s our kind of freedom."