With Its French Population Soaring, Hong Kong Emerges as Asia’s Gallic Capital

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Antony Dickson / AFP / Getty Images

French citizens living in Hong Kong, home to the world's second largest French community outside of France, line up at the city's French International School to vote in their country's presidential election of 2012

Visitors to Les Boules, a basement bar in Hong Kong’s Shek Tong Tsui neighborhood, are likely to hear it before seeing it. The thudding of metal balls as patrons go through rounds of pétanque — a game that vaguely resembles lawn bowling — sets the tone for an establishment seeking to be a cultural hub for the ever growing Gallic community. “It’s a place where the French can feel at home,” says Heather Clarke, a consultant for the operation.

Places like Les Boules have cropped up across Hong Kong, as French flock to the city in search of work and experiences beyond what the Continent has to offer. Though the former British colony has a history of attracting French nationals looking to do business in the region, this has become especially pronounced in the recent period of economic crisis and austerity in Europe.

Besides serving as a venue for hurling silver orbs in between swigs of pastis, Les Boules plays host to events celebrating the contributions of France to the world, from live French music to salons with visiting philosophes. On one occasion, the bar was a platform for Philippe Buchle to promote his rum-export company, Rhum de France, which deals in liquor from overseas French regions like Martinique and Guadeloupe. He grew up on Réunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar, where his family has been cultivating sugarcane for the past 200 to 300 years — “basically, as early as it was introduced on the island,” he says — and his grandfather traded rum in the 1930s. It was there too that he was first exposed to the customs and cultures of Asia, mainly through the French nationals of Indian and Chinese descent.

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“I was fascinated by Asia on Day One,” Buchle says, adding that his experience studying and working in mainland France was “totally boring.” Though he didn’t specifically aim for a move to Hong Kong, the business advantages made the city a logical choice. “I traveled in Asia, looking for a place to settle down, a place where I would have opportunities not only to find a job but to set up a company as well. And Hong Kong was pretty much at the top of the list,” he says. “When I came here, I didn’t know for how long it would be.” That was 20 years ago.

The Gallic community in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) has since undergone dramatic changes, particularly over the past decade. Since 2003, the number of French nationals listed under consulate records has grown by an average of 8.4% a year and currently stands at 10,789. As not all passport holders register, the figure is believed to be closer to 16,000. It is the largest French community in Asia and the second largest outside of France.

What hasn’t changed is the appetite for going off the beaten path. Romain Carlevan, a doctoral student at the City University of Hong Kong, turned down a scholarship to Cambridge so he could move to Asia. “It’s not a very good academic choice,” he admits of his relocation to the SAR a year ago, “but I just really like the place.” A native of Lyon, Carlevan spent some years in Paris working on his undergraduate and master’s degrees, but found the experience lacking in vibrancy. He figured it would be similar in the U.K. The 24-year-old did, however, remember his time in Hong Kong as an exchange student and what the city was able to offer. “It’s the fusion of East and West,” he says. “It’s much easier for a Westerner to discover Asia through Hong Kong.”

Though he specializes in contemporary Indian history, Carlevan says through his field research, he realized that “studying India is very interesting: fascinating people and political situation. But I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s a very particular place.” On the other hand, he notes, Hong Kong boasts a high level of diversity, not only in physical terms — “beaches close to a world-class stock market, temples near shopping malls” — but also when it comes to the city’s demographics. The French diaspora, for instance: “I didn’t know about it. It was a surprise to me that there’s a big community in Hong Kong.”

It wasn’t always like that. Jean-Yves Chatté, who moved to the SAR from Bordeaux with his family in 1989, estimates that there were only 2,000 or so French expatriates when he arrived. For the fresh batches heading over, he says, “it’s much easier to network because there are so many French people in Hong Kong nowadays.” He first started traveling to Asia in 1986, and in a few years persuaded his then employer to set up an office in the region — which at the time was largely an untapped market. “The best place for doing Asian business, for me, there was no contest, it had to be Hong Kong,” Chatté says. He has since sold his share of the venture and now runs his own wine-distribution business and a retail operation called Monsieur Chatté. “I wanted not just to be employed but to be my own boss.”

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Chatté’s three children, who were under the age of 10 when the family moved to Hong Kong, have spent most of their lives in the SAR. “They grew up here, they went to school here,” he says. “It’s a strong bond. They’ve been here for so long, it’s their home.” Many of the city’s other French nationals are likewise thinking long term — nearly 60% are choosing to stay in Hong Kong for more than five years, according to the French consulate. “It’s not just a short-term investment,” says Orianne Chenain, executive director at the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hong Kong (FCCIHK). “They’re looking more and more into the future.” As it stands, the French International School struggles to keep up with demand for school places, and is waiting on approval to start building a new facility.

The French business community has also begun to tout its vision of Hong Kong decades into the future. The Wise City project, spearheaded by FCCIHK and involving 13 companies, will put forward “a collaborative vision on what the city could look like 20 years from now,” says Julie Pourtois, head of member services at the chamber. Among other things, the initiative proposes solutions to improve infrastructure and reduce pollution in the city with expertise provided by French businesses — which could mean another spike in the influx of expatriates, should the plan see fruition.

Not that the inflow has been slowing. French exports to the SAR in 2012 were valued at $7.7 billion, triple what it was from three years prior, and French businesses now employ 8% of the workforce at foreign companies in the city. “We’re now helping at least 150 companies every year to set up or expand in Hong Kong,” says Chenain. “Four years ago, that was about 50 companies a year.” Members at FCCIHK have more than doubled since 2003, and now number roughly 900 from more than 600 companies — making it the largest European chamber in the city.

Hong Kong also remains a viable option for many French youths. The global economic downturn saw France in dire straits: double-digit unemployment, businesses mired in red tape and conservative spending habits. The SAR, by contrast, offers a stable economic outlook, ease in starting companies and a market still receptive to luxury goods — particularly with the city’s proximity to mainland China. “The atmosphere in France is not easy, and growth is not as strong as it is in Hong Kong,” says Chenain. “Young people started looking around a map and saw that there are opportunities elsewhere, especially for French products and know-how.”

That movement into Hong Kong is getting another boost starting this month as the governments of France and the SAR begin implementing a small-scale working-holiday scheme. The agreement paves the way for passport holders from each signatory between the ages of 18 and 30 to take up employment for 12 months without formal working visas. Capped at 200 participants per year from each side, the program is geared toward rising demand from students and young professionals looking to make the foray into foreign territory.

But as the French arrive in Hong Kong in ever larger numbers, competition has likewise surged since Buchle and Chatté first set foot in the city. “When I came here, the French community was fairly small. Now, with so many French here, I think the French people lost their uniqueness,” says Buchle, adding a word of caution to newcomers: “Don’t come here expecting that because you’re French, you’re going to easily land a job.” Chatté, for his part, reckons that ultimately “the market will give the answer” on when the Gallic rush to Hong Kong is set to slow. For now, at least, all signs seem to be pointing to full-speed ahead.

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