French wave heads for Hong Kong

Recent years have seen a surge in Gallic talent migrating to Hong Kong in search of opportunities amid Asia's economic boom

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 April, 2013, 4:47am

The French population in Hong Kong has doubled since 2005, with French businesses increasingly looking to cash in on Asia's boom.

Arnault Castel, the founder and owner of fashion and lifestyle boutique Kapok, is among the many French entrepreneurs who bet on the Asian growth story when he set up his business in the city seven years ago.

The 39-year-old Castel decided to come to Hong Kong in search of work in 1996 after he watched Wong Kar-wai's 1994 arthouse classic Chungking Express.

"Back then, I had no idea about Asia or Hong Kong. But Hong Kong came across as an exciting city so I decided to come to work here," he said.

Castel worked as a banker for a few years before setting up his two companies in 2005. One of these was Kapok, with three shops selling trendy bags and watches, while the other distributed high-end notebook brand Moleskine.

"It is easy to set up business in Hong Kong as the regulation here is very simple. It would be much more complicated to do so in France," Castel said.

"People here are also willing to buy goods they like immediately without waiting for sales."

The challenges for him, like many retailers, is rising rent. The landlord of one of his shops doubled the rent in October.

It's difficult as we can't pass on all the rent increases to customers. Rents are so expensive in Hong Kong. It's a real challenge

"It's difficult as we can't pass on all the rent increases to customers. Rents are so expensive in Hong Kong. It's a real challenge. That way it's much cheaper and [more] stable in France," Castel said.

Jean-Baptiste Dabadie, 34, is another French businessman who set up in Hong Kong.

In 2001, he came to work as an intern at Asiapack, a Hong Kong company running its own packing facility in Shenzhen with 200 staff.

"Back then, I was curious about Asia's dynamism and fast growth, so I decided to come here," he said.

The firm, originally owned by three French businessmen, was bought out three years ago by Dabadie, who hired locals to run the factory and foreigners to handle sales.

"We have seen trade links between China and France increasing, providing greater business opportunities for us," he said. "Many French companies importing manufactured goods from China prefer to use our packaging services."

Some of these firms include brands whose products are made in France, assembled and partly packaged in Asia, and then sold worldwide.

His client base now includes other countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific, the US and other parts of the world.

"After 15 years of double-digit growth, our turnover has doubled again over the past two years," he said. "The business is really growing."

Dabadie said French companies and individuals want to benefit from Asia's growth and the unique platform that Hong Kong offers, adding that this is why more and more French people want to come to work here.

He, however, added that it can be difficult for those with children because of the lack of international school places.

Dabadie, who has a son and a daughter, said the French school in Hong Kong is running almost at capacity.

"Education for children of expatriates is a real challenge. We hear of people of other nationalities who can't move to Hong Kong for this reason, We would like to see the government do something about it," he said.

"For youngsters, working in Hong Kong is extremely attractive," he added. "Experience is not a prerequisite. If you work hard, you can succeed."