A French revolution

A steady stream of arrivals is giving the city's cultural melting pot a distinct Gallic flavour

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 10:47am

In an alley in Sheung Wan, an area often better known for its dried seafood shops, the smell of freshly baked baguettes now sometimes obscures the familiar odour of salted fish. Where young professionals used to stand around downing pints after work, there are now people seated with glasses of wine and cheese platters. The street sounds are also different: mothers pushing strollers, residents running errands and shopkeepers greeting one another in their mother tongue - French.

A certain je ne sais quoi has emerged across the city from Stanley to Shek O, but perhaps most obviously in Sheung Wan, which some French residents have likened to parts of Paris. That's not as surprising as it seems; the French consulate estimates the number of its nationals in Hong Kong at 15,000 - the largest French community in Asia and a 60 per cent increase over the past decade.

This recent influx, drawn by the region's lively economy, has added a more cosmopolitan flavour to Hong Kong's cultural melting pot. The expatriate influence on the bread of city life, previously dominated by English speakers, is being increasingly leavened by Gallic savoir faire.

For the French community, swelling to critical mass has its advantages. New publications have surfaced, including Hong Kong Madame, an online lifestyle magazine. French toiletries and cleaning products are beginning to appear on supermarket shelves, to the relief of many families. Specialist online stores and neighbourhood shops such as Home Flavour and Monsieur Chatte have also sprouted up, offering bargains on items from wine to pâté.

It's a sea change from before, when imports were so expensive and "eating a good French chicken was like eating caviar", says Catya Martin, founder and editor of Trait d'Union, the only print magazine serving the community in Hong Kong and the mainland.

Marie Ranc, a restaurateur, agrees: "More and more you feel at home. We can live in Hong Kong the way we used to live in France and at affordable prices."

The population boom has brought some headaches, too. For the first time, the French International School had to introduce a waiting list for enrolment to its secondary campus on Blue Pool Road. Its student population, 90 per cent of whom are French nationals, has ballooned from 621 youngsters in 2003 to 1,637 this year.

"The school is at its physical limit," says FIS executive director Laurent de Meyere.

An extension is being built. While it's being completed, some classes are being sent to Jordan, site of one of FIS' primary campuses. Fortunately, the school has employed more teachers to maintain its cap of 25 students per class.

Families with toddlers have more options too: Martin says when she arrived with her children in 2008, there was only one French-language kindergarten; now there are five preschools totalling about 150 pupils.

In many ways, the French enjoyment of life sits at odds with high stress, mile-a-minute Hong Kong. And that is part of the appeal of their ventures, says Ranc, co-founder of La Rôtisserie restaurant.

"Hong Kong people love food, but if you go to a dim sum place, for example, everyone is on their phones. That's not the way we enjoy food," she says. "I think that whenever locals go to real French places they should feel like they are not in Hong Kong. They shouldn't feel the stress."

Martin agrees: "We know how to eat; we know how to behave - the food and the wine, the way of life, taking your time, having time for a lunch during the weekdays. That's typically French, and that's something new for Hong Kong,"

Younger entrepreneurs are bringing genuine diversity to the city's French dining choices, which was previously focused on high-end restaurants with plenty of snob appeal. In Sheung Wan, epicentre of the new French wave, there's La Cantoche, a casual canteen offering hefty portions of no-frills French home cooking.

Just down the road, Ranc and her partners at La Rôtisserie serve roasted chicken (imported from France, of course) with simple side dishes along with a small selection of quiches and pastries.

Many of their customers are Chinese, but with the significant French community these days, Ranc reckons: "We could have even opened the shop without speaking English."

There are so many French residents in the area, bartender Rob Cabacungan says many of his colleagues are adjusting to the culture to serve their customers better. "I know a lot of people who are trying to learn French now," he says.

Many snooty wine lounges of yesteryear have been supplanted by laid-back establishments serving unfussy but well-chosen French wines with casual foods such as country-style terrines or cheese platters.

Le Tambour, a neighbourhood hangout opened by wine importer Samuel Weil, is among the most popular. The bar would not seem out of place in Paris, but Weil says that's not by design.

"There is no real concept, and maybe that's what people like ... I love going out in Hong Kong, but I don't really like how every place is a marketing concept: the Argentinian place, the Italian place, the French place. I just wanted to open the kind of place I used to like when I was a customer in Paris."

At nearby La Cabane, general manager Alban de Grully has a similar vision. "What I do is not just for the French. It's just a way to express what we do best, and what I know best is French culture," he says. "I don't know how to sell dim sum, but I know how to sell cheese and wine, and people seem to like it."

If the turnout is anything to go by, de Grully has got it right: the wine bistro has patrons spilling out onto Hollywood Road every evening.

Handbag designer Michelle Lai Zee-kai, who grew up in Hong Kong, enjoys the new French vibe around Sheung Wan. "There are a lot more galleries, boutiques and concept stores," she says. "It's a really cool place to be right now."

French influence is being felt in almost every aspect of Hong Kong culture. Les Boules, a basement bar in Shek Tong Tsui dedicated to French-style lawn bowling, has become a surprise hit with Hongkongers looking for an alternative night out. Le French May, the annual festival starting next month, has grown to a three-month celebration of Gallic culture in areas from theatre and dance to visual art and popular music.

Emilie Guillot, artistic director of the Hong Kong Theatre Association, has been doing her part to bring the French theatrical tradition to Hong Kong. She started by putting on cafe-style theatre in the early 2000s. As the audience expanded in recent years, she began staging not only well-known French plays but also original productions.

There is talk recently that the city's French wave is starting to recede and the population is beginning to plateau. But consulate officials reckon the numbers will most likely resurge. Culturally, the city's French love affair may only just be starting.

Says Clémence Trancart, a founder of Hong Kong Madame : "It's funny because in Hong Kong people are all talking about France, but back in France, everybody is talking about Asia. There are a lot of articles about French entrepreneurs finding success in Asia ... You can really enjoy your life here."