Hong Kong's French community is branching out from traditional business activities and using their French connections to promote their brands, discovers Shirley Lau
These days, the trick to up the style quotient of a product is to give it a French name. Or at least that's what some local businesses seem to believe, even if there's nothing Gallic about their products.
In Tai Hang, a café-bar serving cakes and savoury hot pies goes by the name "C'est La B". In Sheung Wan, "Chinoiserie" is a bridal gown shop that "serves the fashion elites" with exquisite Chinese gowns with a modern twist.
In Kowloon City, a new residential development is called "Billionaire Avant", which literally means "billionaire before". So are all the residents trillionaires now?
Such attempt at stylishness might amuse native French speakers. But then not all French names in Hong Kong are style over substance. As the city's French expatriate community has swelled by 60 per cent over the past five years to some 16,000 today, a growing crop of upmarket brands created by young French entrepreneurs have sprung into being in Hong Kong.
Capitalising on the French art de vivre, these brands are often characterised by tasty design and limited quantities. They were born in Hong Kong largely because of the ease to set up business here, but their target is the wider market in Asia and around the world.
A case in point is Pont des Arts, a new French wine label launched by two twenty-something Frenchmen with exceptional social and business networks.
When Arthur de Villepin, the son of ex-French prime minister Dominique de Villepin came to Hong Kong in 2007 for a one-month internship, he fell in love with the city and decided to work here after university. When he returned to Hong Kong in 2010, he met Thibault Pontallier, Asian ambassador of Château Margaux and the son of the Bordeaux winery's managing director Paul Pontallier.
Keen to start a business to "promote the best of France abroad", the duo decided to launch a French wine label in Hong Kong, using their extensive networks to build a high-end business. The brand, named after a famous bridge in Paris, features a limited collection of Bordeaux and burgundy wines, all selected and blended by Pontallier and his father. Villepin also enlisted the help of his family's long-time artist friend Zao Wou-ki, whose art is featured on the wine labels.
Apparently this whole package of French luxury, prestige and culture goes down well with Hong Kong. "In Hong Kong, people are so receptive. When you say your product is French, people tend to think it's great. That makes me feel good," Villepin said.
For a young brand, Pont des Arts has already established an elite clientele, and one may be tempted to point to the two founders' family backgrounds.
But Pontallier believes Hong Kong's business-friendly environment has played a vital role.
"If we did this business in France, it would have been on a smaller scale, the investment would be smaller, and we would have been dismissed as the sons of some important people. But in Hong Kong, if you have good ideas, you can succeed," Pontallier said. "I can see there's a real trend of French entrepreneurs building quality brands in Hong Kong. When I arrived three years ago, the French expats were mostly bankers and consultants. Now more and more of them are taking the risk and trying to do something bold."
Another French entrepreneur Adrien Choux agrees. Choux, who grew up in a Parisian suburb, chose Hong Kong as the base to launch his watch brand The Chinese Timekeeper. It is a bold move indeed, as Chinese elements do not make a typical formula of success for luxury watches. But Choux's courage has been rewarded. Earlier this year, the brand won the Trade Development Council's SME Award 2013.
On the face of it, there is little French feel to the brand - even the name is not French. Choux works with some Chinese designers on the design while the components are made in the mainland before being assembled in Hong Kong. But Choux, who moved to Asia 13 years ago, has a knack for playing the French card.
"We tend to promote it as a Chinese brand with French management and design, which implies good quality control and attention to detail. When we talk to Chinese customers, we always mention that our watches are assembled in Hong Kong, which is associated with high quality. I also tell them I'm part of the management team and work in design. So suddenly they see a French person selling Chinese products and they love the association." Choux said. "If you sell French wine, you don't have to do much to reassure customers, but for watchmaking there is a strong stigma against Chinese products. So sometimes I have to play up the French factor a bit."
A veteran marketing executive in the luxury market, Choux is acutely aware of the power of the French factor in Asia, but he warns against overplaying it. "For a product with a French element, you always associate it with luxury, lifestyle and romanticism - even though there's nothing much romantic about French guys anymore. But it's the image," he said. "It's not necessarily a bad idea, but it's been done so many times today that it doesn't bring much novelty. I think people have to be careful. It's not like you use a French name and it will automatically work. You need to work on a lot of things to make a brand special."
But for a brand, French or not, to tap the mainland market, mass production is the way to go. Take Chiru, a high-end mountain bike brand created in Hong Kong by Frenchman Pierre-Arnaud Le Magnan. Since its inception in 2009, the brand has developed a clientele of mountain bike elite mainly in the West, including a French-Swedish champion team from the Adventure Racing World Series.
Currently, Le Magnan and a colleague ship components from Taiwan and the mainland and assemble them in Hong Kong. On average, 50 bikes are made per month. But as the brand grows, he is ready to switch to greater production volume.
A former engineering designer who moved to Hong Kong in 1995, Le Magnan also knows how the French factor can sell in Asia.
"I explain to people that there's French know-how that goes into making our bikes. That comes from my education and professional experience acquired in France," he says. "Being French of course helps because we have a long history of cycling, including the Tour de France. We have a history of using the bike not only for commuting but for leisure and sport. So I would say Chiru is a French brand applied to the Asia market."
Nevertheless, Hong Kong will remain his base.
"Hong Kong is a great place in that it is a free port and is close to the factories that produce the components for my bikes. So even though my target customers are not from Hong Kong, it makes sense to launch a brand and to be based in Hong Kong."
Watches from the French brand The Chinese Timekeeper. Photos: K. Y. Cheng