Hong Kong's growing French connection

The French have also been moving to mainland China, Bangkok and southern India

NOUVEL AMOUR: Gregory Joinau-Baronnet, left, who set up Jetson Trading, a small business that sells high-end wines and mineral water from his native Bordeaux, and Guillaume Fortin, another Frenchman, his sales manager, in the Wanchai Street Market in Hong Kong. IHTGregory Joinau-Baronnet arrived in Hong Kong about a year ago with little more than a couple of suitcases and a desire to make a living in the wine business.

In France, Joinau-Baronnet had been a real estate agent specialized in selling wine-related property like vineyards. But business ground to a halt as the global financial crisis took hold in 2008. By late 2010, Joinau Baronnet had had enough.

“I needed to move,” said Joinau-Baronnet, 31. In January last year, he got on a plane to a place he knew was booming: Hong Kong, which now attracts immigrants from France faster than it does from the United States, Britain or Germany.

He has set up Jetson Trading, a small business that sells high-end wines and mineral water from his native Bordeaux. Guillaume Fortin, another Frenchman who arrived last year, joined him as sales manager.

As luxury companies storm Asia, French businesspeople are arriving with them, catering to the Asian nouveau riche with a savoir faire that is changing the face of the traditionally Anglo-Saxon communities in Hong Kong and Singapore. (Both cities are favoured destinations for their functioning legal systems and access to markets in mainland China and Southeast Asia.)

Flow of westerners

The flow of westerners who flock to Asia in search of jobs, business opportunities or international experience to the resume has picked up in the past few years, with the French leading that growth, said James Carss, a senior executive at the recruitment firm Hudson in Hong Kong. And the French now lead that charge.

The French community in Hong Kong has increased more than 60 per cent since 2006, and now numbers more than 10,000, according to the French consulate in the city. In Singapore, it has approximately doubled to more than 9,200 during the same period.

The French have also been moving to mainland China, Bangkok and southern India, as French brands associated with luxury, fine dining, wines, banking and other industries want French nationals helping them market internationally.

“Asia in general, and China in particular, is booming,” said Arnaud Barthelemy, the consul general of France in Hong Kong. French “companies derive their growth from this region,” he said, noting that many have subsidiaries or regional headquarters in the city.

There are still about 10 times as many Americans and many more Britons than French in the city, which is a special administrative region of China. But the number of American and British residents is rising slowly: it has increased less than 10 per cent since late 2006.
The German community has stayed more or less flat.

The French influx can be heard, seen and felt all over the city. Walk through the bar districts or high-end shopping malls of Hong Kong, and it is likely you will encounter passers-by speaking French – much more likely than it would have been two or three years ago. The French international school is bursting. French-run restaurants have multiplied.

Pastis, a small restaurant in the Central district of Hong Kong, has been a favoured hangout for French expatriates since it opened in late 2009. At least two more French restaurants have opened in the last few months. There is even a cafe with three dusty courts for boules, a lawn game popular in France, incongruously tucked away in a basement on Hong Kong island.

Hong Kong’s appeal to shoppers from neighbouring China, who benefit from the city’s lower taxes on many goods, makes Hong Kong an important location for anyone catering to Chinese consumers. It has also helped ensure that the French community in Hong Kong is one of the largest in Asia.

“Asia in general and China in particular, is booming,” said Arnaud Barthelemy, the consul general of France in Hong Kong. French companies derive their growth from this region, he said, noting that many have subsidiaries or regional headquarters in the city.

Fanny Duguet is a case in point. She moved here with her husband and two young children in August, dispatched by her employer Richemont, the luxury goods giant, to help with the company’s expansion in the region.

Better prospects

In a more independent vein, Edouard Malingue, a 38-year-old art dealer from Paris, decided Hong Kong offered better prospects than Europe or America for a new art gallery. Malingue moved to Hong Kong in September 2009 and opened his gallery in the financial district a year later. Like other entrepreneurs, he was attracted by the lack of bureaucratic red tape and the relative ease of setting up a business.

Hong Kong is not without its challenges, however. Retailers have to work harder than in Europe or the United States to cultivate tastes and habits among customers who may not know the products or lifestyle they represent.

In Hong Kong, Malingue noted, “there is not as much of a culture of visiting galleries as there is in Europe. It takes a lot more effort to grab people’s attention.” Despite the challenges, Malingue said, the gallery is now doing well.

Competition in many sectors, meanwhile, is fierce, as businesses rush to get in on the action. Salaries, if not augmented by increasingly rare benefits for expatriates, do not meet many westerners’ expectations. Both local and foreign employers generally prefer people with experience in Asia and language skills to match, said Carss, the recruitment executive.

In addition, commercial and residential rents are astronomical. Joinau-Baronnet, for example, is about to open a shop in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood of Hong Kong, which is less popular among the rich than the well-frequented Central District with its luxury stores. Still, the rent on the small space he had to settle for is four times what a comparable space would cost in his native Bordeaux, and twice as much as in Paris, he said.

But he is undeterred. In addition to his new location in Hong Kong, he is considering a second store in Shenzhen or Guangzhou, just across the Chinese border, next year.

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