By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
When Karine Zanini, a French citizen, arrived in Hong Kong in October 1993 armed with a sense of adventure, a backpack and enough money to last two weeks, she was a rarity in the city.
Of course, the then 23-year-old was not the only young, foreign free spirit in town — there were, she says, “a lot of English” — but there were so few French people that her new-found friends called her “exotic”.
Today, Hong Kong is the top destination for French people who want to live and work in Asia, according to the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Both the chamber and the consulate-general of France in Hong Kong and Macau estimate there are at least 25,000 French citizens living in the city.
That might sound like a mere handful in London, where there are between 300,000 and 400,000 French expats, but it is a significant number in Hong Kong. Here, 92 per cent of the 7.4m-strong population is Chinese and 4 per cent of the remainder are domestic helpers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia.
The Hong Kong Immigration Department has a different view on the number of French people in the city. It says the most accurate way to count heads is to tick off the number of people physically present on a particular day, because some with residential status may have wandered off, never to return.
At the end of December 2009, the department says, there were 2,375 French nationals in Hong Kong; at the end of January 2019, there were 6,534. Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department figures show 2,539 for 2006 and 8,060 for 2016.
Both sets of figures differ significantly from those of the consulate and chamber of commerce, which are the most widely quoted, but they still show a big increase. It raises the question: why are French people moving to Hong Kong?
Zanini, who worked for a travel agency for eight years before becoming a freelance French teacher, believes the latest arrivals feel much as she did about Hong Kong when she landed 25 years ago — that it is a place of infinite possibility. “I thought, at worst, I will spend two weeks here, but by the third day, I found I enjoyed it,” she says. “I still have the same enthusiasm for Hong Kong, the same sense of freedom. You can become a different person here; you can become who you want to be.
“There’s something about French culture — the need to put you into one box. I was convinced there was a different way to live. Hong Kong made it possible.”
Her excitement was obviously infectious since her brother, sister-in-law and brother’s friend and best man joined her not long after she settled in.
Today, she says, there are French people of all ages and professions in Hong Kong, nearly all of whom share her appetite for adventure and freedom, she says.
Marine Sanz Vico certainly does. The 30-year-old French art director and graphic designer describes herself as a “a really driven and independent person, always on the lookout for adventure”.
That quest, plus a fascination with cultural difference, led her to work for design agencies in many countries, including the US, Argentina and mainland China. She visited Hong Kong for the first time while she was working in Shanghai and was smitten by Lamma, one of its outlying islands.
She quit Shanghai, moved to Lamma and tried her luck as a designer in Hong Kong. A year ago she started her own business, Bold Design.
“I wanted to be able to have a big-city life for its dynamism and opportunities while also being able to enjoy a more relaxed environment, closer to nature,” she says. “Hong Kong seemed to be the perfect place for me to find that balance.”
Doubtless there are French citizens in Hong Kong for more pragmatic reasons, namely work. The French Chamber of Commerce says there are now 750 French companies or French group subsidiaries in Hong Kong.
The city is showing signs of the French influence: there are French restaurants everywhere and the long-established private practice OT&P Healthcare recently appointed a French liaison officer.
The growing French connection — and mutual affection — is underlined by Le French May, an arts and cultural extravaganza that opened with a few events in 1993, the year Zanini arrived, and is now one of the largest annual cultural events in Asia.
Julien-Loïc Garin, its chief executive for eight years, says Hong Kong’s fast-expanding French population does not mark an exodus caused by the lack of jobs at home but initiatives such as Le Volontariat International en Entreprise, a French government programme that assists young people up to the age of 28 to work for French companies abroad for between six and 24 months.
He also says the flurry of large infrastructure projects in Hong Kong, such as new railway and bridge connections to mainland China, has boosted business for French companies such as construction group Dragages in recent years.
But while France’s cultural and commercial presence in Hong Kong is considerable and its expat community is the fastest-growing, according to the Hong Kong government, it is by no means the biggest. The US Department of State estimates there are 85,000 US citizens living in Hong Kong, while the British consulate-general in Hong Kong claims 300,000 citizens — a figure that covers “the wider group of British citizen passport holders in Hong Kong, which includes some individuals of Hong Kong origin residing in Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department, meanwhile, says there were 18,540 UK nationals present in Hong Kong at the end of January 2019 and 25,495 US citizens. These figures include all expats with smart ID cards who have entered or exited the city using port or airport automated gates or e-channels.
With such varying figures, perhaps Zanini has the best way to measure the influence of France on Hong Kong. When she arrived there was hardly any French produce available but now, she says, “I can find all the French cheese I want.”
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photographs: Dreamstime; Getty Images; Bloomberg