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France's New Passion: All Things Chinese

  • Lisa Bryant

PARIS — Not so long ago, Americans and Japanese tourists were the major spenders in France. During these summer months, France's tourism industry now is courting additional clients with major purchasing power: the Chinese. For some French, that means going back to the classroom to study Mandarin.

Teacher Meifen Chen swears it is easy to learn Mandarin, the official language of the Chinese mainland. Maybe she is right, though it is daunting to watch her jot down the characters on a flip chart.

One of her students is a journalist. Another is just curious about China. The third, Julie, a business-owner who did not want her last name published, travels frequently to China. She said she is studying Mandarin to make sure she strikes good deals.

"But otherwise I just want to understand the culture. Because I go there really often," she said. "Because I want to understand... to try to help myself, to take a taxi or coffee."

The French are not just doing business in China. Chinese business is coming to France. Today, about half-a-million Chinese visit France every year. Tour operators predict that number may reach two million or more by 2020.

With incomes rising in China, middle-class Chinese can now afford to go abroad. English teacher Chester [his Western name] poses for pictures near the Louvre museum with a group of colleagues. He is enjoying Paris ... in a language he understands.

"We see some signs in Chinese everywhere. In shops, in restaurants. We went to some palaces and we saw Chinese everywhere, I'm afraid."

Chinese are not only flocking to cultural attractions, but also to French clothing and perfume stores. Even those on a budget, like university student Wang Yi.

"I am going to the Champs Elysee to have a look if there is anything I might be interested in. The makeup, things for women," said Wang.

The Chinese are France's biggest foreign shoppers, accounting for one quarter of all duty-free business, according to shopping group Global Blue. Some major stores are responding by hiring Chinese-speaking staff. And last year, France's Le Figaro media group launched a luxury magazine targeting Chinese shoppers.

Interest in the Chinese language also is growing. Roughly 30,000 French school students now study Mandarin, making it more popular than Russian and Portuguese. Some French business schools make learning Mandarin mandatory.

Chinese also are snapping up French vineyards and expensive wines. At specialty wine store De Vinis Illustribus in Paris' Latin Quarter, owner Dominique Michelin showed off some of his rarest bottles. One young Chinese client recently bought one - priced at more than $10,000.

Michelin said that many Chinese buy expensive wines to give as presents, especially during the Chinese New Year. He said they buy the big French wines because they've heard they are luxury items.

Michelin hasn't learned Mandarin - he uses interpreters. But, he has learned something about Chinese customs.

He said Chinese will stay away from wine bottles dated 1968, because they believe that combination of numbers brings bad luck. But they will buy bottles from 1958… or 1978.

Other French want to delve more deeply into the Chinese culture by learning Mandarin. Roughly 30,000 French school students now study the language, making it more popular than Russian and Portuguese. Some French business schools make Mandarin classes mandatory.

Chen said the interest is immense because China is now a leading economic power. The French business and tourism industries realize learning Mandarin is vital. She said speaking the language also helps Westerners seal friendships more easily with Chinese.

Chen said her classes are not all hard work. She said every one of her students becomes passionate about the Chinese language, without exception.

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