‘Thees ees France’

A few months ago, I was having drinks with a Frenchman who has lived in Shanghai for just over 10 years, married a local Shanghai-nese, raised a kid (who is now attending an international school in Shanghai), set up several restaurants in the city with varying degrees of success, and now considers Shanghai as much his home as France itself. What struck me as somewhat odd was that, other than the annual trip to France to see his parents, he had never actually left Shanghai in a decade. He admitted only to visiting Beijing once and Hong Kong on a couple of occasions, but other than that, not a single trip to any city or province in the whole of China.

I’d never thought of it that way before, but if you’re French and living in Shanghai, why on earth would you feel the need to see any other place in China?

It’s true, the French have always had it good here. At the outbreak of World War II, a convoy of Japanese military vehicles wanted to pass through the French Concession in order to reach the other side of Shanghai without taking a massive detour. Those were the days when the Japanese could really throw their weight around. At the barricades, a solitary French guard refused to let them pass, provoking an impatient Japanese commander to confront him personally. What started as a request was followed by a rant, which was followed by a rage, which was followed by an escalation of threats of retribution. Without uttering a word, the Frenchman refused to budge. Yelling, the Japanese commander threatened all manners of diplomatic and military threats, his face now red with fury from being insulted in front of his subordinates. He was on the verge of apoplexy when the French guard finally reacted — by slowly reaching for his pocket, pulling out a packet of cigarettes, lighting it, and slowly exhaling the smoke in the face of his aggressor. This tense, one-sided stand-off lasted for a half hour before the Japanese commander ordered the convoy to turn around and make the cumbersome detour around the entire French and International Concessions (meaning British/American) — a loss of more than two hours of time, and an even bigger loss of face.

When a bystander who witnessed the incident approached the French guard to ask how he could be so courageous against such a menacing display of military prowess, the Frenchman responded, “I’m sorry, monsieur, but that was not being courageous,” before stubbing out his cigarette on the road and adding, matter-of-factly, “Thees ees France.”

To this day, there is a sense of entitlement among the French in Shanghai that you don’t detect among any other expat group. Far more than the British and Americans, the French established this city as their Far East home away from home. You have to search hard to find landmarks and buildings from the days of the British/American Concession, but French colonialism is still everywhere, and very much part of the city’s architectural fabric. And in the same way the French resisted the Japanese, they’re not going to be bulldozed by the new enemy: greedy Hong Kong property tycoons who would sooner destroy every piece of heritage than concede a dollar of profit.

The local French restaurant in my old neighbourhood last year changed its name to Pétanque. As it to prove a point, it gutted out a strip of its restaurant that could have been used for tables, just for playing pétanque.

There is an entire street, YongKang Road, that the French have made their own in the last couple of years. It’s a kind of Lan Kwai Fong with French characteristics. Many of the bars are staffed by French students, with tables spilling on to the pavement where you can order a French beer and a pizza, while pretending to read a book.

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