We'll always have Paris -- and so will the Chinese

Steve Kelman observes signs of increasing Chinese influence in the City of Lights.

I'm stopping in Paris for two days on my way back to the United States just to look around — lots of walking in famous and obscure parts of the city! — and to have a chance to speak French a bit. French was the first foreign language I started studying, in junior high school. But even in France, the rise of Asia is very visible.

China is not even close to replacing U.S. influence on French culture, of course. In the land of haute cuisine, the McDonald’s restaurants around the city are packed. Blue jeans remain the preferred summer dress. A new Abercrombie and Fitch location on the Champs-Elysees is drawing big crowds. Starbucks stores are sprouting up all over town. A newspaper article noted that when someone from France goes to the United States for the first time, everything seems familiar even though he or she has never been there before, thanks to the many American movies people have seen.

But the Asians are coming. Mostly, they come as tourists and consumers of French sophistication (or should I say iconic French luxury brands?) rather than producers. On a previous trip, I had seen the lines of almost exclusively Asian tourists waiting for admission to the gigantic, colossally high-ceilinged Louis Vuitton emporium on the Champs-Elysees.

I was amazed during this trip, however, when I took the Metro from my hotel to a bakery called Pierre Herme for breakfast, right next to the Saint-Sulpice Church, which had enjoyed a rush of tourist visits after being featured in a key early scene in “The Da Vinci Code.” I had read about the bakery in an article in the wonderful weekend edition of the Financial Times several years ago. I cut out the travel articles I like and put them in files, awaiting trips to the locations described, often years later.

The article I had put aside described the praline phyllo pastry at this bakery as the single finest baked goods concoction in the world, so I wanted to try it. Imagine my surprise when I arrived around the time the place opened at 10 a.m. to see the doors still shut but two young Chinese women waiting for the store to open. This store obviously appears in some Chinese guidebook to Paris, and — voila! — a new line of Chinese has been born. (There was a sign asking customers that, if lines outside the store became very long, to be polite to passers-by and consider patronizing the cosmetics shop next door while waiting to get in.)

However, there are also signs of influence going in the opposite direction. During my stay, my hotel — in the American Westin chain — hosted a big kickoff of the Chinese Language Year in France. The hotel was filled with Chinese guests, signs in Chinese directed people to the appropriate rooms, and a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was honored with a reception and dinner.

By the way, one still hears a lot of Japanese being spoken on the streets of Paris, not just Chinese. By informal count, there seem to be, interestingly, more Japanese restaurants in Paris than Chinese ones, definitely the case if one excludes restaurants in Paris' two Chinatowns. And the information provided on the airport bus into the city is still translated into Japanese but not Chinese, which might represent a cultural lag or the fact that Chinese tourists typically travel in groups with their own tour buses to take them from the airport.

I saw another China-related factoid on a Facebook status update from a former student of mine from the United Kingdom, now a journalist for the Financial Times. The Economist, probably the world's most influential magazine, has announced that it will be starting a China section in the magazine each week, complementing its sections on the United Kingdom and United States.

The United States has been the only country outside the United Kingdom to have its own dedicated section in the magazine and has had it since 1943. When I started reading the magazine, its news sections were United Kingdom, Europe, United States and International for the rest of world. Over the years, International has been divided into Asia, the Americas, and Africa and the Middle East. Even at the height of the Japan-is-taking-over mania of the 1970s, The Economist never gave the country its own section. But now China is getting its own.

The Economist has a great track record of predicting trends. (In 2007, it warned constantly about the dangers of a financial crash.) Therefore, its decision to add a China section is an interesting statement about where the world is heading. At least they haven't eliminated the U.S. section.