The small town of Montargis, population 15,000, is known for its gothic cathedral and its flowered bridges and canals. But these days, as Chinese voices float in the air with French, Montargis is also gaining a reputation as a top Chinese tourist destination.
In the 1920s the town was home to hundreds of Chinese young people who came to study and work here. At that time the French communist party had just been born and Montargis was a hotbed of leftist sentiment. The young Chinese visitors were looking for ways to change their feudal homeland. The list of those who passed through Montargis reads like a revolutionary Whose Who, including Dung Zhao Ping, Zho en Lai and many others.
Peyuhwen Wang, who is head of the Montargis Chinese-French Friendship Association, is leading a group of Chinese civil servants on a walking tour of the town. They stop in front of a plaque in a park where it is said that some of the young idealists wrote their first revolutionary poems.
“At that time every month a hundred or so Chinese students came here. It was a big, important wave. Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping came and they and others then went back to china and founded the new china. That’s why we say that Montargis is the cradle of the new china.”
Some 500,000 tourists from mainland China visited France last year and Montargis is keen to tap into a market with huge growth potential. The town has spruced itself up and put up 12 plaques, entitled Footsteps of the Great, in French and Chinese, that wind through the town and show where the future luminaries slept, ate and worked in a rubber factory that still makes bicycle tires today. Wu Hao, the leader of the delegation, says it is an emotional visit for the group.
“We’re very touched. These are famous people for us, pioneers who came here and then tried to save china in its difficult period. And I think they’d be very happy today because we have always followed the path they forged, and china has developed like they would have wanted.”
Maybe not quite, as China rushes headlong into capitalism while still calling itself communist. And among these officials there is certainly no mention of the millions of innocent deaths caused by the pursuit of such ideological paths as the 1960s cultural revolution. Tour leader Wang came here from China 20 years ago as a doctor on a medical exchange. She says the French and Chinese have a natural affinity for each other because their societies have similar depth and finesse.
One common point is cuisine, and no French or Chinese tour would be complete without a dining experience. As the tourists head into the Brasserie de la Poste, restaurateur Herve Pasquier says he has prepared a special meal for the group.
“We know they like sweet things and we’ve put together a special menu for them to discover our regional dishes, but we’ve adapted it to Chinese tastes.”
After a brief lesson from Wang on the proper way to use the different forks and knives, the group digs into an appetizer of foie gras followed by roast duck glazed with the local honey. As he tips back a glass of red wine, Wu Hao exclaims his approval of French cuisine.
“Fantastic! very marvelous. just like Chinese food. i think in the western countries the French food is the best. and in the eastern countries the Chinese food is best. Ha, ha, ha.”
Clearly pleased with their day, these visiting Chinese civil servants believe every Chinese person should have the chance to come here and see their communist leaders’ past. For the small town of Montargis, that might just be one tourist too many.