We’re on the 26th floor of Hong Kong’s Admiralty Centre to meet France’s consul-general.
Year built: completed in 1971
Architect: Basil Spence
This brutalist edifice is the result of a much-overlooked episode in history: the terror campaign initiated by militant Zionist group Irgun. In 1946 Irgun targeted the British embassy’s mission in Rome and destroyed much of the villa built in 1825 by Don Marino Torlonia, Duke of Bracciano.
In 1960 the Scottish modernist Basil Spence was called upon to replace the building. The architect behind Coventry Cathedral created a bold angular statement using travertine marble and light oak. The building shares a site with Michaelangelo’s Porta Pia; to respect this renaissance masterpiece and the surrounding gardens, Spence raised his project on pillars, giving the building a sense of lightness. The ceremonial entrance, a bridge over a pool, adds to the ethereal effect.
Monocle comment: While many other Roman embassies inhabit elegant ancient buildings, this structure stands as a reminder of the radical thinking seen in the post-war era. Spence was part of a bold exercise in national branding.
Colonial-era Hong Kong used to be a haven for all kinds of exiles under the British flag. Yet 19 years after the handover a new wave of European émigrés are painting the town a different shade of red, white and blue. Hong Kong is home to the biggest French community in China, as entrepreneurs escape high taxes in Paris and pollution drains the expat populations of Beijing and Shanghai. “Five years ago a French expat in Hong Kong could say, ‘I know everyone here,’ but now it’s impossible because you have French everywhere,” says Eric Berti, France’s new consul-general in Hong Kong and Macau, who joined the Gallic influx last year after four years in the same role in Sydney.
“It is almost like a mid-sized embassy in Hong Kong, which is not the case at all in Sydney,” says Berti, who now oversees three times the number of staff across cultural, economic and media sections. A consular posting to the Chinese special administrative region is still considered unique; Berti is one of only two French consuls to attend an annual meeting of ambassadors in Paris. The situation requires careful diplomacy: February’s visit by the French finance minister was the first ministerial visit in three years, as Paris is wary of offending Beijing by giving too much prominence to Hong Kong.
French culture is the biggest diplomatic business in town and this year the new consul-general received his first taste of Le French May. The huge two-decades-old arts festival, organised by the consulate, now runs through June and spills over two borders into Macau and Shenzhen. “We don’t want French May getting any bigger because I want to develop other fields, such as in education,” he says. About 600 students from Hong Kong go to France each year and the consul-general believes that more can be done. “The image of France will be good as long as we are perceived as a country that improves Hong Kong.”
- The embassy
Today’s consulate hangs above Hong Kong on the 26th floor of the Admiralty Centre, a modern update from a century earlier when the French Mission occupied the monumental Edwardian residence of the first British governor to Hong Kong on Government Hill.
- The staff
France appointed its first consular agent in Hong Kong, a US businessman, in 1842. It took another 20 years to get a consul-general proper and a French national. A current staff of 60 are split evenly between general consular matters, the cultural attaché and the economic section.
The consul-general is encouraging closer co-ordination between the consulate and Hong Kong’s French Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest in Asia. His “Team France” initiative involves projects such as the So French So Innovative showcase of French technology.
Would-be diplomats from unrecognised states will get a crash course in statesmanship in September: the NGO Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization is offering lessons on lobbying European institutions.