Roaming the narrow streets of Montargis, a small provincial town about 110 kilometers south of Paris, you wouldn’t find anything particularly attractive to tourists.
With a population of less than 16,000, the town does not have high-end boutiques with French luxury brands or the magnificent architecture or monuments emblematic of French grandeur and romance. Perhaps the only things it is well known for are its flowered bridges and winding canals.
But these days the town is seeing an increase in tourism from China because of its unique historical links.
Montargis was the place where hundreds of young Chinese students came to study and work in the early years of the 20th century, with the hope of modernizing China by learning from the West.
The most prominent students included future Chinese political leaders Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yi (former vice-premier and second foreign minister of China), Nie Rongzhen (one of the 10 marshals of China) and Cai Hesen (one of earliest leaders of the Communist Party of China). Zhou Enlai was also a frequent visitor to the city in the 1920s.
Local authorities created a Chinese tourist trail several years ago to tap into China’s booming tourism market and to promote Montargis as a must-see destination for those who want to discover how China entered the history of a small French town that played a key role in the formation of the CPC.
Today tourists can follow signs in both French and Chinese pointing out historic sites and buildings in Montargis associated with Chinese history in France.
One important site is the school Deng attended, known as the Gambetta Secondary School, which is now the Town Hall of Montargis.
“The apartment that Deng used to live in was turned into the reception room of the Town Hall. But if you look through the window, the view remains exactly what Deng saw, since the town has barely changed over the years,” said Stephane Poisson, Town Hall chief of staff.
Tourists could also visit the Hutchinson rubber factory where Deng used to work and rest in the quiet Durzy gardens where Cai Hesen and his wife Xiang Jingyu presented their ideas on saving China and building a new society to their compatriots in 1920.
Montargis is also the place where Cai sent the famous letter to Mao Zedong, who later became the founder of New China, in which he explained the necessity of creating a political party to establish a new society.
Wang Peiwen, a 57-year-old doctor from China, proposed to the local government the idea of creating a guided tour of Chinese heritage in Montargis.
Having lived in France for nearly 30 years, she said it was important to preserve the history that made Montargis a special place for Chinese people.
“If we did not do that, it would be a piece of dead history,” she said. “The special link between Montargis and China is very appealing to the Chinese people, and it is a part of history that is shared by the two countries,” she said.
Wang founded the Montargis Chinese-French Friendship Association in 2001 and began to work on promoting the town’s Chinese heritage in 2004.
The work could be difficult because the French right-wing political party in the town defeated the French communist party in elections in 2001, Wang said.
But Jean-Francois Pezaire, chief of staff at Urban Community in Montargis, said politics was never a problem.
“We think it is a good story to tell and we want to see more Chinese tourists because it is a subject that touches the hearts of the Chinese people,” he said.
Pezaire said that the local government spent about 15,000 euros ($19,200) to renew tourist signs to Chinese heritage sites and printed a handful of brochures describing the trail.
“Local residents also find the town’s historical link with China interesting. In fact, the first person who asked for the brochure was a local French resident,” he said.
Pezaire said the current visitors from China are mainly government delegations and members of the CPC who come here to retrace the footsteps of former political leaders.
He said efforts are being made to turn the town into a broader and younger tourist base and he is optimistic about the town’s tourism prospect.
But one problem, he said, is that Chinese tourists usually travel in groups on tight schedules. “And if they have more time, they prefer to go shopping in Paris.”