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'Nice' to meet you, Hangzhou

By SHAO XINYING in Hangzhou and CHEN WEIHUA in Nice, France| China Daily Global| Updated: May 6, 2024 L M S

Rich cultural exchanges strengthen bond between Sino-French sister cities

Editor's note: Amity between the people holds the key to sound state-to-state relations. China Daily will come out with a series of stories highlighting Chinese cities' special connections with sister cities, mutual understanding, trust and friendship between peoples of different countries and cultural backgrounds, and shining light on "city diplomacy".

Olivier Ruelle starts his day with a steaming cup of tea, a ritual he cherishes both at his office and in his cozy Hangzhou home.

"A good cup of tea sets the tone for a good day. Hangzhou has really good tea," he said.

Although Ruelle introduces himself as "a French who loves to drink tea" on video-sharing platforms, the 55-year-old readily admits he has limited knowledge of the subject.

Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, hailed as China's tea capital, is renowned for its verdant tea plantations, particularly the revered Longjing variety.

In one of his videos, Ruelle promotes a local Hangzhou tea to Europeans, including in his hometown of Nice, the jewel on Cote d'Azur, or the French Riviera.

"They truly appreciate the authenticity of the tea leaves, unlike the accustomed tea bags," he said.

He found love in Hangzhou, where he met his wife.

"I chose to stay here, all because of her," said Ruelle, who obtained permanent residency in 2022.

Now a vlogger with more than 1 million followers, he captures a diverse array of content, from tea stalls on Hangzhou's streets to the sun-drenched beaches of Nice.

"Nice holds a position somewhat akin to that of Hangzhou in China. The Nice metropolitan area stands as the second-most vital economic and cultural region in France, trailing only Paris," he said.

"These days, I spend much more time here in Hangzhou than in Nice," he said, while sipping tea.

"Rather, I'd say Hangzhou is my first hometown and Nice the second."

Ruelle said he admires the locals' way of life, as they "savor the taste of life and indulge themselves in refined delicacies".

In this aspect, he noted a similarity between his two beloved cities — people enjoy life.

Hangzhou and Nice forged sister-city ties in 1998, bridging the gap between two vibrant cultures separated by thousands of kilometers.

"We were very impressed by Hangzhou," said Rudy Salles, deputy chairman of the Nice Cote d'Azur Metropolitan Tourist Office.

"Chinese people say Hangzhou is a paradise on Earth. And here (in Nice), we have the Angels Bay.

"The Angels Bay and the paradise, of course, they had to be married."

Salles has visited Hangzhou many times, along with several other Chinese cities.

He speaks highly of the special bond between Hangzhou and Nice, now in its 26th year.

"West Lake is gorgeous. I'm in love with this city," he said.

The sister cities have been involved in many cultural events, such as the Hangzhou-Nice Twin Cities Photography Exhibition and the Nice-Hangzhou Film Week.

"We've been making many things together because it is necessary to develop links," Salles said.

"We are the second city welcoming Chinese tourists in France after Paris."

Nice has established itself as one of the pillars of tourism and diplomatic relations between China and France.

In 2019, the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nice marked the first stop of his French tour.

On March 24 that year, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to the Villa Kerylos, an ancient Greek Revival-style house, to welcome his "dear old friends" — President Xi and his wife.

Their warm exchange of greetings culminated in Macron presenting Xi with a rare 1688 French edition of An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius, one of only two remaining copies in the world.

Xi said the gift was precious, and it would take the pride of place in the National Library of China.

"President Xi has been coming here. He knows our city very well," Salles said. "We are very proud."

New heights

The cultural exchange between the two cities reached new heights in 2017 when the Chinese stage show To Meet the Grand Canal premiered in Nice, at the invitation of the French city.

Reflecting on the show's success, Cui Wei, director of the dance drama show and president of Hangzhou Opera and Dance Drama Theater, recalled the warm reception in Nice.

"We performed at the centuries-old Nice Opera House. Our performance was so well-received that some people in the audience were reluctant to leave," Cui said.

"In addition to the formal show, we organized flash events on the streets of Nice to engage more people."

The Grand Canal was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, reinforcing its historical and cultural significance.

"After learning that our Grand Canal had just been listed, the director of the cultural heritage office in Nice approached us, keen to learn from Hangzhou's experience, as Nice was seeking a similar status," Cui said.

In 2021, UNESCO added the city of Nice to its World Heritage List.

"Our candidacy for UNESCO was supported by China," said Salles, also former deputy mayor of Nice.

The canal represents cultural exchanges between the two countries, Cui said. "I think the most important thing is that it has built a bridge of friendship and cultural communications between the peoples."

France has witnessed a surge in interest toward Chinese culture and language. Organizations such as the Confucius Institute Cote d'Azur in Nice are welcoming people of all ages to explore all things Chinese.

Meanwhile, a parallel trend has emerged in China, where the study of French is gaining traction. Alliance Francaise, which promotes the French language, is a popular choice among learners.

Many students in Hangzhou, like Sun Yunong, are learning French in preparation for their future careers.

"I was reaching out to French clients to promote our shopping site," said Sun, who has worked for Alibaba's fast-fashion experimental program.

"I can feel the entrepreneurial atmosphere in the air in Hangzhou."

For Franck Dubarry, founder and chairman of the first Sino-French business aviation joint venture company in China, Silkwings Jet, Hangzhou stands out as "a really innovative city".

"Technology is the engine of development of the city," Dubarry said.

Dubarry, representative of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hangzhou, has set up two companies in the city, which he said is "the perfect place" for his business.

Business taking off

"All my colleagues and friends asked, why you did it in Hangzhou? The answer is: I feel very well in Hangzhou," he said. "Hangzhou is a place where my business takes off."

Having retired from the French Navy, Dubarry said he flies quite often in Nice, a city witnessing a huge influx of Chinese tourists.

Nice, boasting the second-largest airport in France and home to more than 800 foreign companies, is at the forefront of smart city development, according to Invest in Cote d'Azur, an agency dedicated to promoting investment in the region.

In 2010, Nice launched its Cityzi program, which allows contactless mobile transactions, becoming the first city in France to provide such services.

Convenient life

"Nice has many city service apps, aiming to make life more convenient for its citizens," vlogger Ruelle said, adding that its sister city is also a pioneer in cashless payments.

Hangzhou, home to Alibaba and Hikvision, is leading the charge in building a smart city, where new quality productive forces are gaining momentum.

"Hangzhou is a top-tier city when it comes to digital economy, and very convenient to live in," Dubarry said.

Nice was among the invitees at the Hangzhou International Sister City Mayors Conference on City and Innovation in 2017, where the mayors discussed e-commerce, smart city and cultural branding.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France, and is the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism.

"As someone who grew up in Nice but resides in Hangzhou, I feel the urgency to contribute more to cultural exchanges," Ruelle said.

Zhou Lin, a representative of the Hangzhou Foreign Affairs Office responsible for Hangzhou-Nice relations, said: "We hope to see more fruits with our two cities' stronger bonds."

Dong Guangli, Chinese consul-general in Marseille, France, emphasized the pivotal role of sister-city pairings in facilitating cross-border exchanges and international cooperation.

"The hope of the Sino-French relationship lies in the people, its foundation is in the two societies, and its vitality comes from exchanges at subnational levels," Dong said.

"We are ready to support both sides in carrying out more solid, practical and friendly exchanges at the grassroots level to contribute to the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and France."

With this year's Paris Olympics approaching, Ruelle said he is gearing up for a trip to Nice, one of the hosts of the soccer events.

"I shot videos during the Asian Games in Hangzhou last year. This summer, I'll definitely take my dear followers on a 'cloud visit' to Olympic venues," Ruelle said.

Contact the writers at shaoxinying@chinadaily.com.cn.

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