JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution rarely brings to mind provincial France. But as it turns out, a tiny French town, about 60 miles south of Paris, played a key role in fomenting that revolution.
Montargis had an influential effect on hundreds of Chinese young people who came to work and study there. Now the town is trying to capitalize on its communist link, by luring Chinese tourists back.
Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: 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 who's who, including Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, and even a young Mao Zedong himself.
Peiwen 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 stopped in front of a plaque in a park where it is said that some of the young idealists wrote their first revolutionary poems.
Ms. PEIWEN WANG (Chinese-French Friendship Association): (Through translator) At that time, every month a hundred or so Chinese students came here. It was a big important wave. 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.
BEARDSLEY: 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, said that it's an emotional visit for the group.
Mr. WU HAO: (Through translator) 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.
BEARDSLEY: Maybe not quite as China rushes headlong into capitalism while still calling itself communist. Tour leader Wang came here 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 Brasserie de la Poste, restaurateur Erve Pascia(ph) says he has prepared a special meal for the group.
Mr. ERVE PASCIA (Restaurateur): (Through translator) We know they like sweet things and we have put together a special menu for them to discover our original dishes, but we have adapted it to Chinese tastes.
BEARDSLEY: After a brief lesson from Wang on the proper way to use the 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 explains his approval of French cuisine.
Mr. HAO: Fantastic. Very marvelous. Just like Chinese food. I think that in the Western countries, the French food is the best. And in the Eastern countries, the Chinese food is the best.
BEARDSLEY: 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 to many.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Montargis, France.
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