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Sister City Visit
November 22, 2002

We returned yesterday from a 10-day trip to China, the principle motivation of which was an official biannual delegation to Richmond’s sister city, Zhoushan.

This was my first visit to Asia in 32 years, my first trip having been initiated by Uncle Sam in 1970 with the original destination being Vietnam. Unlike almost everyone else, I forsook the fabled “freedom flight” home and took advantage of a little used option to take my discharge from the Army “in-country,” because I wanted to visit the great temple complex of Ankor Wat in Cambodia. I started off there, beating the U.S. invasion by less than a month but still getting caught up in a coup that closed the airports and forced me to have to literally walk into Thailand. From there, I went on to Hong Kong, Japan (the year of the Osaka World’s Fair), and eventually across Russia, east to west via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The closest I got to China was Hong Kong, then still a British Colony. Asia has changed a lot in the last 30 years, particularly China, which, in 1970, was still in the final throes of the devastating “cultural revolution.” 

Back to the recent trip – which included the official Richmond delegation of Mayor Irma Anderson, Councilmembers Mindell Penn and Nat Bates, City Manager Isiah Turner, Port Director Jim Matzorkis, Administrative Analyst Linda Harris and Shirley and me. Assistant City Manager and Finance Director Anna Vega was on the Hong Kong leg only. There were several other east bay business persons who went along, as well as Walter Fong and his wife Cici, who were instrumental in setting up the Richmond- Zhoushan relationship. Walter is originally from Zhoushan and was also involved in setting up the San Francisco-Shanghai sister city relationship.

Our first stop was Hong Kong where Richmond businessman and owner of Pacific East Mall, Terry Kwong, met the delegation. We had a private VIP tour and presentation from Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), a branch of worldwide conglomerate Hutchison-Whampoa, the world's busiest independently owned container terminal operator.

From Hong Kong, we flew to Shanghai and traveled by bus to Suzhou, the hometown of Lucy Shen, Richmond businesswoman and owner of Suzhou Restaurant in Point Richmond. We had dinner with city officials in Suzhou, toured several of the city’s ancient gardens, which are listed as World Heritage sites, and visited a landscape architecture firm that designs similar gardens in other cities, such as Suzhou’s sister city, Portland, Oregon.

After an overnight stay in Shangai, we flew east to Richmond’s sister city, Zhoushan, which is more like what we would think of as a small state or large county. Zhoushan is actually an archipelago of 1,390 islands, only 98 of which are inhabited, with a population of about one million. In three days, we toured a school, a university, a seafood packing factory, a port, a hospital, temples and the museum (where there is a sister-city room with an extensive Richmond exhibit). We had numerous formal meetings with dozens of city officials and a 40+ course formal dinner every night. A high point for everyone was a ferry trip to Putuo Island, an enclave of ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries (also a national park), where we lunched vegetarian with the senior monk, one of China’s most revered religious leaders – a rare treat for anyone, especially westerners. The final day included a signing ceremony for an updated sister city agreement. Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty. We always traveled like a presidential motorcade, never stopping at a red light, with police escorts and police stationed at every intersection to stop traffic.

A final one-day stopover back in Shanghai before flying home completed our visit.

China may have once been a third world country, but that seems to be no longer true. The incredible scale of development and construction in the areas we visited is like nothing I have ever seen. Many of the older 20th Century buildings are pretty ugly, but the new stuff is world class. Our hotels were, in some respects, more advanced than what is typical for the U.S. I was particularly impressed with the level of urban design of the infrastructure. And the food was amazing in its quality and diversity. The streets, sidewalks, landscaping, parks and urban forests could provide a good example for Richmond. In fact, Richmond actually looked pretty gritty after 10 days in China.

On the other hand, the reason so many companies are setting up brand new factories in China is that labor costs are about $100 per month – or less. They told us not to drink water from the public water supply. The rivers and canals don’t look so good. So many people are buying cars even the brand new urban streets and freeways are jammed up like I-80 in rush hour, but Hong Kong and Shanghai have great new subways that make getting around a breeze. In order to suppress air pollution, cars have to be turned in after 12 years – taxis after 8 years. A real study in contrasts