Fugu Fish and Other Follies

Sister cities came about as an idealistic plan to spread peace and goodwill -- now it's about business, or so officials claim.

A few days after he returned from an official trade mission to Japan in May, Pittsburg’s economic development director Brad Nail gazed down at a freeze-dried package of fugu on his desk. His colleague, who had also been on the six-day trip, left a note with the fish that teased, he recalls, “You try it first.”

Fugu, better known as blowfish, is deadly if it’s not prepared right. The fish’s organs contain a powerful and often lethal toxin if accidentally consumed. Fugu is considered a delicacy in Japan, and is the cuisine for which Pittsburg’s Japanese sister city, Shimonoseki, is most famous.

The two became sister cities, a kind of municipal diplomacy usually involving heartwarming cultural exchanges, in 1998. It was something of a random pairing: Pittsburg officials say Shimonoseki had been looking for a West Coast American counterpart with a similar history. Pittsburg was a lot smaller — 56,800 people here versus more than 260,000 there — but both were fishing towns with ports, and Shimonoseki leaders proposed a partnership. Pittsburg city leaders began looking at their Japanese sister city as a potentially lucrative business partner. In November 2001, Pittsburg sent a delegation of three city officials, including then-Vice Mayor Frank Aiello, to Shimonoseki to drum up business. When they returned, Aiello triumphantly reported that his Japanese counterparts had agreed to look into opening a shipping lane between the two towns, and maybe even build a fish-processing plant here.

Neither of those things ever happened. That’s because, Nail explains, Shimonoseki wanted to export the poisonous fugu, which he says just wouldn’t be marketable here. Americans have been known to kill themselves slowly by gorging themselves with Big Macs and biggie fries. But death from fugu poisoning can be instantaneous. Only seventeen restaurants in the United States can legally prepare and serve imported fugu, and none are in the Bay Area. And just one trade business, located in New York, has permission from the FDA and the Japanese government to import fugu. “I think on Aiello’s trip we were all sort of grasping for something to happen,” conceded Nail, who wasn’t on that trip. “But in reality it wasn’t very well thought out.”

For the more recent trip to Japan, which included Pittsburg Mayor Yvonne Beals, Nail and his colleagues focused on more modest goals, such as making new contacts. Now Pittsburg officials are trying to work out something so Shimonoseki reps can sell fugu at the annual Pittsburg Seafood Festival in September, which attracts more than 100,000 people every year. “That’s a very small step in the process, but it’s a first step,” Nail says.

Sister city relationships traditionally have involved modest forms of municipal diplomacy–pen pals, exchange students, or the occasional provision of medical supplies. The concept began as an idealistic attempt after World War II and during the Cold War to promote world peace. In 1956, President Eisenhower launched the Sister Cities program as a people-to-people exchange of citizen diplomats. By better understanding how other cultures lived, the thinking went, we’d feel more squeamish about blowing up the world and all those nice people we met abroad.

That may sound quixotic, but some citizen diplomats still invoke such lofty ideals when discussing their sister city ties. When former Livermore Mayor Cathie Brown returned from her visit to a Russian sister city with its own secretive nuclear weapons lab, she described the relationship as “vital to the future of our two nations,” according to the minutes of the council meeting where she made the comments.

Cities have typically became sisters if their towns shared some special industrial characteristic — such as Livermore and Snezhinsk in Russia, which both have nuclear labs — or ancestral ties between the local populations. As the years have gone on, that’s changed. Many cities have established connections as an expression of political protest of American foreign policy — Berkeley’s and Richmond’s relationships with cities in Cuba come to mind. And more and more cities like Pittsburg are trying to make what once were solely informal goodwill relationships into international business ventures.

In the past decade or so, city governments have increasingly subordinated the high-minded rhetoric in favor of invoking the bottom line when it comes to their sister cities. In the past couple of years, for instance, Oakland and Pittsburg moved their sister cities programs into their economic development departments in an effort to tap financial benefits from the relationships. “It’s directly related to the realization of the global economy we live in,” says Tim Honey, executive director of Sister Cities International, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that acts as a municipal matchmaker.

But if the recent experiences of Pittsburg and other East Bay cities are any indication, the efforts of these amateur trade missionaries are often more culture-clash comical than financially lucrative. In the end, the economic development hype serves primarily as political cover for politicos looking for a way to justify their expensive overseas junkets.

Richmond began its sister city relationship with Zhoushan — a Chinese island-city on the Yangtze River southeast of Shanghai — ten years ago for the expressed purpose of generating business. “The council thought that it was a good idea [to establish] relations with the largest potential market on the planet for business opportunities,” says Linda Harris, who oversaw the administration of Richmond’s sister city program through May.

So far, however, Harris concedes the city has seen no business generated from the relationship. Cultural differences — especially how business gets done — pose the most serious obstacle, she says. Over there, if someone knows the mayor, they can get the go-ahead to build or do almost whatever they want. Here, of course, democracy makes things more complicated. “No direct business has come out of it yet because it’s so difficult,” she says. “They think our cities are run like their cities. They think because they know the mayor that we can guarantee them business. … For example, they thought we would give them $10 million to finish their airport.”

Richmond boosters have also demonstrated questionable methods of wooing business from China. During the Zhoushan delegation’s three-day trip to its Bay Area sister city in July 2001, one full day was spent across the bay showing off San Francisco and not Richmond, the trip itinerary shows. The day began with a tour of San Francisco and ended with a welcome dinner for the Chinese delegation at the Old Shanghai Restaurant on Geary Boulevard.

Over the past five years, Richmond has budgeted around $7,500 annually for sister-city-related activities with Zhoushan, Harris says. Of course, sometimes the city has spent more than that. This past fiscal year, in which the city faced a $3.7 million budget shortfall at one point that forced several layoffs (Harris herself got a pink slip), the city spent at least $17,150 to send seven city officials on a ten-day trip to China in November. Mayor Irma Anderson and three council members went on the trip — which included stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Suzhou in addition to a visit to Richmond’s sister city — forcing the city to cancel two regularly scheduled council meetings.

Councilman Nat Bates, who went on what a city spokesperson described as a trade mission, called it a “working trip.” True, a couple of days were spent touring Hong Kong’s port and airport, as well as schools, businesses, and a hospital in Richmond’s sister city. But the itinerary suggests that much of the trip was spent sight-seeing on guided tours and feasting at banquets. One member of the Richmond delegation recalled, “Everywhere we went [in Zhoushan], 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.”

Councilman Tom Butt, an architect, and his wife paid their own way because he felt he couldn’t justify the China trip to his constituents. Politicians often get slapped in the press or by campaign opponents for these junkets. When Pittsburg Vice Mayor Aiello flew to Japan two years ago, he also paid his own way. “This would prevent any controversy relative to the vice mayor’s usage of public funds for a sister-city trip,” Pittsburg’s recreation director explained in a memo to Japanese officials. Giving sister-city relationships the imprimatur of “economic development” doesn’t prevent the trips being criticized as junkets, especially when they don’t produce any business for the folks back home. As Butt puts it, while the official visit to the Chinese sister city did arguably serve a laudable if vague role in promoting international understanding, “I can’t see a redeeming benefit for the citizens of Richmond.” Bates adds that he and other council members who went on the city’s dime are not independently wealthy like Butt and couldn’t afford to pay their own way.

American cities aren’t the only ones looking to cash in on the relationships. Those sisters in other, poor parts of the world are hoping to tap their US counterparts for investors and trading partners.

In March, a visiting six-man delegation from Ghana patiently listened as a duo from the International Diplomacy Council talked about its education exchange programs. But the politicians and business leaders from Ghana hadn’t come to Oakland to talk about that stuff.

Once the IDC folks left, Joseph Aidoo, the Western Regional Minister (the equivalent of a governor in the United States), explained his true purpose: “We are here on a business mission to promote … investment opportunities in the Western Region in particular, and Ghana in general.”

Aidoo was accompanied by a textbook publisher, a self-described industrialist, a tribal chief, and two elected officials from Sekondi-Takoradi, Oakland’s sister city in Ghana. The Ghana delegates each talked about the region’s natural resources: rubber, timber, gold. Philip Kwesi Nkrumah, the city’s affable NBA-forward-sized mayor, had his own pet project to pitch: the improvement of his city’s port, which because of its advanced age and need for dredging compels most shippers to use the competing port in his country. “We think we can both benefit economically,” Nkrumah said. “Takoradi has a very poor port; Oakland has a very huge port. I think the two cities can work together for our mutual benefit. So we are looking at the economic benefits to the two cities more than the cultural exchange.”

The Ghana delegation didn’t go away empty-handed. The city council presented them with A’s and Raiders caps, plus a promise to send an ambulance to Sekondi-Takoradi. But the Ghanaians weren’t going home with what they really wanted: Investment. This fall, Oakland is sending a delegation to Ghana on a “business matchmaking” trade mission to find buyers for American exports.

Still, local economic development officials have expressed doubts about Sekondi-Takoradi becoming a serious trading partner for Oakland, citing geography as a main obstacle: Ghana is on the wrong side of the globe for accessing the Port of Oakland. It’s easier for West Coast cities to trade with Pacific Rim countries (Oakland’s sister cities in Japan and China are trading partners). Says Simón Bryce, who oversees Oakland’s sister city program, “Sekondi-Takoradi probably will never support a significant amount of trade revenue.”

It’s been a couple of months since Pittsburg officials returned from their trade mission to Shimonoseki, but the freeze-dried fugu still hasn’t been eaten. “I’ve shopped it around to the staff and haven’t found anyone willing to eat it,” Brad Nail chuckles.

Pittsburg taxpayers, meanwhile, haven’t gotten so much as a frozen fish stick from their sister-city relationship. Nail still considers the May trip a success. “Did we come away on this trip with two or three companies that are gonna locate in Pittsburg? No we didn’t,” he says. “This was more of a government-to-government connection. We really broadened the connections over the last trip last year. We spent a lot of time with business leaders, so that was very positive.

“Economic development, no matter whether it’s overseas or here, is somewhat of a fishing expedition, always,” he continues. “You bait your hook and you go out and try to do the best you can, and sometimes you don’t catch anything and sometimes you catch a big fish. So that’s my philosophy, and I think the council agrees that we’re casting the net out there. This trip to Shimonoseki for three of us cost $2,700 and it was well worth the investment for the connections we made. Overseas trade is no different than most business; it’s really done best on a personal relationship and that’s what we’re trying to do is develop those relationships.”

It’s roughly the same thing that Linda Harris, Richmond’s former sister city coordinator, says about that city’s partnership with Zhoushan: “They actually could have one of the largest ports in China in fifteen or twenty years. But we’re building the relationship now.”

But the question remains whether these relationships will ever pay off. Ten years of being a sister city with Zhoushan certainly hasn’t. Will Richmond have to wait another decade or two for the relationship to bear fruit? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, count on officials from East Bay cities to keep on enjoying the sights.

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