Students from Chinese sister city tour Alameda

Students from Chinese sister city tour Alameda

Michele Ellson

Photos by Michele Ellson; click photo for slideshow.

Camera flashes were popping in Alameda Police Chief Mike Noonan’s office, which was packed Wednesday afternoon with more than a dozen giddy teens and their adult chaperones.

The group is visiting from Wuxi, China – one of Alameda’s sister cities – and their six-day Bay Area visit will include stops around Alameda and San Francisco and to at least one major university.

“The students are really excited about everything,” said teacher Lu Hai Hong, whose charges had visited the Alameda Community Learning Center and stopped off at Tomatina on Park Street for pizza before their 75-minute police station tour, which included stops in Noonan’s office, the city’s 911 call center and the city jail, which was closed last year as a cost-saving measure.

As Lu talked – and Alameda Sister City Association volunteer Alex Chen translated – the students swarmed around a police truck for more photos shot from their cameras, phones and iPads. The trip was set up by the Ministry of Education in Wuxi and Chinese Christian Schools, which has separate sister school relationships with four schools in China; the association is providing translation assistance.

City Councilman Stewart Chen and the city’s Jim Franz forged Alameda’s sister city relationship with Wuxi in 2005, while both were serving on the Social Service Human Relations Board. Chen learned about the city through a chance conversation with a patient in his chiropractic practice who had connections with city officials there, and after doing some research, he visited.

“I was completely blown away,” Chen said of the city, which he said was more “systematic” and “organized” than some of China’s other rising cities.

Dubbed “Little Shanghai” for its booming economy, the city of about 6.4 million sits less than 100 miles’ drive from Shanghai on China’s east coast in the midst of one of the country's wealthiest regions. Home to one of China’s major industrial parks, Wuxi is China’s center for textiles and solar technology, and is also home to a film and television district containing the country’s first movie and TV studio.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the United States’ sister city program in 1956, and it spun off into a separate, nonprofit organization, Sister Cities International, in 1967. The primary goals of the organization, which supports sister city relationships across 136 countries, are to “advance peace and prosperity through cultural, educational, humanitarian, and economic development efforts, and serves as a hub for institutional knowledge and best practices to benefit citizen diplomats,” its website says.

The sister city relationships are “broad based” and intended to be mutually beneficial for the cities that form them. Chen said their initial purpose was to break down cultural barriers, but that cities have since used the relationships as a way to promote trade; the Alameda Sister City Association is expected to become part of the Alameda Chamber of Commerce sometime this year, he said.

When Alameda city leaders visited Wuxi in 2007, they toured some of the city’s developed zones and signed agreements intended to encourage investment, but Chen said no specific investment efforts followed. Chen, who has advocated for foreign investment at Alameda Point, expressed hope that the relationship could help direct some much-needed capital toward the redevelopment effort.

“This is a gateway to that investment opportunity,” he said.

Even so, Chen said he appreciated the “real interaction” the students’ visit – their first to Alameda – is providing, and the opportunity it offers to break down American culture through tourist stops and stays with local host families, along with their visits to public institutions like the police department – access that they wouldn’t necessarily have at home.

“Here, police are service-oriented, and they work with the community,” said Chen, who helped set up Wednesday’s Alameda tour stops. “The fire and police departments in China are under the auspices of the public security system. They wield a lot of power.”

Noonan and the volunteers who conducted the tour handed out stickers and rubber bracelets after posing for pictures with the students and chaperones. Then the volunteers walked them through police headquarters, offering a primer on local policing along the way.

The department’s firing range set off another flurry of camera flashes from the group, whose members asked about Alameda’s crime rate, officer pay.

Lu said she and her students – who were in Los Angeles before arriving in Alameda on Tuesday – were enjoying their tour. Students in local schools, she said, were “more relaxed” than in China – a change her students were agitating for but one she joked they wouldn’t get.

After their police station stop, the students walked to the Alameda Fire Department’s Park Street headquarters for another tour before heading back to Chinese Christian to take in a basketball game. The rest of the week’s itinerary includes trips into San Francisco and a visit to the University at California, Berkeley, Chinese Christian’s Gloria Ong said.

Chen said anyone can join the city’s sister city association; membership costs $35. Anyone interested in joining can e-mail its president, Frank Matarrese, at frank_matarrese@yahoo.com.

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