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Sister relationship begins to thaw

After years of neglect, Winnipeg warms up to idea of renewing ties

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Si Beibei, at the Winnipeg exhibit, says:  �We must do something about the cooling of our relations.�

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Si Beibei, at the Winnipeg exhibit, says: �We must do something about the cooling of our relations.�

An emperor's palace once stood on Tianfu Square in the heart of Chengdu. It was destroyed, as were so many of China's ancient treasures in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, disastrously launched by Mao Zedong to rid China of "capitalist elements."

The revolution, which led to the persecution and deaths of millions, generated a fanatical Mao personality cult, which led to a frenzy of monument-making.

Hundreds of Mao statues were erected, the largest of which, a 30-metre marble Mao, still stands in Tianfu Square, one 14-tonne arm raised as if to say goodbye.

At Marble Mao's feet is a cluster of official buildings. It was there I discovered that while Winnipeg has largely forgotten its Chinese sister city, Chengdu has not forgotten Winnipeg.

In fact, it has a special place for Winnipeg, right there at its heart.


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It was raining softly the morning I arrived at the International Sister Cities Exhibition.

I had no rain gear as I waited for my guide at the foot of the statue, envying scooter drivers as they whizzed past, protected by aerodynamic umbrellas attached to handle bars.

But soon enough I was inside the one-million-square-foot centre, a cluster of buildings housing galleries, theatres, museums and sister-city exhibitions.

"Lots of people come here to experience the connections of our city and other cities," said Si Beibei, deputy division chief in the foreign affairs office. "When they go abroad they want to come here and fill up."

Three exhibition halls are filled with displays of Chengdu's 22 sister cities.

In one display is a list of honorary Chengdu citizens. It includes Susan Thompson, the last Winnipeg mayor to pursue close contact with Chengdu.

In the third hall we found Winnipeg. The display featured a brief description of Winnipeg and photographs of sites -- including the Esplanade Riel -- and of former mayor Bill Norrie signing the original sister-city agreement in 1988.

There was a recent photo of Mayor Sam Katz. In a glass case was a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, a reminder a favourite of Chinese children came from Winnipeg.

Beibei said most sister cities stay in close touch and many have established offices in Chengdu to pursue economic opportunities in the hottest economy on Earth and in Chengdu, ranked the 10th-best place to invest among 160 Chinese cities.

Edmonton, for example, is seeking non-stop flights, and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was scheduled to arrive the next day with a business delegation. But there has been no show of interest from Winnipeg.

"We are always sending invitations to Winnipeg but we never hear back," she said.

That's a pity, on many levels.

One of the invitations is for Winnipeg to send artists who might wish to paint in Chengdu at the city's expense.

There are annual music and art programs that bring youths from sister cities to perform, again at Chengdu's expense.

There are numerous international business conferences and meetings of mayors, which should be of particular interest to sister cities because mayors in China have powers to direct economic development and investment.

She said to tell Mayor Katz he is invited to visit at any time.

"We must do something about the cooling of our relations," she said.

It was the second time in two days I was told to tell Katz he's welcome at any time on Chengdu's dime.

"If your mayor comes we can make an opportunity for him," Shen Zaiwang, an adviser with the Sichuan Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries, told me. "We can host the mayor and two assistants for three nights with hotel and transportation. If he needs more, we can expand the invitation. This is our promise if the mayor comes."

I caught up with Mayor Katz on Friday.

"That's a generous offer," he said.

I reminded him of a sister-city presentation he attended six years ago at which former Chengdu resident Nuo Yang urged him to exploit Winnipeg's ties with the city of 14 million to generate economic development.

When that presentation resurfaced last summer, it caused the Free Press to decide to see what Winnipeg had been missing, which resulted in this Big Sister series.

Katz remembered the presentation, and that he had liked the idea of focusing on Chengdu, but the "bottom line" was there were bigger priorities at the time. That, however, is beginning to change.

Winnipeg is developing a "scenario" to send a delegation to Chengdu next year to explore economic development, he said. There also have been preliminary discussions about possibly opening an office in Chengdu to pursue "business activity."

"We all know what's going on there and the benefits that would be derived from working with China," Katz said. "That's the conversation that has been started."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A15

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