Tim Hermann had never lived outside of St. Louis until, in his late 50s, he moved to China.
Hermann's initial trip there in 2008 was one of curiosity, and the first thing he noticed about the country was the dozens of construction cranes dotting the skyline of every city he visited. As the CEO and board chairman of Collins and Hermann, a multi-million-dollar specialty construction outfit, he was naturally drawn to China's building boom. He returned to China again and again, traveling around by train trying to drum up business. He saw the labor-intensive way Chinese crews carried out certain projects and he thought his firm could do it cheaper.
He really took to the country, particularly the southern city of Shenzhen with its tropical-like weather and ocean views. In all the cities he visited, the welcoming and open nature of the people he met felt at times more Midwestern than the Midwest from which he'd come. Eventually, tired of spending money on hotels, he rented an apartment in Shenzhen and kept traveling around China meeting people in local government and business.
"It took me a while to realize that this was a difficult opportunity for a foreigner," he says. "The type of business we're in is more of a state-owned business here."
However, before he came to that realization, a language teacher offered to set up Hermann, who was divorced, on a date with a woman who the language teacher said would be his perfect match. There was just one problem. This perfect woman lived in Nanjing.
In terms of distance, if Shenzhen is St. Louis, that would put Nanjing somewhere around Buffalo, New York.
Undeterred, Hermann began exchanging messages with the woman on QQ, a messaging app that was popular in China at the time. She was a middle school teacher in Nanjing, and her name was He Jian Ping, although she goes by JP. Hermann's Mandarin was improving, and JP's English was then only so-so. But over text that didn't matter.
"He would text me in English and I would translate into Chinese," JP says. "I'd text him in Chinese and he'd translate into English."
After a lot of messaging back and forth, Hermann finally asked if JP wanted to visit him in Shenzhen.
Her response: I don't know you that well. Why would I come down there?
Hermann's reply: Good point. How about I fly to Nanjing?
Their first date, which involved a translator, was a success. Now 55, JP says she right away found Hermann to be kind and generous. Hermann, who is now 67, liked that JP was smart and extroverted and very pretty. JP is a go-getter, too. She raised a daughter as a single parent while teaching. At one point, when her daughter was young, the two had to sleep in the schoolhouse, but JP eventually saved up enough money to buy multiple properties throughout Nanjing, which she used for rental income. When she met Hermann, her daughter, who had finished school and was working as a flight attendant, encouraged her to pursue the relationship.
They hadn't been dating long when JP came across an old newspaper article that mentioned the sister-city relationship between St. Louis and Nanjing — the very first between any Chinese city and one in the U.S. She thought it was nice that their hometowns had a connection that mirrored their own. She showed the article to Hermann, who was even more enthusiastic.
As he put it: "You got a St. Louis guy living in a country of 1.3 billion people who ends up meeting and falling in love with a woman from Nanjing. And it happens to be that the first sister city relationship between our two countries is Nanjing and St. Louis. Completely by accident. It's serendipity."
The sister-city relationship between St. Louis and Nanjing officially began in 1979, when China was hardly the economic powerhouse it is today. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution had ended a few years prior and free-market reforms were only beginning. The U.S. was still thick in its Cold War mindset, and no American city had formal ties to any cities in Red China. St. Louis, not exactly known for its communist leanings, was an improbable candidate to be the first.
James Conway, mayor of St. Louis from 1977 to 1981, is likely the St. Louisan most responsible for the sister city relationship. I recently visited his Midtown office, and behind his desk hang a collage of photos showing a trip that Chu Jiang, mayor of Nanjing in the '80s, made to St. Louis. The photos show Conway and Chu at the Arch, at the floating McDonald's.
Forty years ago, the potential for pushback must have been daunting. But Conway says Nanjing seemed like the perfect partner. Both it and St. Louis were on major rivers. Both cities were in areas where agriculture was one of the primary industries.
Also, he says: "We wanted to beat San Francisco."
At the time San Francisco was working with Shanghai to establish a sister-city relationship. The two cities eventually came to terms in 1980, one year after St. Louis and Nanjing.
But before that, in 1979, Conway and a small delegation flew to Nanjing to sign the agreement making the partnership official. Foreigners in China, especially outside the largest cities, were still exceedingly rare, to the point that 5,000 Nanjingers showed up to witness the signing. Typical for the era, Conway said, the vast majority of both men and women wore the traditional single-color Mao suit and kept their hair short.
"I walked around the city with my wife, who was wearing a dress and heels that were by no means stilettos," Conway recalls. "And still people on the streets were bumping into each other, staring, everywhere we went. They'd never seen anything like it."
There were very few Mao suits in sight in Nanjing this past July when I visited for a few days. It would be both condescending and a grand understatement to call the metropolis of more than 8 million modern. Parts of its cityscape are soaked in neon, downright futuristic. Its restaurants, shopping districts, subways and sidewalks buzz with activity. A few locals I talked to said the pace of life in Nanjing is a bit more relaxed, but that's only in comparison to China's megacities. In the historic downtown, foot traffic, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and scooters converge at intersections, and it seems impossible that everyone can make it through the green lights OK. During rush hour Nanjing's impeccably clean subway cars get so packed as to erase any notion of personal space. It's easy to enter a shopping center in search of a restaurant, pass Bulgari, Prada and Polo stores on the way to the seventh floor, inadvertently cross a sky bridge or two, dine at the restaurant and exit onto a bustling square that is completely different than the bustling square through which you entered. This can happen even when being guided by a local.
There is much St. Louis might envy in its sister city aside from the robust public transit and Blade Runner-esque views. The parks offer free ping-pong tables. Food stalls sell dumplings and noodles late into the night. The Yangtze, Asia's longest river, runs alongside the city and a new pedestrian footbridge spans its banks. The bridge is supported by two giant circular towers that when illuminated at night are known locally as the Nanjing Eyes. Silhouette-like statues of javelin-throwers and cyclists dot the city in commemoration of when Nanjing hosted the Youth Olympics in 2014.
The city is a mix of old and new, says Zhang Lin, a staff member with Nanjing's Sister City Friendship Association, the counterpart to St. Louis' Sister City Committee. She doesn't use "old" lightly: It was the capital of China back in the third century. The wall surrounding the inner city was constructed in the 1500s. East of downtown, a hike through the botanical gardens and forest leads to a mausoleum constructed almost a thousand years ago.
Recently, Nanjing has developed a reputation in China as a smart city. With 53 universities and 800,000 students, it's a college town in the way that Boston might be called a college "town." As a way to retain graduates as well as attract talent, the municipal government recently implemented a new law giving city residency, a very important piece of status in China, to anyone who has a bachelor's degree. The municipal government here has also been quick to embrace new technology. Any interaction with the government, from scheduling a doctor visit to paying a parking ticket, can be accomplished through one single app. There are so many bike shares here — yellow ofos, orange Public Bikes, the list runs on — the joke goes that if a new competitor were to start up, it would have to first invent a new color.
About 200 miles east of Nanjing lies Shanghai, the second most populous city in the world as well as China's financial capital and biggest job market. High-speed rail means the two cities are only about an hour apart. With a scrappy attitude that should resonate with St. Louisans, Lin says Shanghai's alpha status is all to Nanjing's benefit. Smaller companies and startups have found a home in Nanjing. Nanjing also offers a lower cost of living and (slightly) more relaxed pace of life.
"Our relationship with Shanghai is not contrasting, not competitive. It's complementary," Lin says. "Shanghai can't develop to its next stage without Nanjing. Nanjing produces the talent needed in Shanghai through our schools."
"It really is an interesting sister city relationship," says Neal Perryman, a partner at the Lewis Rice law firm and board chairman of the St. Louis-Nanjing Sister City Committee. "St. Louis is a historically important city, but Chicago has kind of eclipsed it in some ways in the Midwest. Nanjing is a historically important city in China, but is smaller than Shanghai. There's some interesting parallels there."
Before Perryman joined the Sister City Committee, he'd always had an interest in Chinese history. Two of his three sons studied Mandarin at Saint Louis University High School, and he'd visited Nanjing in 2013 as a chaperone on one son's trip to the city with fellow students. He'd even hosted a student from the Nanjing Foreign Language School, Tong, who studied for a year at his son's school. His family enjoyed Tong's presence so much that two years later Sunny stayed with the Perrymans when she became one of the Jesuit school's rare female students. (Tong is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; Sunny is at Yale.)
After Perryman's trip to Nanjing, his son's Mandarin teacher suggested he get involved with the Sister City Committee. After joining, Perryman quickly found himself elected its chairman. But at the time not much was happening.
"When I came on board I think we had about $6,000 and had never filed a real 501(c)3 tax return because we'd never had any income," Perryman says.
The lack of action and funding stemmed from a fundamental disparity between how the two cities carry out international relations. In St. Louis, it's not anyone's job to maintain the sister-city relationship with Nanjing, whereas in its Chinese counterpart, these responsibilities are under the government's purview and covered by state money.
"We're all private citizens who take time off work to do this," Perryman says. "But on the Nanjing side, this is their full-time job."
The Sister City Committee met a few times and had good conversations, but a lack of money severely limited its capabilities.
Enter Hermann, the construction CEO from St. Louis, and JP, the school teacher from Nanjing.
By 2010 Hermann had more or less moved to China full time. He frequently treks back to St. Louis, where his two daughters live, but Shenzhen is where he prefers to be. Being in the city, which is often called the Silicon Valley of China, positions Hermann perfectly to consult both with American companies wanting to do business in China as well as with Chinese companies wanting to enter the U.S. The tropical weather doesn't hurt, either. More than once Hermann has messaged me a panorama of the ocean view from his apartment balcony. "As far as I know you can't find this view in St. Louis," he jokes.
Even as JP and Hermann became a bona fide couple, she stayed in Nanjing while he stayed in Shenzhen. The long-distance relationship suited them fine. JP's professional and family life were in her hometown and it was easy enough for the two of them to rendezvous. He accompanied JP as she walked her daughter down the aisle. JP, sometimes accompanied by her daughter and son-in-law, made trips to Shenzhen to take in the view.
In 2012 Hermann's daughters visited China to take in the sights and meet JP. Not long after that, the couple began planning JP's first visit to St. Louis so she could meet the rest of Hermann's family.
Flying to St. Louis the following summer, they changed planes in Chicago. To JP, Chicago looked "normal."
"But when I first landed in St. Louis," JP recalls, "I said, 'Where are the buildings? Where are the people?' That made Tim laugh."
She took to the city, though, visiting multiple times and exploring it in part through a camera's lens. After spending a lot of time photographing St. Louis' churches, in 2016 JP compiled the photos into a book. The couple arranged an exchange of photographers between St. Louis and Nanjing, and it was this project that put them on the radar of both the Sister City Committee in St. Louis as well as the Friendship Association in Nanjing.
In 2017, Nanjing foreign affairs officer Xia Yan contacted JP and Hermann with a proposal. The 40th anniversary of the St. Louis-Nanjing sister-city agreement was on the horizon (in 2019), and Yan was keen on there being an exchange to mark the milestone. Hermann and JP asked Yan what he had in mind. The foreign affairs officer looked to the couple and said, "Baseball."
In the following months various ideas were brainstormed and then scrapped. There was talk of putting together a team from St. Louis to play a demonstration game in Nanjing. But what if no one showed up to watch?
Hermann came up with the idea for two statues: one in Nanjing depicting an American pitcher and then, in St. Louis, a Nanjing catcher poised to receive his pitch. Already Nanjing has countless pieces of public art commemorating the recent Youth Olympics and sport in general; why couldn't a baseball player be among them? Likewise, St. Louis has plenty of statues of American ball players; why can't there be one of a Chinese national?
Hermann recruited Harry Weber, the sculptor behind the bronze statues of Lewis and Clark on the riverfront and the bull in front of the Stifel, Nicolaus building downtown. Weber was intrigued by the idea but thought a pitcher and a batter might be more appropriate than a pitcher and a catcher. Throwing the ball to a batter, he explained, means the batter might hit it and then something else will happen. There's a continuation. It's ongoing.
"The idea was to have them look like they were separated by 60 feet instead of 7,000 miles," Weber says. "The pitcher will be in his follow-through, and the batter will be in the early stages of his swing."
Furthermore, thanks to Weber's work crafting the statues of iconic ball players outside Busch Stadium, he had a good relationship with Bill DeWitt Jr. and was friends with Adam Wainwright. Maybe, Weber suggested, the pitcher didn't have to be generic.
Two bronze statues, one of which has to be transported to the other side of the world, don't come particularly cheap. Fortunately, Collins and Hermann has thus far given the Sister City Committee $250,000, filling the program's coffers.
A pair of statues can seem at first glance like a luxury, little more than a nice bit of cultural enrichment. But it's important to keep in mind that amid major gridlock and dysfunction at the federal level, sustaining sister-city relationships can really matter. The committees from both cities act as international matchmakers, facilitating introductions for entities in one city to find meaningful collaboration with entities in the other. How else would St. Louis' Cortex form a relationship with Nanjing's BioValley? The Missouri Botanical Garden with the botanical gardens in Nanjing? For more than three decades Saint Louis University High has been exchanging students with the Foreign Language School in Nanjing. In the early '90s, the Nanjing Foreign Affairs Office introduced University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Joel Glassman to Nanjing University faculty, and every year since St. Louis has benefited from Nanjing students coming into the region to study.
Will every introduction be a home run? Not at all. But the relationship creates the potential. Given the general chaos of the world, why wouldn't St. Louis want a sister two millennia older and 60 times bigger?
As Hermann puts it: "The question is, how we can both economically and culturally connect the two communities? It's going to have to be connecting people over and over and over again. And if I'm able to promote cultural exchange between the two cities, it wouldn't have happened if not for the love of a St. Louis man by happenstance for a Nanjing woman."
"You really connect people when people connect," Perryman adds. "People in Nanjing will notice when someone like Tong, who stayed with us, goes to St. Louis. His friends and family will say, 'Where's St. Louis?' Tong's going to London, but he'll always have St. Louis in his heart. Simultaneously, the students from [Saint Louis University High] or UMSL who go to Nanjing will have that place with them."
>In June, Nanjing Mayor Lan Shaomin visits St. Louis ahead of next year's 40th anniversary. He brings with him a delegation that includes Zhang Lin. They visit Cortex, Emerson and the Botanical Garden. They meet with Mayor Lyda Krewson.
In the evening the Sister City Committee hosts a dinner for the delegation at Kemoll's on the 42nd floor of One Metropolitan Square downtown, with its famous view directly overlooking the Arch grounds. It is a swanky affair with about 80 guests in attendance. Seated at the head table with Lan are St. Louis deputy mayor for development Linda Martínez, former mayor James Conway, Perryman, JP and Hermann.
Lan, speaking through an interpreter, says, "We take much pride in becoming the very first pair of cities between China and the United States. Over the past four decades we have forged very deep engagement which has further enhanced the understanding between our two communities."
Martínez, also speaking through an interpreter for the Mandarin speakers in the audience, says, "Today we strengthen a strategic partnership with an eye toward the 21st century by entering into three landmark accords with our Chinese friends. These framework agreements will foster joint innovation to ensure the next 40 years will be as fruitful as the past 40 years."
The three accords concern the two cities formally renewing their commitments to joint cooperation in the areas of business, research, education and cultural exchange.
The event has a familiar, convivial atmosphere fitting for two cities who have been partners for nearly four decades. Jokes are made about baseball and the warmth of Midwestern welcomes. Much shade is given to slow-footed San Francisco. Lan quips that Nanjing and St. Louis can exchange a lot of things, but that Nanjing can't compete in baseball. Half the room laughs when jokes are made in their native tongue; the others wait until Ding Zhao, who is kept busy as interpreter, catches them up.
One of the big reveals of the evening is that the two statues of baseball players won't be generic. The previous night Perryman got the OK from the Cardinals to put the statue of the Nanjing baseball player in Ballpark Village, and he also got the OK from Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright for the statue in Nanjing to be in his likeness.
Wainwright responded to the idea enthusiastically, Weber notes, remarking that there are a lot of statues of baseball players around the U.S., but how many ball players can say they have a statue in China?
"When this statue is in Nanjing, representing a connection between our cities, kids are going to walk by that and say, 'What is baseball?'" Perryman says. "And that will lead to them learning about our culture and our people in a way that is very beneficial to our understanding of each other."
The details of the 40th anniversary have yet to be finalized, but Perryman went to Nanjing in late July to discuss next year's plans with the Nanjing Foreign Affairs office. Very likely, he says, a group of St. Louisans will be going to Nanjing and a group of Nanjingers will come here. Since Lan has come to St. Louis, officials in Nanjing are keen to have Krewson visit. The Wainwright statue will likely be installed either outside the Nanjing Youth Olympic Stadium or, possibly, at a brand-new park dedicated to the sister-city relationship with St. Louis.
Hermann and JP were at the July meeting in Nanjing, too. But when they tell me about it, they're back in St. Louis. The couple, now officially engaged, is in the Gateway City because JP, who retired from her teaching job over the summer, has enrolled at UMSL. The last time she was a student was in China, when the country was still largely closed from the rest of the world; she's excited to study a more global curriculum.
If her initial English classes go well JP would like to move on to videography, eventually teaching Americans photography and videography while simultaneously teaching them Mandarin. Either that or she could go back to China and teach Chinese students how to take photos and shoot video while also helping them with their English. She'll have options. In the meantime, she's rented an apartment here and with Hermann's help is learning the finer points of driving in St. Louis traffic.
While JP studies in St. Louis, Hermann will still be in Shenzhen, though he plans to come back to his hometown every six weeks or so. Before he heads back to China he'll meet with various local organizations in the hopes that eventually the makeup of the St. Louis Sister City Committee will better reflect the city's diversity.
The last time I see Hermann and JP is just before the start of the school year. I ask her how she feels going back to school as a student after teaching for decades. JP responds by singing a few bars of "Shbo Shbo (Book bag, Book bag)," a song typically sung to children before their first day of school.
"Now all my friends back in Nanjing are singing that for me," she says.
Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at UMSL