St. Louis' Nanjing Connection: How an International Love Story Is Bringing Two Cities Together 

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Nanjing, like much of China, is going through a construction boom. - RYAN KRULL
  • RYAN KRULL
  • Nanjing, like much of China, is going through a construction boom.

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."

A plaza in the Nanjing "New Area" lit up at night. - RYAN KRULL
  • RYAN KRULL
  • A plaza in the Nanjing "New Area" lit up at night.

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.

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