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

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He Jian Ping (better known as JP) and Tim Hermann at JP's condo in St. Louis. - TOM HELLAUER
  • TOM HELLAUER
  • He Jian Ping (better known as JP) and Tim Hermann at JP's condo in St. Louis.

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."

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