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Desperately Seeking City

Desperately Seeking City

A Postcard from Harbin

At the world’s only International Sister City Museum, located in far northeast China, a guide leads a group of Harbin middle school students past displays for each of their hometown’s twenty-seven “twins.” “Our government’s friendship with these cities promotes peace and understanding,” the guide intones, as the children stare at silver-plated spoons from Sunderland, Puntas Arenas postage stamps, sake made in Asahikawa, and a Holy Zohar from Giv’atayim. “Forgetting about history means betrayal.”

The kids shuffle across the museum’s polished marble floor and run their fingers along its walnut wainscoting, evidence of the building’s (unnoted) past as the Danish consulate when Harbin was a Trans-Siberian railway hub, a century before. The students halt at Rovaniemi’s stuffed lemming, sniff at Daugavpils’ wool scarves, then sidle to the jersey of ping-pong champion Werner Schlager, proud son of Weiner-Neustadt.

“Where is that?” asks a boy, breaking the silence. “What country are these cities in?” Typically for China, the museum displays no maps, and the students are confused and restless—until the tour guide spots me, puzzling over the display of Harbin’s newest BFF, my hometown of Minneapolis. “Here is our American friendship city!” she exclaims. “This must be our American friend!” After the admiring ooohs die down, I explain in Chinese that I’m just visiting, not part of the exhibit, then turn to the jewels the Minneapolis mayor’s office has sent to represent my proud city, home of the Walker Art Museum, Prince, an elegant skyline, and a chain of lakes. The students and I stare at an arrowhead, printed Target and Best Buy logos, a stuffed Goldie Gopher, and boxes of Tuna Helper and Betty Crocker Angel Food Cake mix. “It gets very cold there, just like here,” I add, seeking common ground. “Winter is long, and many people drink too much.” The guide interrupts to intone with rehearsed enthusiasm that Minneapolis has twenty-one universities and thirty theaters. But the children’s eyes have drifted away to the neighboring puppets of Ploiesti. Wherever the hell that is.

* * *

China loves friendship, especially the official, yet personal, sort. Anyone who has spent time here has heard weile womende youhao—“It’s for our friendship”—enough to head for the exits before learning what Our Friendship wants this time. (It’s never a quiet night at home with a book). I first arrived in China in 1995 with the Peace Corps to learn that—due to a past, anti-imperialist propaganda campaign—I had been repainted as a “United States-China Friendship Volunteer” (Mei-Zhong youhao zhiyuanzhe). For two years in Sichuan I was entreated into doing anything—English Corner, karaoke of Carpenters’ songs, hot pot, heroin—with the assurance that it was for Our Friendship. You know a phrase has saturated the masses to the point of meaninglessness when even junkies seriously invoke it; I remember replying that Our Friendship would instead be having a bottle of Blue Anchor beer. Our Friendship was never the same.

Beijing—with forty-seven sister cities—has quickly become the Kevin Baconesque fulcrum of degrees of civic separation; it’s how one can connect Islamabad to Tel Aviv.Harbin is working to rehabilitate the sentiment. The International Sister Cities Museum (“Friendship City Exhibition Hall,” or Ha’erbin guoji youhao chengshi zhanlanguan in Chinese) asks nothing of its visitors. Entrance is free of charge. There is no café or gift shop, and no hawkers out front urging you to buy postcards, snacks, or socks. Shaded by trees and set back from Tiandi Street, the two-story, lemon-colored building looks like it boarded the train in St. Petersburg, got off in Harbin, and decided to settle down. A plaque informs visitors in English that the building was made in 1920 of “brick-wood structure and the Eclectic architectural style.”1 Instead of the expected notice identifying the museum as a Patriotic Education Base hangs one declaring it an education base for “International Peace and Friendship for the Young People.”

iconLinda Mealey-Lohmann
Inside the Minneapolis exhibit

And here they are, moving silently past the displays over a floor so polished it looks illuminated, reflecting the chandelier light. The windows are shaded by the heavy red drapes that always catch fire in movies, and the marble stairs ascend in a sweep that also looks cinematic—someone in a gown or waistcoat should descend them any second now. This building has been in use across Russian, Nationalist, warlord, Japanese, and Communist eras, and I am about to ask a schoolgirl if she thinks we’ll see a ghost, when the guide reminds us not to “nibble, litter, or spit. Do not take pictures or use your cell phone. Keep silent.”

We look at some coins from Edmonton, and a hoodie with the price tag on it from MacEwen University (Go Griffins!). Aarhus displays a rocking chair and a hand-written letter from mayor Jean-Marie Vanlerenberghe, whose penmanship puts that of South Taranaki mayor Ross Dunlop to shame. The last time I saw handwriting like his was when opening a note passed during eighth grade math. But then I read Mayor Dunlop’s looping words—expecting hearts to dot the i’s—and learn that not only is South Taranaki home to the world’s largest dairy plant, but that its people know the Sister Cities Museum will “help citizens of Harbin learn more about customs, cultures, landmarks and location of your international friends.” To a jaded visitor, this is eye-rolling stuff, but the room is so still you can hear a child’s stomach growl, and feels even quieter because no one laughs.

Sister cities are serious in China; they’re international collector’s stamps—like UNESCO World Heritage Sites (forty-two and counting) and Olympic gold medals (thirty-eight in London)—showcasing the nation’s culture and development at once. To a child’s eye, they are, after all, for our friendship. So I drop the sense of wizened expat irony and do as the tour guide has asked, explaining to the children, in Minnesota-accented Mandarin, how Mill City life on the mixixibi (Mississippi) river is illustrated by the displayed box of Pillsbury Funfetti brownie mix.

* * *

The sister city movement—“town twinning” in Europe—dates to the ninth century, when Le Mans, France formed a partnership with Paderborn, Germany. In 1931, Toledo, Ohio invited Toledo, Spain, to form North America’s first twinning. The trend accelerated after World War II as a form of reconciliation, and Cold War propaganda—in 1956, the Eisenhower administration founded Sister Cities International (SCI), now a nonprofit organization, based in Washington, D.C., which coordinates the 1,992 partnerships that 594 American cities have formed abroad.

In these post-Evil Empire days, twinning’s rationale, according to SCI’s mission statement, is to “build global cooperation at the municipal level, promote cultural understanding, and stimulate economic development.” In other words, it’s for our friendship.2

American cities being the casual, frank metropolises that they are, often have multiple partners. “May I have more than one sister city?” asks the FAQ on SCI’s website. The response sounds therapeutic: “SCI encourages communities to consider linking with partners in different countries in order to expose your community and citizens to a diversity of cultural experiences.” But not so fast, Mr. Huggytown: “Having more than one sister city should only occur if your community feels that it has the necessary resources to support multiple affiliations.” Imagine the personal ads on Craigslist: Desperately Seeking City: Single, attractive, mixed metropolis seeking foreign partner for long-term ties and travel. Size matters: No townships, please.

China formalized its first partnership in 1980, between Shanghai and San Francisco, and as seen at Harbin’s International Sister Cities Museum, Chinese metropolises are clamoring to add partners to their rolls. (And have them break up with Taiwanese mates; Mobile dumped Kaohsiung to pick up Heze and Tianjin.) Beijing—with forty-seven sister cities—has quickly become the Kevin Baconesque fulcrum of degrees of civic separation; it’s how one can connect Islamabad to Tel Aviv. Some of the pairings seem intuitive: Lhasa with Boulder; Wuhan with Pittsburgh and Manchester; the tiny Jilin town of Jiaohe with equally forlorn Folsom. Shanghai has sixty-seven partnerships (far surpassing Chicago, which leads American communities with twenty-eight sister cities but has the better website), and most are fellow ports: Nagasaki, Busan, Liverpool, Vladivostok, Alexandria, Cork, and Oslo, among others.

Making friends with cities that look or produce like yours is one thing—Changchun meet Flint; Fuxin, this is Gary—but it takes real confidence for Zhengzhou to look in the mirror and think, “Let’s call Napoli!” Shenzhen may have Houston, Perm, and Reno, but how did it meet Kingston, Jamaica? Xishuangbanna with Austin looks right, but only if you squint. Even a misanthrope has to feel good to see the rusting Bohai port Huludao hook up with glamorous Las Vegas. It’s already bringing culture back home.

But at what cost? Proponents of sister cities point to win-win stories such as Chicago’s Sister Cities International Soccer Cup, and exchanges—along with funding from the White House’s 100,000 Strong Initiative—that have led to forty-two Chicago schools teaching Mandarin to 12,000 students. This fall, the public libraries of Indianapolis and Hangzhou swapped visits and “understanding of best practices.” Last May, Chengdu inaugurated its International Sister City Week, hosted this year’s national sister city conference, and is sending residents to twelve of its twin towns to strengthen exchanges. The efforts of the cities of broad shoulders and hibiscus notwithstanding, detractors dismiss the sister city movement as a financial sinkhole of bureaucratic junkets, which don’t always end well.

In a recent China Daily article, Chengdu’s Foreign Affairs Office director, Qiu Haiming, said twin city ties promotes friendship and tangible development, citing Phoenix’s efforts to persuade Intel to move a factory there in 2002, as well as Sheffield’s help in building an eco-centric twin town development. “Instead of focusing on the number of sister cities, Chengdu stresses quality,” he added.

But even long-term relationships can sour.

In February, Nanjing suspended its thirty-four-year relationship with Nagoya after that city’s mayor expressed doubts that Japanese soldiers massacred civilians in Nanjing in 1937.3 In fact, they killed between 250 and 300 thousand people. A Nanjing government spokesman said the mayor’s remarks distorted historical facts and “seriously hurt the feelings of the Nanjing people.”4

When it comes to historical memory, let alone modern trade and technological links, the concept of town twinning seems as quaint as a teen’s Facebook page—OMG Nanjing is mad at Nagoya! Madison is friends with Vilnius! Austin likes Old Orlu!—and just as trivial. But imagine a world where Mobilers can freely visit their Havanan counterparts, or Pyongyang sends its citizens on trips to its twins. Two years ago, its only partner cities were Moscow, Jakarta, and Kathmandu. Now it’s added Baghdad, Chiang Mai, Dubai, and Tianjin.

* * *

The tour group trudges upstairs, past a display noting that Harbin’s Jewish community was once the largest in East Asia. “Yarmulke” is, within the walls of the Sister Cities Museum, a teyoude xiao mao—a “special small hat.” We stare at a rusting flatiron, illustrating that “Harbin flourished as a modern, open and inclusive city.” No mention is made of the restored synagogue a short walk away, or of St. Sophia’s, one block north of the museum. Context is elsewhere.

I look for it in Chiang Mai (tapestries), Cagayan de Oro (an ostrich egg), Sunderland (a photo of George Washington, whose parents emigrated from there). Griffith also sent an egg—an emu’s—along with kangaroo skins and bottles, now empty, of Yellow Tail wine. Asahikawa’s beer bottles are drained, too, as is the vodka from Sverdlovsk Oblast. The only untapped bottle is from Daugavpils, which sent a small offering of balsam liquor. Behind me, the children stare at a boomerang behind glass. The hall is silent, and dimly lit. We are looking at dry bottles, locked-up weapons, and there in the corner, at Rovaniemi, a pile of unopened letters to Santa Claus.

“The most favored person residing in Rovaniemi is Santa Claus,” the guide intones. “Every year there are hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting his office at the Santa Claus Village on the Arctic Circle.” Those who can’t make it, such as a child named Max Lee of 139 Boundary Street, Kowloon, send letters instead—here is his letter now, on display in Harbin. (Max, if you’re reading this, know that Santa himself donated your letter to the museum. For our friendship.)

The guide leads us downstairs for a summing-up—Harbin, international city, friendship, development, modern, friendship—and the children stare, and I’m thinking, this sure beats being called laowai (foreigner), to say nothing of being charged with forging ties with Iraqi cities your country recently bombed. The museum is closing, and as the kids file outside, I ask the model-pretty guide which of Harbin’s “friendship cities” is her favorite.

“I like them all.”

“Which friendship city do you want to travel to first?”

“It doesn’t matter. All would be fine.”

“Which friendship city do you think has the most delicious food?”

“Each has its merits.”

“I think Minneapolis is the best.”

I expect more static platitudes. But the guide says, in a tone that makes clear I am the dumbest kid she has dealt with all day, “Home is always the best.”

* * *

I grew up eagerly anticipating the latest issue of National Geographic for the maps, which wallpapered my bedroom. When you’re from a place like Minneapolis, surrounded by a continent on all—nearly equidistant—sides, it’s natural to wonder what’s holding you in—one reason Minnesotans, and Midwesterners, make up a disproportionate number of Peace Corps volunteers. It’s a ticket Out There.

Minneapolis’ sister cities then were Santiago, Chile, Ibaraki, Japan, and Kuopio, Finland. We didn’t have a cool sign like Los Angeles, marking distances. Instead, I had my maps, and pins marking far-away cities, and questions about what life was like Out There.

And here’s what it looked like this gorgeous autumn morning in our sister city, Harbin: high blue sky, elderly opera singers in Stalin Park, and a morning stroll with KFC coffee past signs for the Harbin Pharmaceutical Group’s Old Cadre Hall and the Harbin Pharmaceutical Group’s Real Estate Corporation offices. It was a very early-21st century China walk, never passing the original thing, but its shadows—the restored wainscoting of the Longmen Hotel, the synagogue’s repainted façade, the renewed cobblestones along Zhongyang Boulevard. Harbin Pharmaceutical Group Welcomes You to Harbin! read the sign near St. Sophia’s Eastern Orthodox cathedral.

Until recently, the church’s green domes were not visible from the street, shrouded by surrounding blocks of flats. The building itself was turned into a storeroom, its red-brick walls slathered in yellow painted slogans. Now it is a small city museum surrounded by a square that seems to enlarge each year.

There is a green wooden bench next to a planter of yellow marigolds being bothered by black butterflies. A little girl feeds pigeons, a boy blows bubbles, women walk past holding parasols, a couple are wearing matching Angry Birds t-shirts, and the sounds are bus honks and dialect: ayamayas and en’es. Dragonflies buzz the marigolds, a woman leans against St. Sophia’s to be photographed, and a man struts past with his handpurse tucked in his arm like a riding crop. Another follows him, holding a brown, string-sealed FILES envelope with both hands. Hot dogs and popcorn are sold from a cart. When you travel, everything can look new, and the mundane becomes interesting. The city is on display, and you—in China especially—are also an exhibit. A grandfather cradles an infant with urgency toward the marigolds, spreads the slit of his pants, and holds him as he waters the flowers. I watch them; they watch me. Our expressions are exactly the same. We’re twins.

* * *

Harbin International Sister Cities Museum
89 Tiandi Jie
Open 9am-4:30pm Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
Phone: (451) 8768-6620


  1. Harbin is unique among Chinese metropolises for its diligence at identifying and posting its colonial-era architecture, even that which has been repurposed. The Sister Cities Museum has a twin nearby in the former American Consulate at 289 Dongdazhi Jie, now home to a branch of the Harbin Bank. This showcasing of its past is a recent, tourist-driven phenomenon. For background on the historical transformation of the city from a Russian outpost, see James H. Carter’s fascinating book, Creating a Chinese Harbin (Cornell University Press, 2002).
  2. One of SCI’s current directives is the “Iraq and American Reconciliation Project,” which pairs Denver with Baghdad, Dallas with Kirkut, Philadelphia with Mosul, and other Iraqi cities with Fresno, Tucson, and Gainesville.
  3. A spokesperson with Nagoya’s City Hall has since said that Kawamura’s words “represent just his own opinions.” The city government also said it would abide by the stance adopted by the Japanese government which is that, “Japan’s slaughter and plunder against civilians in Nanjing is undeniable.”
  4. Nanjing’s actions were not the first political suspension: San Francisco mayor Diane Feinstein suspended relations with Manila in 1983 over the unexplained assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, ...
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