A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Can Sister Cities Projects Change Neighborhoods?


by Leslie E Young



In the city of Tacoma, Washington there are multiple examples of the influence of Sister Cities relationships on our neighborhoods. Herein we focus specifically on Tacoma’s relationship with Fuzhou, in the Fujian province of China.

In 2015, the existence of the sister city relationship with the city of Fuzhou changed the Lincoln neighborhood in the South End of Tacoma, even if temporarily. When the current president of China, Xi Jinping, came last year to visit Lincoln High School (Pierce County’s most culturally diverse high school), it was because a relationship with President Xi was already in place. This longstanding relationship originated many years ago with the inception of a trade and economic development project with Fujian province. The leader of this initiative was Connie Bacon who, at the time, was head of the World Trade Center in Tacoma. Due to the partnership between our two port cities, Xi, at the time the regional head of the Communist Party in Fuzhou, visited Tacoma in 1993 to help to develop a project scope between the two cities. One year later, the sister city relationship with Fuzhou was born and Xi began to develop personal relationships in Tacoma.

Chinese culture is highly relational in nature, and without relationships in place, many things simply will not happen. As stated in this September 2015 article from the Christian Science Monitor: “ ‘These personal contacts are unique to Xi,’ says David Bachman, a China specialist at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. ‘In contrast to earlier Chinese presidents, he had some limited contacts in the US in his early career.’ “ (Sheasley 2015) Later on, an education element was added, because many community members had advocated for cultural and educational components, rather than simply viewing a sister city relationship from the lens of economic benefit. This occurred around 2006 - the year that the relationship with Lincoln High School was born.



Since Lincoln High School and the Lincoln neighborhood were the recipients of this visit, many preparations were made prior to the visit which benefitted the school and the surrounding neighborhood. Included were repairs long needed in this underfunded school and improvements to the surrounding neighborhood. The buzz of the impending visit created ripples that are still occurring. The event was widely publicized in the press (local, domestic and international). During his visit, President Xi visited an AP Government class (taught by nationally award-winning teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling), met with members of the football team, and received a customized jersey imprinted with his name. A welcoming ceremony was held which was attended by the Mayor of Tacoma, City Councilmembers, other local and state dignitaries, students, and local Lincoln community members.



President Xi was greeted with remarks by Mayor Strickland and Principal Erwin. President Xi and China’s First Lady also made remarks. Following this, they presented the school with gifts. Included in the gifts were a large number of Chinese books (Lincoln HS has a Mandarin language program), and ping pong table sets (to the extreme delight of the students!). A big surprise came at the end of President Xi’s speech: 100 Lincoln students will have the opportunity to travel to China at the expense of the Chinese government.


Xi Jinping, President of China


Being present for the visit inside the building (while first going through a layered and stringent security check with Secret Service and many other agencies present), I also saw an interesting contrast outside in the neighborhood, and this was also documented through video and photography by locals and the press. Lincoln HS is in a primarily Vietnamese business district. This visit brought Vietnamese political protestors and others who expressed their views on China by protesting either in person, by writing letters, or on social media. This visit opened up some interesting discussions on diplomacy and politics. Not everyone in Tacoma was happy about President Xi’s visit.


The Sister Cities International Film Festival is another homegrown Tacoma project that has grown and changed over the years. Recently having moved from its original location at an independent theater, the Blue Mouse, in Tacoma’s Proctor District, this film festival occurs each year (see http://www.sistercityfilmfest.org/cultural-programs for more information on this year’s festival and related cultural events). This film festival also brought business to local restaurants and other establishments by bringing filmgoers to the area. The locale switched a couple of years ago to the University of Puget Sound campus, which now hosts the festival at no charge to the organization. This helps to sustain the nonprofit Sister Cities organization, brings additional people to campus and is a tool for UPS to involve students, faculty and community members in international relations and culture – it is advertised through the university’s foreign language departments. Bill Baarsma, a former mayor of Tacoma and retired professor at UPS, has also helped to forge this relationship.


cover photo


This program is a tool to showcase our sister city relationships and the corresponding cultures of the corresponding countries. However, it has, like President Xi’s visit, also produced some controversy over the years. I discussed some of the history of this festival with Debbie Bingham, Sister Cities Program Manager with the City of Tacoma. During the Israel film festival one year, there were protests. One year, during the Morocco film festival, it gave rise to criticism of the treatment of women in Morocco. Some of these may be viewed through a certain lens as perhaps a negative effect of these events, but it is also a great mechanism to bring forward dialogue in Tacoma about important international issues which affect people here and around the globe. The result is the creation of net positive effects for Tacoma. It allows us to bring a local focus to international economic, political and social issues.

The third example that is a part of our Sister Cities relationship with Fuzhou is Chinese Reconciliation Park. This park is on Tacoma’s waterfront, in the Old Town neighborhood (one of Tacoma’s oldest neighborhoods) and serves a much greater purpose than a typical park would. Tacoma, unfortunately, has a very dark history with Chinese immigrants. On November 3rd, 1885, the Chinese, who helped to build the terminus of the Northern Pacific railroad, were forcibly removed from their places of residence in Tacoma by a mob, which reportedly even included the mayor and other prominent city leaders. This mark of xenophobia and racist aggression is one that has been felt in Tacoma for many years. Most West Coast cities of moderate size have Chinatowns - but not Tacoma. Reconciliation Park was created at the direction of citizens, some of Chinese descent, who wished to reconcile Tacoma’s past with its present. The park was developed through the creation of a nonprofit, which raised money for its first phase. There is an ambitious plan to expand the park, but what has been built already is a testament to change.



Through the Fuzhou partnership, a ting (a traditional Chinese structure which takes the form of a pavilion, with a roof, but no walls), was brought over and all workmanship on this structure was performed by Chinese citizens. All materials were also imported from China. This park brings many visitors and was also a recipient of part of the Chinese delegation in 2015 which brought President Xi to Tacoma. It also houses reminders, placards, and carved stone, which helps Tacomans - and anyone who visits Tacoma – to understand the atrocities that were committed in this city against “the other” and reminds us always that we need to be inclusive in our quest for a well-rounded and diverse city. In this spirit, it provides a beautiful and intentional place to gather and to honor our friends overseas, diplomacy, history, and continue to cultivate our international friendships.


In summary, although we reflect here on just one, sister cities relationships in Tacoma have forged change, conversation and reflection – and Tacoma has many sister cities around the world. We believe that these relationships are an important part of creating an atmosphere of cultural diversity and exchange, promoting a greater number of international relationships, and fostering better communication both locally and internationally. Each project was separate, but has fused a relational bond that not only is progressive for Tacoma, but each project has also created permanent effects which have left an imprint in each neighborhood. We believe that more of these are both possible and positively beneficial for Tacoma, and other cities, as well.







http://www.sistercityfilmfest.org/ (accessed June 4, 2016).

Bingham, Debbie, interview by Leslie Young. (May 24, 2016).

Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation. http://www.tacomachinesepark.org/ (accessed June 5th, 2016).

Cooper, Kathleen. "Lincoln District mix of protests, pride as Chinese president visits." News Tribune, September 23, 2015.

Martin, Kate. "Chinese president’s Tacoma visit cost city, school district $94,511." News Tribune, November 1, 2015.

Sheasley, Chelsea. "China's Xi Jinping Brings Ping Pong Diplomacy to Tacoma High School." Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 2015.

Tacoma expels the entire Chinese community on November 3, 1885. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5063 (accessed June 5, 2016).


Blue Mouse photo by Candace Brown

President Xi Jinping photo by Sondra Chamberlain

All other photos by Leslie E Young




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