Delegation from Weihai to Cheltenham
On Tuesday 20th April 2004, Dr Song Yuanfang, the Mayor of Weihai City, Cheltenham's Twin Town in China, will be heading a group of 26 people which will include leaders of business and tourism, and a nine member traditional Chinese orchestra.
My experience when talking to people in Cheltenham about this visit is that, while many have great interest in and knowledge of China and indeed have travelled to that country, very few seem to be aware of the fact that Cheltenham is actually twinned with a town there. This is not an official secret! I hope you might be able to give some publicity to this visit and increase public awareness of this link.
Weihai is a very scenic coastal resort, with a moderate climate and vast stretches of sandy beaches, surrounded by green hills and leafy forests, which attracts large numbers of tourists each year, both from within China and from abroad. Perhaps more of these will be from Cheltenham in the future and hopefully such interchanges will not consist merely of official delegations, as has usually been the case in the past. Weihai has won awards in China as an environmentally friendly garden city.
Weihai is situated on the coast in Shandong Province in northern China, facing Korea, and there is a regular ferry service to South Korea. There is also a direct rail line to Beijing. It was occupied by Britain for about 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Also nearby is the picturesque town of Qingdao (or Tsingtao, pronounced 'Chingdow'!), which was occupied at about the same time by Germany. A consequence of this latter occupation is that Qingdao has a distinctly Bavarian appearance (the Chinese call it China's Switzerland) and its most famous export is Qingdao Beer, founded by the Germans in 1903, and available from your local Chinese restaurant! Alas, Britain did not leave a similar legacy in Weihai, which is not a producer of British style beer.
Much of the information, which follows, was dictated by Hon. Alderman. Jim Pennington, who was largely responsible for the original decision to link our two towns. fortunately Jim is currently in hospital, recovering from a broken hip, but he is still paying an active role in this visit and has asked me to get in touch with you.
The delegation will be bringing with it an impressive exhibition of scrolls and photographs of Weihai. These will be on public display in the Town Hall between 9:30am and 5:30pm from 20th April to 22nd April. There will also be a free public concert given by the Chinese musicians, from 5 to 6pm on the 20th in the Drawing Room at the Town Hall. This event is a development of the Friendship Link, which was initiated by a handful of local residents almost twenty years ago.
In 1985 a small group of five members of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding spent a month investigating urban developments in Shandong Province in northern China. At the meeting to plan their itinerary, held on their arrival in Beijing, the group, led by Councillor Jim Pennington, accepted the suggestion from the local Chinese Friendship organization, that Weihai might be suitable for a link with Cheltenham. Both are mineral water spa towns, holiday resorts with modern technological zones, and are surrounded by beautiful scenery.
This study group recognized that the populations of the two towns were similar at that time (around 100,000). The group were particularly impressed by a huge contoured model of the ten year development plan for the city, which had already under way for 2 years, for dealing with housing, manufacturing zones, road building, railways, airport and harbour development.
The fact that Britain had actually controlled this area from 1898 to 1931 by treaty, using the Qing Dynasty island base there as a summer training area for the Far Eastern Fleet, and that evidence of buildings, schools and hotels from that period still existed (though much was destroyed during the Japanese occupation), added to the interest. This island, Liugong Dao, is situated some 5km off the coast, in Weihai Gulf, and is one of the local tourist attractions, with a regular ferry service from the mainland. Its climate made it an attractive summer resort for the British Navy, wishing to escape the summer heat of Hong Kong.
The Cheltenham Twinning Committee, recognizing the potential scale of this venture, encouraged the formation of the Weihai Link, a support group which included Sir Charles Irving and Eric Thompson, both Dowty directors, who collaborated with other local businesses such as Smiths, Spirax Sarco, Watts Tyres, to help entertain visiting civic groups and organise exchanges. Local colleges also gave support in training interpreters.
The Weihai Link is non-political and its aim is to increase knowledge and understanding between the peoples of our two towns, and to promote trade, aid, academic and cultural exchanges. Weihai also has twinning links with Sochi, Cheltenham's twin town in Russia.
One of the chief administrators of Weihai during the British occupation was Reginald Johnston, who was appointed tutor to the last Emperor of China. (In the famous Bertolucci film “The Last Emperor”, his character was memorably portrayed by Peter O'Toole.) Johnston was regarded as a good and fair magistrate, and he was highly versed in the language, history and culture of China, for which he had a great respect. The British presence gave protection to the people of Weihai, during a period of internal strife between various groups struggling to gain mastery of China after the fall of the imperial dynasty. This period is vividly described in a book “Weihaiwei Under British Rule” (Weihaiwei was the former name of Weihai) produced in Weihai. It contains many fascinating photographs of that period, most of which were actually discovered in a house in Cheltenham! The Weihai Link actively assisted the Chinese authors of this book, and is currently working to produce an English translation - much of this project is now completed in draft form. [The book is now available for purchase, see Weihaiwei book page]
Weihai is now 6 times the size of Cheltenham, the town has some 500,000 inhabitants and administers a region containing 2.6 million people. It has won the title of Cleanest and Greenest of Chinese Cities. It contains some of the most advanced technology within its new zones, many under foreign joint ownership. Companies from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea have a presence there, alongside European, American, Canadian and Australian firms. Its airport is capable of handling any size of plane, and scheduled flights are available direct from the UK. Regular internal flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Harbin are available. Weihai contains two universities and 20 foreign language schools and is home to more than 100 top level medical institutions. Its inhabitants enjoy one of the highest levels of life expectancy in China and Weihai has the lowest crime rate of anywhere in China.
The visitors will spend the morning of the 20th April sight-seeing around Cheltenham and will assemble for a lunch break in Parklands Community Centre at noon, which will include a skittles demonstration. At 2pm the Mayors of Weihai and Cheltenham will address the business, tourism and educational representatives of Gloucestershire in the Town Hall and there will be a video presentation about Weihai. Dr Sun, the Weihai Mayor, is a fluent English speaker, having received his PhD in Canada. Following this there will be opportunities for discussions about business opportunities and the inclusion of Weihai in tours of China. Following tea, and a concert of instrumental music on traditional Chinese instruments, the Borough and the Weihai Link will entertain the visitors to dinner before their departure for the next stages of their visit, which will include Birmingham, Edinburgh, Athens, Rome and Switzerland.
Cheltenham is a very popular destination for students from China, and many come to the town to attend the business school in Gloucestershire University, or simply to study English. The University currently has some 120 students from China, ranging from first degree to PhD level. The Weihai Link has actively helped many of these students to settle down in Cheltenham and many have become good personal friends and have come to regard Cheltenham as their second home! Chinese is now offered as part of the curriculum at some of our schools and students from Cheltenham schools have visited China.
Further details of the twinning link may be obtained from: Ian Johnson, Chairman of the Weihai Link. The web site <%XL ("http://www.weihai.gov.cn/weihai/en/default.asp",http://www.weihai.gov.cn/weihai/en/default.asp) %> is a good source of information about Weihai.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) China Eye magazine Autumn 2004
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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