Our sister city is not a nice girl

The Baltimore Sun

It's been a while since I've offended an entire town, and I've learned my lesson: If you're gonna pick on someplace, make it farther away than Arbutus. So I turn my attention to China, which, when you think about all the poison toys and toothpaste they've sent us lately, is asking for it. Xiamen, China, to be precise.

Here's the scoop on Xiamen, which I got from a guy named Oliver August, former Beijing bureau chief for the Times of London.

"I am the author of a forthcoming book on the most colorful and corrupt city in China," he e-mailed me. "The city is called Xiamen - and happens to be twinned with Baltimore."

The town is one of Baltimore's 10 Sister Cities.

"Xiamen is the hometown of China's most wanted man, Lai Changxing, an illiterate peasant who cheated the government out of $3.6 billion. He built himself a replica of an imperial palace with a three-mile moat (the Forbidden City in Beijing) and a personal pleasure palace called the Red Mansion housing hundreds of modern-day concubines. He played golf at night under flood lights and became the biggest private trader in modern China, all in and from Baltimore's twin city."

Is any of this news to the folks with Baltimore's Sister Cities program, which in June announced it was sending a 6-foot crab sculpture to Xiamen? No comment from Renee Samuels, director of the Mayor's Office of International and Immigrant Affairs. But August more than made up for her reticence.

"Xiamen is a Chinese boomtown," he wrote in another e-mail. "If that conjures up Dickensian images of sweatshops and shantytowns, you're not wrong. ... Maps are out of date within months. Publishers print new editions four or six times a year. The city is changing that fast. ... Clusters of houses vanish along with their inhabitants, entire blocks of Mao era dwellings disappear overnight, replaced by skyscrapers and shopping malls that appear to be erected in months. Whole boulevards are moved and public parks come and go seemingly at a whim. Right in front of me, a vast urban experiment is being conducted, all ardour and annihilation."

August wonders if Baltimoreans "have any idea who their twin is?"

Of course, given the sort of "annihilation" going on in Baltimore, it's fair to ask: Do the people of Xiamen have any idea who THEIR twin is?

Marriage works, and so, apparently, does divorce

Those "Marriage Works" billboards around town have always bugged Joe Surkiewicz, even though he's been happily married for 31 years.

It's a "truth-in-advertising" issue for Surkiewicz, spokesman for the Legal Aid Bureau, who noted that "somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of first marriages" fail.

Besides, he added, "My wife's first marriage [stank]."

So Surkiewicz had a laugh the other day, when he was cycling home from work and spotted one of the billboards defaced in Hampden. Someone had whited out "works" and added another word, which cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.

That inspired Surkiewicz to go to the Web site www.marriageworks.com "to see if there's a disclaimer there that would say a sizable percentage of marriages do [stink]. I was looking to see if there was some honesty there, after seeing this refreshing stab at truth in advertising in Hampden."

He was shocked to find the site wasn't part of some sort of combination public-health/morality campaign or "cheesy PR Ad Counsel uplifting thing." It was a collection of links to online dating sites. One promised, "Meet People Who Want Sex. Get [Sex] Tonight!"

Turns out that Web site is not connected to the billboards. They come courtesy of a nonprofit called Campaign for Our Children, which spreads its pro-marriage message at www.marriageworksUSA.com.

That site doesn't have the disclaimer Surkiewicz was looking for. It also lacks racy online dating links.

Connect the dots

Mike Leonard, a features correspondent for the Today Show, was at Mount St. Mary's University recently filming a piece that will air this month. He was accompanied by his father, who graduated from the Mount in 1939. "The vignette for the Today show is Mike's gift to his 91-year-old father," said university communications director Linda Sherman. "Mount St. Mary's University is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and Jack Leonard received a numbered Bicentennial coin in honor of his visit from University President Thomas H. Powell. The number? 39, of course for the Class of '39." ... Linda Brinson, editorial page editor for North Carolina's Winston-Salem Journal, wrote a column about meeting Maryland's first pooch on a summer trip to Annapolis. Scout, a dog belonging to Martin O'Malley and family, yapped at Brinson and her relatives as they walked past the governor's mansion with their own dog. "[P]eering through the gate, we realized that we were at the Governor's Mansion - and that this ridiculously fierce creature must be the governor's dog," she wrote. "My husband, drawing on his many years' work in public schools, began to reason with the terrier. Soon the barking subsided."

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