Connie Bacon had a big dream in 1993. It was nearly undone by a poor menu decision.
More than 20 years later, the man who turned up his nose at Bacon’s spaghetti and meatballs is now the president of China. And this week, Xi Jinping will make a return visit to Tacoma.
It all started when Bacon was working as executive director of the Tacoma World Trade Center, a job that came with gravitas. She’d previously served as assistant to Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, but moved on when Gardner left office.
When Bacon dreamed of making Tacoma a sister city with Fuzhou, the capital of China’s Fujian province, she and her staff at the World Trade Center were in position to help make it happen.
“The Chinese were just opening up to the idea of investing and doing business in a Western way,” Bacon said. “We had to teach others how to do business with the Chinese.”
How different were the two styles?
“The first time we sent a delegation to China, our top delegate was (Washington’s) Secretary of State Ralph Munro,” Bacon said. “The Chinese way was to match delegate to delegate. If you sent a mayor, they’d have a mayor in their delegation.”
Sending Munro put discussions on a faster track.
Bacon had loved China since she and husband Albert visited in 1983.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but that first visit I felt very serene,” she said “I liked the people, and I always felt safe there. In more than 20 visits, I always have.”
In the ’90s, Chinese cities were willing to initiate cultural and art exchanges with the West but were more reluctant to do business. Bacon and her group wanted business connections she hoped would benefit both cities.
Michael Fowler, now a director with the World Trade Center, was something more than an interested observer in 1993. He had a master’s degree in international relations with China.
“The key to doing business with the Chinese is to build relationships first,” Fowler said. “That was the foundation of building a sister city, to establish relationships, and Connie did that.”
After the U.S. delegation made several visits to China, the Chinese reciprocated.
Coming to the U.S. on one of those visits was Xi Jinping.
Xi was then a member of the Fuzhou Municipal Party Committee and became the president of the Party School in Fuzhou in 1990.
To put it in more familiar terms, he was a county-level Communist party official.
What did Bacon have going for her in the early negotiations?
“Beginner’s luck,” she said. “We were pretty green, but had persistence. I just kept pushing, kept talking, and if something didn’t work, took another approach.”
When a small Chinese delegation visited Tacoma in 1993, Bacon decided to have the entire group come to her home for dinner — and she did the cooking.
“Connie served them shrimp and avocado and cilantro in a vinaigrette, and they loved that,” said Albert Bacon, Connie’s husband of 60 years. “Then we served spaghetti and meatballs. That was a disaster.
“When they first saw it, they actually backed away — they weren’t even going to try it. One tried a bite and clearly wasn’t pleased.”
A translator informed the Bacons that tomato sauce presented this way, on noodles, was not normally part of the Chinese diet.
“I told them through the interpreter that it was the kind of meal our family ate a couple of times a week,” Connie Bacon said. “We both came away understanding the other.”
But no one ate the spaghetti.
Still, the Chinese delegation — and Jinping, especially — thought the invitation to dine in a private home was warm and kind.
A little more than a year later, Tacoma and Fuzhou were sister cities. Bacon and Jinping, however, would lose touch.
“There was no reason to stay in touch; we’d accomplished what we set out to do,” she said. “People with Tacoma were communicating with the people in Fuzhou. I haven’t seen Xi since 1994.”
Bacon was elected a commissioner to the Port of Tacoma — again and again and again — and is now approaching her 20th year in office.
Xi Jinping became president of China in March 2013.
This week, Jinping will visit the Northwest, spending time at Tacoma’s Lincoln High, among other stops. The diplomatic mission could have begun anywhere in the United States, but begins here in part because Jinping apparently insisted on it.
“I thought he was a neat guy when we met in ’93, but who knew he’d become president?” Bacon said. “I guess the whole message is, relationships matter.”
Jinping has requested Bacon’s presence at a Seattle banquet, or in Tacoma, and she is both delighted and honored.
“I expect Xi will be thoroughly professional and presidential,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll greet him with a bag of spaghetti.”