As Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn flies off today on a trade trip to Asia, a downtown sign pointing toward L.A.'s sister cities could serve as his compass. That sign, however, has already threatened to knock the mayor's diplomacy off course.
At 1st and Main streets, a stone's throw from City Hall, the oversized street sign indicates the directions and distances of Los Angeles' 20 sister municipalities. When the marker went up in September, officials at the Chinese Consulate were incensed that one arm pointed toward "Taipei, Taiwan."
The implication that Taiwan is a nation contradicts the United States' "one China" policy -- to say nothing of the view of the People's Republic of China that the island is a renegade province.
"We expressed our concerns very quickly, shall we say," said consulate spokesman Lai Po.
To Taiwan's local diplomats, the sign looked fine.
They appreciated L.A.'s "friendly gesture" toward their capital city, said Chung-Chen Kung, deputy director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.
Caught in the middle of this international incident was Councilman Tom LaBonge, who had been behind the creation of the 32-foot Sister City Monument. He got the idea after watching an old "Road" movie, starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby."It's very exciting to see so many people turn their necks to see the sign ... but I didn't realize the challenges that exist between the people" of Taiwan and mainland China, LaBonge said. "Everybody's very passionate."
LaBonge asked the U.S. State Department for advice.
At dinner this week, he consulted the visiting mayor of Berlin, another L.A. sister. The councilman also talked to Sister Cities International, the Washington organization that matches cities to improve relations.
The group often sorts out seemingly small disputes between China and the island formerly called Formosa, said Cynthia Maka, Sister Cities' director for Asia.
Chinese delegates have stormed out of the organization's conferences at the sight of Taiwan's flag, and the Taiwanese have registered their own share of complaints.
To keep the decorative street sign from distracting Hahn on his 10-day tourism-and-trade mission, a rush order was put in to alter the sign.
By Thursday it matched the policy of the United States and Sister Cities International:
"Taipei Municipality, Taiwan, China."
The Chinese were pleased. But to the Taiwanese, suddenly the sign was "not a very good gesture," Kung said.
"We will not intervene -- we are not a Communist regime," he said. So Hahn will still be welcomed Nov. 26 in Taipei.
But Los Angeles should know that bowing to pressure from the People's Republic "will create a very uncomfortable feeling for the people living here who are originally from Taiwan," he said.
Los Angeles has sisters on every continent, and all 20 cities with which it has such ties are listed on the downtown sign -- from Athens to Mexico City, St. Petersburg to the Chinese port of Guangzhou, formerly Canton.
To please everyone in this latest dispute, Sister Cities' Maka suggested that Los Angeles strike country names from its monument.
More optimistically, she wondered whether the spat might present an opportunity for L.A. to broker lasting peace between mainland China and Taiwan.
"Maybe we can bring them together," she suggested, "to start talking more -- in a safe place."
For now, that place probably isn't at 1st and Main.