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MAYOR IN EAST ASIA

At a Grinding Pace, He Keeps His Edge

October 12, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — We pulled out of Beijing at 7 a.m., the start of another 15-hour day on the road with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

This was Day 4 of Villaraigosa's 16-day trade mission to China, South Korea and Japan. Once again, the pace of Los Angeles' indefatigable mayor was punishing. By day's end, it would show on the faces of the 35 or so business and civic leaders traveling with him -- although not the mayor.

We first sped to the city of Tianjin, about 75 miles southeast of the capital, to see what Chinese officials say is the nation's largest container shipping harbor, with trade ties to 300 world ports, including Los Angeles.

There, Villaraigosa greeted business leaders, signed a couple of economic agreements, had lunch with the city's executive vice mayor and toured a museum before grabbing an airline flight to Shanghai -- the world's largest cargo port -- in the humid south.

We arrived here after dark, the city's constellation of skyscrapers illuminating the night.

We had only 15 minutes to unpack at the Ritz-Carlton downtown before heading to yet another Villaraigosa appearance: He was the featured VIP at a fashion show inside a snazzy Golden Eagle department store, strutting down a catwalk with slender models showing off clothing made in Los Angeles.

The mayor officially opened the store's first "Made in L.A." clothing section.

By this point in the day, some of us were feeling haggard and hungry. Villaraigosa looked as fresh as he did 12 hours before. He was wearing an immaculate dark suit, a silver tie and a white rose in his lapel. He bopped his head up and down to club music blaring from loudspeakers. His back had been bothering him this week, but you would never have known by his thumbs-up attitude.

"He's practically a celebrity. Everyone knows his name," the fashion show's host, Los Angeles businesswoman Sabrina Kay, told the crowd. "Everyone wants a piece of him."

Villaraigosa watched the show from a seat toward the front of the catwalk. Several members of his delegation were there too, including his friend, county labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, and S. David Freeman, the president of the city's Harbor Commission.

The show, in a corner of the store near the perfume counters, attracted Shanghai's paparazzi.

Guests drank champagne in fluted glasses. Bright studio lights gave it a Paris ambience. A backdrop featured the word "Vogue" next to the Los Angeles city seal above a cutout of downtown Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall.

After the fashion show, Villaraigosa dashed to a meeting with executives from Air China, his aides said.

I bolted as soon as he posed for pictures with the models.

I had a deadline to meet and I had to get some sleep in a life that has become a blur of ceremonial appearances with hot tea, granola bars on the bus, packing and unpacking and always rushing late to the next event.

"It's almost like torture," one of the mayor's friends said.

Tonight, we sleep in Shanghai. Tomorrow night, Hong Kong. Friday, Guangzhou.

"What did we do Monday?" asked a staffer, grasping for details just 2 days old. "It seems so long ago."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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