Chinese-T’bonne connection expanding

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Despite rumblings from some business owners and local government officials, a partnership between Terrebonne Parish and a Chinese province appears moving ahead at full speed.

And an accelerator has now appeared locally, in the person of Yu Guochum, deputy director of the General Foreign Affairs Office of Weihai City. Her job is brokering business people. And her passion right now is fostering relationships between Terrebonne Parish and her hometown.

Sponsored by the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority, Yu’s extended visit shall include addresses before service organizations and local business groups, and one-on-one meetings with business owners exploring how their products might fare in the Chinese markets.

“Very enjoyable,” is how Yu describes her visit. “The peoples’ lifestyle here, the people are very friendly and the food is incredible.”

“My city, Weihai, really wants to work with the United States,” said Yu, during an interview at the Quality Inn on South Hollywood Road, her current home away from home and base of operations. “We want to cooperate, we want to make friendship, we want to make the life better for both of our countries and people.”

While the name of Weihai might not be as recognizable as Beijing to Americans, it is a major city, with a population of more than 2.8 million people, according to its 2010 census.

Yu’s employer is the Chinese Foreign Affairs office, which is in charge of all affairs related to other nations. In China, she routinely receives and hosts overseas delegations. In addition to representatives from Terrebonne Parish, Weihai has hosted groups from Australia, Japan and various European nations.

Now Yu is being hosted, and during her stay is extending a helping hand to business owners wanting to know more.

A highlight of her visit will be the Louisiana/China Business Alliance L3C Chinese New Year luncheon, scheduled for 11 a.m. Feb. 25 in Lafayette, at the Petroleum Club.

TEDA’s CEO Steve Vassallo will discuss joint ventures and investment opportunities between the U.S. and China. Among them are retail, chemical and petroleum production, seafood and restaurants, alternative energy, offshore technology and marine services, including safety.

Yu will discuss the five-year economic development accord between Weihai and Terrebonne Parish, signed in 2012 by Vassallo.

A roundtable business discussion will follow.

“Terrebonne Parish’s actions in working with Weihai City demonstrate strong grassroots ties between the U.S. and China,” said Xiao-Lu Li, president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana/China Business Alliance L3C. “According to the U.S. Treasury, China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, owning more than $1.2 trillion in bills, notes and bonds. I believe that by working together, as exemplified by Steve Vassallo, this joint venture of two communities will bring economic development and job opportunities for both sides. This action is equally valuable for the people of Louisiana as for China’s investment in the U.S.”

Although friction has existed for many years between domestic seafood producers – particularly Tri-parish region shrimp fishermen – and the Chinese government, Yu and Vassallo, along with some local business people, say they believe trade differences can be overcome through creative marketing.

Currently, seafood processors throughout the Gulf coast are seeking tariffs on shrimp from China and other nations. But some in the industry also say there are other options.

Yu says there is a big market for U.S. seafood in China, and is hoping some producers here will work with her to find ways to capitalize.

“Any seafood which is tasty,” she says, is what her countrymen crave. “There is a huge market.”

Greg Voisin of Motivatit Seafood, Terrebonne’s biggest oyster producer, is a believer.

“We have sent one container of oysters through our partnership, two to Hong Kong and one to Taiwan,” Voisin said, explaining how to him, the partnership with Weihai can serve as a gateway to many places. “The relationships that are developed in China are much different from here. We base a lot of our relations in the private sector. In China the public and private are very similar, and often one and the same. So once you make contact and generate good will, the Chinese government opens up many opportunities and avenues for collaboration.”

For business promoters in Terrebonne Parish, opportunities to make Weihei a direct trading partner with local companies is a dream come true. They see Weihsi as a gateway to even bigger Chinese markets.

Vassallo has been acting as a host and sherpa for Yu, and is bullish on how the relationship can translate to dollars and cents for local business owners.

And what does Weihai have that Terrebonne Parish wants? For one thing, Mardi Gras beads and throws.

“At the lower end of their technology, for Mardi Gras, they make everything we throw,” said Vassallo. “If we import them, then other places in Louisiana can look at Terrebonne Parish as a direct source of those goods.”

“We want to be a gateway from China to the whole United States,” Vassallo said of the Tri-parish region. “We want Weihai to be our gateway to all of China.”

Dr. Wing Fok and Lucy Chun, vice chair and chair (respectively) of the Asian Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, and Steve Vassallo, CEO of the Terrebonne Parish Economic Development Authority, are pictured at a Chinese New Year event at Five Happiness Chinese Restaurant.