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Mayor Minds His Manners in Asia

Times Staff Writer

Let’s say you’re the mayor of Los Angeles on an official visit here and you crack a joke about politicians.

Bad move.

Or perhaps you bring a lovely crystal vase wrapped in white paper, the color for funerals.

Oops.

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Luckily for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, his staff has compiled a protocol playbook for his East Asian trade mission to China, South Korea and Japan that contains enough do’s and don’ts to give Emily Post a headache.

In China, for example, refusing food is impolite, the guidelines reveal. Instead, if presented with something you don’t want, you should pretend to eat “by pushing it around your plate with your chopsticks.”

In South Korea, you shouldn’t put your arm around someone else’s shoulders -- physical contact with strangers is a no-no. And it’s best to avoid conversation about Communism -- and your host’s wife.

In Japan, meanwhile, be careful not to point (it’s rude), but be sure to slurp your noodles (a sign that you’re enjoying the food).

These social taboos and niceties occupy eight pages inside a thick dossier that Villaraigosa’s staff prepared for him and the roughly three-dozen business executives and labor leaders now traveling at his side through China.

And how is Villaraigosa holding up so far in a country with ancient, intricate customs?

Not bad, say some of his hosts.

“He’s super,” said Wang Pingsheng, director general of the Guangzhou Foreign Investment Service Center, giving the thumbs-up sign when asked how the mayor is doing. “He really performed well at today’s function.”

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Pingsheng was referring to Villaraigosa’s appearance with her and several of Guangzhou’s top citizens last week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles-Guangzhou sister city relationship.

The Guangzhou delegation received Villaraigosa and his contingent in a large meeting room at the White Swan Hotel, where the mayor bowed slightly and shook hands when he met his hosts.

He spoke slowly but firmly about friendship and mutual goals, as a Chinese translator followed along, during an exchange with Guangzhou’s mayor. Then, in a ceremony that was stiff and formal, Villaraigosa and his counterpart signed an economic cooperation agreement in a nearby banquet hall and posed for group pictures.

During his week here, Villaraigosa has met with a variety of Chinese dignitaries, including some of the country’s most senior government leaders. He has called on the vice mayors of Beijing and Shanghai, and the Chinese Minister of Commerce, Bo Xilai.

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Villaraigosa said he’s comfortable socializing with the Chinese because he follows the golden rules of relationship building: Be genuine, be real.

“I come with assets,” he said. “I come from a Latin American background. Respect is important. The values of the Chinese are things I’m comfortable with. The fact that I have my foot in two cultures gives me a comfort level culturally.”

Back home, Villaraigosa is a kinetic, physical man who loves to throw his arm around friends or squeeze someone’s arm to emphasize a point. Here in China, he has restrained that impulse when around officials, but not so much when talking with students who draw out his animated side. He’s admittedly not the scholarly type, but he is playing on his strengths: understanding people and being a quick study.

And that means paying attention to details.

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In China, it’s disrespectful to stuff business cards into your wallet and then into your pocket. Many Chinese accept them with two hands and study them for a moment.

Villaraigosa is collecting enough business cards to start a company, but he has yet to violate the in-the-pocket rule. He also offers his card with two outstretched hands, his name printed on the back in Chinese.

“I think the most important rule is to give people your respect,” he said. “I genuinely respect the Chinese culture and people.”

But he isn’t giving all that respect alone. Several aides are tending to the finer points, ensuring that Villaraigosa brings the right gift to the right person, and prepping him with names and talking points, whether he’s meeting with officials in the northern port city of Tianjin or shipping executives in Shanghai.

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Villaraigosa likes his presents to have a personal touch, his aides say. In Shanghai, for example, that meant presenting the vice mayor, an avid basketball fan, with a purple-and-gold Lakers jacket (in addition to the official Tiffany & Co. crystal).

At the center of all this etiquette management is Elga Sharpe, a graceful native of Aruba who serves as the mayor’s director of protocol.

Sharpe, who wears French scarves and pearl earrings, had the same job with former Mayor James K. Hahn, and accompanied him on a similar Asian trade mission in 2002. She developed the protocol guidelines for that trip, speaking with consulates and tapping her own knowledge of international travel.

She speaks five languages -- including French, German and Dutch -- and worked for the Belgian Consulate in Toronto. She also served as director of language services for the 1994 World Cup and was an overseas flight attendant for 15 years.

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In Asia, Sharpe is lugging around big bags filled with turquoise Tiffany boxes, the delicate tokens Villaraigosa presents to his hosts. She’s also the one who keeps track of gifts given to him, which are piling up in her hotel rooms, awaiting shipment to Los Angeles.

Sharpe has an encyclopedic knowledge of the unwritten codes of decorum.

And all that training serves her well. When asked to compare Hahn and Villaraigosa as ambassadors of Los Angeles, she demurred.

“I do protocol,” she said, “not politics.”

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But Sharpe did say that she believed Villaraigosa was well-prepared for his Asian mission, the result not of any special training but of extensive interaction with foreign leaders during his first 15 months in office.

This is his second overseas trip as mayor; his first was a visit to England a couple of weeks ago to talk about security and the environment at the invitation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Back in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa has entertained Blair, Mexican President Vicente Fox, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In addition, the consuls general from China, South Korea and Japan have paid courtesy visits to City Hall and held dinners for Villaraigosa at their official residences in advance of his trip, Sharpe said.

Still, Sharpe believes that the protocol guidelines offer a valuable game plan on foreign soil. And the directives, for the most part, stand up to scrutiny from some critical eyes in China.

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One of Villaraigosa’s Chinese interpreters, Stella Yao, reviewed the rules at a reporter’s request.

A European Union-trained interpreter who has served Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and prominent foreign leaders, Yao said the guidelines are mostly on the mark, if a little strict and dated in some cases.

The guidelines tell visiting dignitaries, for example, to be persistent in offering gifts because the Chinese will “traditionally decline ... three times before accepting.”

But Yao said, and the week’s meetings confirmed, that gift-giving is a natural conclusion to meetings. Not a single Chinese official has refused the goodies offered by Villaraigosa.

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As to the subject of unappealing food: Villaraigosa doesn’t have to push it around his plate, as the instructions advise. Simply admit the truth.

“You can just say it looks nice but happens not to be my taste,” Yao said. “You can be very frank.”

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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