SHENZHEN, China -- During the 40-minute van ride from the harbor to the downtown of this bustling city with 11 million people, Mike Bell couldn't stop leaning over to point out the window.
"See how clean it is?" the Toledo mayor asked. "And look, 10:30 at night, and see how many cars there are on the road?"
Mr. Bell and a delegation of about a dozen from Toledo touched down in Hong Kong Thursday after a 16-hour flight, then quickly boarded a ferry to cross the harbor into mainland China. Looking a bit exhausted, the group seemed a bit eager for sleep, but it was not meant to be.
Despite the late hour -- nearly 11 p.m. local time -- the group was gleefully greeted at their downtown hotel by the two Shenzhen investors who created Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. in the United States in order to buy The Docks in East Toledo from the city.
Wu Kin Hung and Yuan Xiaohona, along with their children and other family members, welcomed the mayor and his group to China with hugs and bouquets of flowers, which in America might be reserved for longtime friends.
Both Mr. Wu and Ms. Yuan, whose English given name is Tina, spoke through translators.
Mr. Bell said he wants to foster Toledo's relationships with the two Chinese investors and other businessmen here -- a cultural requirement in China before striking a deal.
This trip marks the second trade-mission trip to China for Mr. Bell, who has made international investment a keystone of his second year in office. The mayor, who also may travel to Japan later this year, has said several times he will continue to break down any barriers to foreign investment in northwest Ohio.
Dean Monske, chief executive of the Regional Growth Partnership, and Scott Prephan, a Perrysburg real estate broker who represents Dashing Pacific in Toledo, joined Mr. Bell for his second trip to China. Like their trip last year, Mr. Bell will meet with potential investors like Ms. Yuan and Mr. Wu.
The mayor's parents, Norman and Ora Bell, also joined their son on the trip. They intend to see the sights while Mr. Bell and some of the other delegates are in meetings, and they will be at the wedding Saturday night of Jimmy Wu, Mr. Wu's son.
"By tradition, we cannot see each other for three days before the wedding," the younger Mr. Wu said of his fiancee.
Simon Guo, a longtime Chinese translator and deal broker, and the man who connected Mayor Bell with Mr. Wu, Ms. Yuan, and a number of other Chinese investors, met the delegation after the ferry crossing and offered an impromptu history lesson of Shenzhen during the van ride.
"Thirty years ago, this was a small fishing village, and now it has millions of people," Mr. Guo said. "The major industry is electronics … and Shenzhen is also establishing itself as the second largest financial center in China next to Shanghai."
The rate of growth in the city is staggering by most measures. Scaffolding lines the outside of buildings under construction and fully occupied skyscrapers with more than 30 floors are common.
Also among the Toledo delegation are Jessica Xie, vice president of the Hylant Group; Kathy Carroll, president and chief executive of the Toledo Symphony; Amy Chang, a cellist with the symphony; Dean Niese, chief operating officer of the Mannik & Smith Group; Mark Schroeder, associate director of external affairs for the University of Toledo, and Jim Lindsay, president of Louisville Title Agency.
Jen Sorgenfrei, Mr. Bell's public information officer, is the only other city employee in the delegation. Packed in her luggage were gifts for the group's Chinese hosts throughout the nine-day trip, which will take them to at least five cities. Gift-giving is a big part of Chinese culture, said Mr. Schroeder, who has been to China several times on UT exchange and recruitment business.
"Since we are traveling, it is not expected of us because they know that is not our custom," Mr. Schroeder said. "But yes, that is very big here."
The Toledo Symphony's role in the business and cultural exchange between Shenzhen and Toledo was almost stamped in red ink Thursday. Mr. Guo said he is working to arrange a performance for the symphony in Shenzhen next year. Ms. Carroll said she supports the idea and her plans for early next week include a trip to the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
The start of the group's first full day in Shenzhen began about 9 p.m. Thursday Toledo time -- or 9 a.m. Friday Shenzhen time, as Shenzhen is 12 hours ahead of Toledo. The day started with a breakfast followed by a tour that included seeing buildings developed by Mr. Wu.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171.