Keeping Their YaYas Out (of Oakland) 

The city's bid to score a panda pair from China seemed to some a slam dunk. But then something went awry.

Two years ago, an Oakland delegation led by Vice Mayor Henry Chang toured China in an attempt to build business ties and convince Chinese wildlife officials to loan the city zoo a pair of precious, endangered pandas. Touting his high-level personal connections in China, along with the Bay Area's proximity to the UC Davis veterinary science program and Silicon Valley, Chang made the rounds with Chinese dignitaries who control the fate of the rare animals.

The pitch was simple: In exchange for the pandas, Oakland could provide China with access to veterinary and biotech resources no other American city could offer. In addition, Oakland -- with its ideal climate for pandas -- would build a world-class facility for the animals in Knowland Park. The delegation expected the pandas would pay off by drawing swarms of tourists to the city zoo and raising the port's profile on the Pacific trade scene. After much diplomacy, including a $300,000 gift from Oakland to Chinese officials to sweeten the deal, a pair of pandas named YaYa and LeLe was finally loaded onto a Federal Express plane in April and shipped -- to Memphis.

Memphis, once considered by some a distant second to Oakland in the panda hunt, scored the bears by preemptively building a $16 million Chinese-style exhibition facility. The Memphis Zoo is now selling $40 panda packages to tourists, and all manner of toys and souvenirs are flying off the shelves, according to a recent New York Times profile of the zoo and its newest inhabitants.

Perhaps no one tastes the sour grapes as much as Peter Pang, an international trade attorney who splits his time between Oakland and China. Pang claims credit for the idea of bringing pandas to the city, an idea he says sprang out of a conversation with his longtime friend Henry Chang, whom he blames for Oakland's failure to acquire the animals. "I have known Henry for over fifteen years and we are friends, and I was a strong supporter of Henry's," says Pang, who spent $75,000 from his own pocket on the panda deal, in an e-mail from China. "Now I am not so sure. He has single-handedly avoided making the commitments that would have made the deal work."

In his e-mails, Pang faults Chang for "lack of organization and lack of willingness to appoint a focal person. China responds to success, relationship, friendship, honor, and power," he explains. "I had the team -- the dream team -- in place: private business, public figures ... my father went to school with former President Zhang Zemin. We had it in our hands, and Henry decided to go a path on his own."

The councilman's old friend claims Chang derailed the deal by pursuing ties with a rival bureaucracy, in order to claim a greater share of the credit. "So he started another group and the word went out: Henry cannot be trusted," Pang says.

Chang admits that the deal was botched, but says Beijing officials played bait-and-switch with the city by promising a panda pair and then changing their minds at the last minute. He blames a rivalry between Chinese bureaucrats for "delaying" Oakland's bid. "They are very jealous of each other," he says. "We got caught in between."

According to Chang, the Oakland delegation initially expressed interest in acquiring the pandas through Pang's contacts at the China Wildlife Conservation Association. At some point, Chang says, he cultivated his own connection at the Beijing Zoological Society and decided to pursue the pandas with help from that group, thus offending the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The switch was necessary, Chang says, because the association broke its promise to loan the city two wild pandas -- a new policy only allows the Chinese to loan captive pandas to foreign zoos, he says. What's more, the councilman adds, the people at the zoological society wanted nothing to do with Pang because they don't know him.

"We found out that we've done something to make someone unhappy," Chang says. "We moved from one group to the other, and now the Beijing Zoological Society told us we have to work this out with the China Wildlife Conservation Association and tell them why we didn't continue with them. They don't want to feel like they were dumped."

While Chang acknowledges that the city owes the wildlife association a letter of apology, such a letter has yet to be written, much less delivered. Slow reflexes and a lack of respect for the seriousness with which the Chinese government treats pandas have in fact marred Oakland's quixotic quest from the beginning. On the 2001 visit to China, Oakland officials committed a series of foppish mistakes that caused the city a loss of face.

Upon arrival, Chinese officials reminded the Oakland delegation of long-promised gifts that had yet to be delivered.

Also, tardiness on the part of city officials repeatedly caused anxiety among the Chinese; former City Manager Robert Bobb committed the grave no-no of arriving ten minutes late to a meeting with the vice-governor of Sichuan Province.

In a country where close relationships and mutual respect trump all, such carelessness (including a one-year lapse of communication between the city and Chinese wildlife officials) dropped Oakland down the list of prospective panda guardians. The only people who don't seem to realize this are the city officials who were part of the original delegation.

"We're working on it," says City Council President Ignacio de la Fuente, when asked about the progress of the panda project. "Unfortunately, it's a very lengthy process. It takes a very long time to develop contacts and build a relationship."

De la Fuente seemed surprised to hear that Memphis had received the pair. "When did they get pandas?" he asks. After considering the new information for a moment, he continues: "We've been working on this, and will continue to work until we accomplish this goal -- as long as it doesn't involve the investment of millions of dollars. We have something no one else has," he says. "We have UC Davis."

All sides seem to agree on that point, though the shtick is starting to wear a little thin now that Memphis has sealed the deal. "Our bid was so strong that insiders told me that they couldn't see any reason why we wouldn't get the next pair," Pang says. "In fact, what we proposed along with UC Davis was so right-on that there was no way Memphis could match. The strength of the Bay Area biotech sector, the strength of a nationally recognized veterinary school, the strength of the Bay Area climate for pandas, and the largest zoo area for natural habitat was virtually a slam dunk. But somewhere along the line, they [Oakland officials] didn't want to go through with it because of shortsightedness and, frankly, they never really understood what it takes to get it going."

For his part, Chang denies that Memphis beat Oakland's bid. He is not ready to concede defeat in the panda hunt. "This is not a competition," he says. "Memphis was always going to get their pandas, and we're going to get ours."

Chang, too, began to play up the strong connection between Oakland and UC Davis, but when asked for a contact at the veterinary school his mind went blank. "Doctor ... Doctor ... I don't remember the name," he says. "You should call Joel Parrott at the Oakland Zoo."

Parrott was unavailable for comment, but in an interview with the Express in 2000 he underscored the downside of housing pandas -- which need tons of bamboo and specialized housing and medical attention. Chang estimates construction of a panda facility would cost more than $8 million, to be paid for by corporate sponsors he declined to name. "One of the great challenges of this whole project will be the money," Parrott said in 2000. "I think it's realistic to expect that over a ten-year period, we're looking at $20 million, and it could easily be more than that ... just looking at the bamboo farm alone could be daunting."

The $300,000 that Oakland has already given Chinese wildlife officials in an attempt to curry favor has been wasted, according to Pang. "The money was given to a pseudo private/public organization like an alumni association," he says. "Then the wolves came, and apparently the money disappeared."

Chang and De La Fuente say that money was slated for panda research -- the city council president traveled to Beijing last year to present the check. Chang claims the Chinese matched those funds, but Pang counters, after a quick call to officials at the Chengdu Panda Research Facility -- the money's intended recipient -- that the facility has received little to nothing.

Chang laughs at this accusation. "He's very unhappy because he's the one who initially started out our contacts with the Forestry Department in China," he says of Pang. "In China, everything we do is based on connections ... he got knocked out of the picture."

While unwilling to guarantee that pandas will frolic in Knowland Park anytime soon, Chang offers no signs that he's giving up on his dream. "Right now, we are moving forward at full speed with the Beijing Zoological Society to sign an agreement," he says. "We were told a few days ago that they will be ready to sign with us in September or October. We want to push very hard. Within six months, we want the pandas to come over. But we don't want to push too hard, because we still have to build a facility."

Yet the contention that this deficit-ridden city would shell out for a new panda facility, at least in the short term, now seems dubious at best. That, certainly, would be the opinion of Peter Pang. "Politically, China cannot now support another pair to the US," he says. "So I think Oakland is fried. ... With help from myself and our group, we can position Oakland to be on the waiting list, but to get a pair of pandas in six months -- I will have to ask Henry what he is drinking."

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