Shanghai World Expo 2010

14 Jun

One couldn’t possibly write about visiting Shanghai in June 2010 and not mention the World Expo being hosted by the City for six months this year. China has gone all out to turn Expo into a big event that will renew Shanghai’s status as a global city. A new five hectare park was custom developed as the Expo site along the Huangpu River. It has been reported 18,000 families and hundreds of factories had to be relocated to make this possible. A whopping six new metro lines were also rapidly constructed in 2008-10 to facilitate mass access to Expo.

In total 190 countries accepted invitations to be part of Shanghai’s World Expo. Many of these agreed to design and build unique pavilions at the Expo site, where mainly Chinese visitors may learn something about the geography, history, contemporary society and cultural institutions that exist within their borders.

Expo is in your face in Shanghai. While the event continues almost every business in Shanghai is flaunting images, including huge inflatable 3D versions, the Expo Mascot Haibo. I’m not exactly sure what Haibo is supposed to represent. My immediate impression of this character is that he/she resembles either or both of a tooth or glob of toothpaste and therefore belongs in a Colgate commercial. Anyhow, as the entire city seemed on board with Expo, Alex and I forked out the 160 yuan each for tickets and went along to see what all the fuss was about.

My first impressions of Expo was that it was ridiculously crowded. On average 300,0 00 people visit the site daily. Numbers are expected to surge in China’s summer when students are on holidays from school. The crowds are so big that the majority of visitors must endure long hours waiting in queues to enter the country pavilions. I know I have a tendency to speak in hyperbole, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the queues to the largest and most popular pavilions, including the USA, Spain, and Japan buildings to name but a few, are more than three hours long at any point in the day. The queue into the Saudi Arabian Pavilion, which boasts the world’s largest IMAX screen, was an estimated eight hours long at the day we were at Expo. It is almost impossible to get into the China Pavilion – separate entry tickets are rationed and must be secured early in the morning of or days before your visit. I liked walking around the site and gazing at the buildings from the outside. And I enjoyed the festival atmosphere of Expo, which conjured fond memories of the Sydney Royal Easter Show and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Though I am not convinced that what you can see or experience in any of the pavilions is worth waiting in a line for three+ hours to see.

We were very lucky to be admitted into the USA Pavilion without having to queue; a friend of a friend was able to get us inside the building without any fuss. This huge Pavilion featured three large theatres that huge groups of visitors were shuffled through in groups to watch three short American films. Each movie was fun and we enjoyed watching the happy reactions of Chinese tourists to the films as much as we enjoyed the movies themselves. The first short film was my favourite, featuring a sample of citizens of the USA attempting to say a few phrases in Chinese, something like ‘Hello, Welcome to the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010’. The audience loved it and laughter filled the grand hall. The second film featured messages from Clinton and Obama and a dozen children representing a number of ethnic communities in the USA about a sustainable future. The third film was a Sesame Street-esq story about a sweet 10 year old guerrilla gardener making green spaces in her city block. Overall a positive exercise in soft diplomacy.

While we didn’t have any friends or even friends of friends working in the Russian Pavilion, Alex successfully talked his way to the front of the queue – in Russian of course! We didn’t think the ‘I’m Russian, let me in’ line would work, but agreed it was worth a shot. The Chinese security guards didn’t initially believe that Alex was Russian, but after he proudly produced a passport stating he was born in St Petersberg, we were escorted to the entry by a policeman. The inside of the Russian Pavilion was designed to resemble a magical garden. The fairy lights, giant flowers and toadstools were very pretty and complimented the Pavilion’s theme nice theme of working towards a sustainable future. Though I don’t think the displays told us much about Russia – the country or its people.

Late in the evening we were able to visit another handful of other pavilions. We saw the Czech, Sweedish, Greek, Turkish, and Iranian buildings. These were pleasant but not exciting enough to warrant further comments about. We had fun visiting the pavilions of smaller countries. At the Syrian stall Alex was identified by staff as a brother Arab and we were invited for a chat over baklava in the staff office. Not surprisingly the Pavilion of the DPK was depressing; on display was some old footage of citizens playing golf and bowling, presented alongside a replica of a local fountain. Old Russian books printed in the immediate post-Korean war period were also for sale in DPK Pavilion the souvenir store.

The Future of Expo

At the end of the day I can’t see Expo surviving into the future in its current form. In short, the internet makes Expo redundant. If someone living in Australia for example wanted to know about another country at a basic superficial level, he or she will find it much quicker and cheaper to go to Wikipedia then wait for hours in a queue to discover the same information at Expo.

This event can only be popular in a country like China whose population is wealthy enough to travel to Expo and pay entrance fees high enough to cover the cost of such a grand event, and unable to easily access he same information online because of, say, tough internet censorship. I can’t think of any other country in the world that meets both criteria for Expo success.

Background

You may not know that the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is part of a long international tradition that started with London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. In its early years Expo established a reputation for teaching the citizens of host nations about other alien and exotic countries and their peoples, and introducing global audiences to the world’s latest technologies and scientific discoveries (such as electricity!). Over the past century and a half the the event has also become known for leaving its host cities with architectural landmarks. The most well known of these is indisputably the Eiffel Tower, erected at the Paris World Fair site in 1889. Closer to home, the beautiful Exhibition Building was constructed in Melbourne when the then British Colony of Victorian hosted the Melbourne Exhibition in 1854. The China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo has been touted by many as a future national landmark. I don’t know much about buildings but the China Pavilion certainly suitably humongous and unique enough to become a national icon.

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