Expo Fever Mixed with Disillusion in Shanghai

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Andy Wong / AP

A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands watch while visitors line up to enter Spain's pavilion at the World Expo site in Shanghai on May 20, 2010

The rest of the world is gearing up for a certain heavily anticipated sporting event, but Shanghai could care less: Five weeks after the World Expo opened, the city is still in the midst of full-blown world expo fever. On a recent balmy evening at the expo grounds, groups of giggling, camera-toting visitors, young and old, dashed from pavilion to pavilion with an excitement usually reserved for roller coasters, not exhibitions of Turkmenistan's industrial prowess. Outside the most popular venues — those of Japan, South Korea, Spain and the U.S. — thousands lined up patiently, waiting for up to two or three hours for a chance to get in. Children flashing "V signs" with their fingers posed for photographs with Haibao, the jaunty blue expo mascot that bears an uncanny — some might say deliberate — resemblance to Gumby.

But for all the enthusiasm and pride the expo is generating in most Shanghainese, who see it as a chance to show off their remarkably fast-changing city to the world, a certain level of disillusionment has also begun to set in. In blogs and chat rooms, some have complained about the extravagant price tag of some $58 billion, and questioned whether the money couldn't have been better spent elsewhere. The provocative Chinese blogger Han Han lambasted the relevance of a world expo in an era of globalization: "It's sort of like when a domestic clothing brand is very hot and heavily advertised. You wear the clothes and feel badass and extravagant, but when you go abroad and ask around, you discover it's actually a second-rate brand."

Artists, too, have taken a swipe at the distinctly corporate feel of the event and the countless exhibitions boasting of different countries' technological achievements. Cai Guo-Qiang, one of China's best-known artists, has curated a counter-expo exhibition at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum that celebrates the lives of the poor and their contributions to society. Under the cheeky theme "Peasants: Making a Better City, Better Life" — a riff on the official expo logo "Better City, Better Life" — Cai has jumbled together a collection of rough-hewn inventions of poor people from all over China, such as airplanes and submarines made from scrap metal and a roomful of robots created by an amateur Beijing inventor named Wu Yulu, a couple of which have been programmed to paint like the artists Jackson Pollock and Damien Hirst. "These peasants' objects are different from the type of national, corporate power connected with the expo," the New York-based Cai told NPR in May. "Until now, you only hear the collective voice of China but this is about individuals' voices."

At the expo itself, however, the concerns are more centered on the interminable waits in line and the sometimes disappointing exhibitions awaiting visitors inside the pavilions. Despite some hand-wringing by organizers over sluggish attendance after the expo opened in early May, the crowds have surged with the warmer weather, with a half million people passing through the gates last Saturday alone. Officials have boldly predicted the expo will attract some 70 million visitors before it closes on Nov. 1. But with the hordes have come problems: line-jumping, pushing and flared tempers. "I hate waiting in long queues. I just gave up," says Caffy Qin, a Shanghai property agent who left after two hours having only seen a few minor pavilions. Last month, the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that a group of visitors grew so frustrated waiting to get into the German pavilion, they started chanting, "Na cui, na cui" — or "Nazi, Nazi" — prompting the head of the pavilion to demand extra security from expo organizers.

Still, for the most part the crowds have been patient, if not always impressed. Britain's $36 million "Seed Cathedral" pavilion, a striking orb pierced by 60,000 slender transparent rods that each contain a different seed, has come under particular fire. "Boring," sniffed Qin. "Inside there is nothing to see!" Interactive pavilions have proved more popular. Despite the fact the U.S. venue was panned by the local media for being slapped together at the last minute (the Bush administration botched the financing for the project, leaving it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to plead for an eleventh-hour $60 million from corporate sponsors) visitors have been wowed by the infomercial-like film series inside. "They're speaking Chinese," one older man whispered in awe, watching the likes of Barack Obama and various corporate CEOs try their hand at saying "Ni hao." Bereft of visitors are expo outcasts North Korea and Iran, whose pavilions are dull tributes to their economic and infrastructural developments. (North Korea also has statues of happy children in a fountain beneath a sign reading, 'Paradise for People.') The venues stand beside each other in a desolate corner of the grounds. A sign of China's shifting loyalties, perhaps?

Grumbling aside, the expo is still a source of immense pride for many Chinese. Shanghai native Jenny Zhu, a 28-year-old Mandarin instructor, says the event is the closest that legions of people from the countryside will get to foreign travel. The expo even hands out special passports that visitors can get stamped at every pavilion they visit; the lines for the stamps are sometimes as long as for the venues themselves. "What's great is it does bring different cultures into people's lives," she says. "Of course, what they see is just a snapshot of a country, but it's still a great opportunity for ordinary Chinese to come into contact with the world." Zhu's 85-year-old grandmother, who has never left China, is one such expo fan. She's secured 10 tickets and purchased a new camera and walking stick, and plans to visit the park at least once a month, Zhu says. Initially ambivalent about the event herself, Zhu has also gotten into the spirit. "It was like seeing a rock concert," she gushed. One in which the stars are seeds and displays on Turkmen natural gas exploits.