Page 1 of 2 Shanghai Expo: The final countdown
By John Parker
SHANGHAI - The city that is China's financial hub throws off the wraps and
lights up the fireworks this week for a grand coming-out party - a celebration
of Shanghai's re-emergence as one of the world's great urban centers, marked
with the opening of Expo 2010 and its appropriate theme, "Better City, Better
Shanghai officially throws open the doors on Expo 2010 on May 1. By the time
the last visitor departs the trade fair site on October 31, Chinese officials
are likely to be celebrating not merely the proud result of eight years'
preparation, but also confirmation that the country is now the world's
second-biggest economy, with only the still vastly wealthier United States to
Expo 2010 is roughly the 52nd or 53rd event of its type since the
world's fair movement began in 1851 with London's "Great Exhibition" (depending
on how "world's fair" is defined). It will be the first proper world's fair
held in China - discounting the Kunming International Garden Festival of 1999 -
and sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions, established in 1928
by international convention.
The Expo (short for exposition) spreads across 5.28 square kilometers on both
sides of the Huangpu River waterfront, formerly a rundown district of docks and
factories and well to the southwest and upriver of Shanghai's historic center,
The river divides the Expo into two distinct areas, one on the western (Puxi)
and one on the eastern (Pudong) side of the Huangpu. The Pudong site is much
bigger, consistent with the government's efforts to promote development greater
availability of land there and on the east side. The two areas will be
connected by buses, ferries, and two subway lines, including line 13, the
so-called Expo Line, which will actually run inside the Expo and is free to
Expo ticket holders (after the Expo, this line will be extended across the
As of last Sunday, almost all the pavilions and the infrastructure around the
Expo are complete. The Expo sites have been opened several times before the
"official" opening for so-called "preview days", the first of which was on
April 20. The preview days seemingly have served a dual purpose: they are
intended to identify and work out some of the bugs before the official opening,
but have also been used as a political reward for various VIP groups.
Even so, preview attendances have already notched up remarkable numbers
according to official reports there were 300,000 visitors on April 24, although
only 75 out of 120 total pavilions were open at the time, and 400,000 the
On the night of April 30, the razzmatazz gets underway, with a big nighttime
ceremony along the Huangpu featuring fireworks, sound effects, and a laser
light show. More elaborate ceremonies, open to Expo ticket holders, will be
held on May 1, the first day of the Expo proper. May 1 is, of course,
"International Worker's Day" or Labor Day for much of the world (the United
States annually marks the day in September); the choice of this date for the
opening was fitting for a country that still officially purports to be a
"workers' state"; more practically, May 1 is an annual public holiday in China,
so the opening could be held without disrupting the economy.
Like all such events, the Expo has generated its own iconography. Images of
"Haibao", the Gumby-like mascot, are everywhere - posters, T-shirts, statues,
even topiaries (dressed in various national costumes). Special Haibao robots
have been made that will roam the Expo grounds, telling jokes and taking
pictures for tourists.
Supposedly, Haibao's appearance was inspired by the peaked Chinese character ren,
which means "people". Its blue color is said to symbolize the sea - appropriate
for a city that rose to global prominence as a maritime trading hub. Also
fittingly in a country infamous for producing counterfeit goods, Haibao has
inspired knockoffs of the "official" merchandise, which has led to several
well-publicized busts. Among them, a Shanghai ring that made 400,000 yuan
(about US$77,000) by selling pirated Haibao plush toys from a shop near Nanjing
The Expo logo represents a modification of the Chinese character for "world",
stylized to resemble three people. According to Expo brochures, the logo
"projects the image of three people, you, me and him/her, throwing their arms
around each other".
The Expo area is organized into five zones: A, B and C on the Pudong side; and
D and E on the Puxi side. Most of the Asia pavilions, including China's are in
Zone A. In Zone B are found the Expo Cultural Center, pavilions from Southeast
Asia and Oceania, and pavilions for organizations such as the Association of
Southeast Nations and NGOs such as the World Wildlife Federation. Pavilions
from Africa, Europe and the Americas are in Zone C.
Visitors to corporate pavilions, the World Expo museum, and the so-called
Footprint Pavilion, which will trace the history of world cities, should go to
Zone D, while Zone E hosts more corporate pavilions, a "space pavilion", and
the "Urban Best Practices Area", which will focus on urban construction
practices, sustainability, heritage management, and so forth - these are
consistent with the Expo's theme, "Better City, Better Life", which has led
many exhibits, even the national ones, to focus on aspects of urban life to a
much greater extent than at previous world's fairs.
Early favorites to be top attractions include the Polish pavilion, with its
striking lace-like exterior, and the Australian pavilion, which has a design
resembling "Uluru", a rock formation sacred to aborigines. Inside, the
Australian pavilion will feature a "secret machine", the subject of many rumors
but which is purported to create a "spectacular audio-visual experience
featuring stunning images of Australia".
This is one of several "spectacular audio-visual experiences" promised by the
Expo; another is the world's largest IMAX screen at the Saudi pavilion, and a
"720-degree movie" at the pavilion of the State Grid (China's state electrical
supplier). This has screens on all six surfaces of a room, so viewers will be
surrounded by images - handrails are provided for viewers experiencing vertigo.
Both the Saudi and Australian pavilions have so far been very popular, with
long lines during the preview days.
If there were a prize for "most bizarre" pavilion, it would probably go to the
hedgehog-like UK pavilion, whose exterior surface carries 60,000 acrylic rods,
each of which contains a seed, giving the building a haze-like appearance from
a distance, even in clear weather.
North Korea is present at a world's fair pavilion for the first time, and its
pavilion is among the most talked-about among Western expatriates. The design
has been kept secret, but leaked images show a blend of classical and modern
architecture with a prominent display of the North Korean flag; the exhibits
within will probably focus on the life and culture of Pyongyang, consistent
with the Expo's urban theme.
South Korea aims not be outdone by its northern rival, and its presence is so
large that there is a separate pavilion just for South Korean companies. The
French pavilion, stressing a romantic theme, will throw a wedding every day and
display works by Manet and Van Gogh; not to be outdone, the Prada-wearing staff
of the Italian pavilion will show works by Caravaggio. Denmark will bring its
iconic "Little Mermaid" statue - the first time the statue has left Copenhagen
Harbor since 1913. Monaco, building on the statelet's "Grand Prix" reputation,
will show Formula 1 cars and the Venturi Volage "eco-car".
At the Israel pavilion, fairgoers can, for a fee, swallow the Israeli-developed
"Cam-pill", a medical device that passes through one's intestinal tract, taking
digital pictures as it goes. Japan will have a very large presence, including a
huge building on the Puxi side devoted solely to Japanese companies.
The US pavilion, which will focus on the American heritage of innovation
(though ironically designed by a Canadian architect, Clive Grout), suffered
very well-publicized development problems, due both to the 2008 recession and a
US law that prevents federal funding for world's fair pavilions.
High-ranking Chinese officials are reported to have specifically warned
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that US-China relations would be
significantly damaged if funding problems kept the US from attending the Expo,
since Chinese fairgoers would interpret the absence as a direct snub. After
some public prodding from Clinton and Democratic Party fundraiser Jose
Villareal, the required money was finally raised, so it now appears that at
least the US will not be shown up by the likes of Luxembourg and Bulgaria.
Most of the funding ultimately came from US corporations; some American,
including Coca-Cola and General Motors (which, in spite of its dire financial
condition, still has a huge presence in Shanghai), have their own pavilions.
Several US musical acts, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and jazz great
Herbie Hancock, are planned; however, many expatriates have expressed
disappointment with the relatively low-profile acts that have agreed to perform
so far. The conservative musical program might reflect either the Chinese
government's recent fear of controversial music acts, or failure on the US side
to book anybody exciting.
The single most impressive national pavilion is, naturally, the massive China
pavilion, "The Crown of the East", which dominates the entire site. Its theme
is an "exploration of the Orient", inspired by traditional Chinese philosophy
and stressing "harmonious co-existence" (reflecting President Hu Jintao's
notion of building a "harmonious society"). The building's inverted pyramid
structure is based on traditional temple architecture, with a roof featuring
elements made to resemble traditional dougong or temple brackets, used
for more than 2000 years.
Overseas visitors to Shanghai will find it hard to avoid media encouragement to
head along to the Expo sites. An official magazine, "Shanghai 2010 Expo", has
been running since 2004; the "EXPOShanghai" newsletter, a free weekly, has
already seen more than 60 issues; Shanghai Daily, the state-run English
newspaper, carries "Expo Daily", a special insert section; and other extensive
coverage is found in "City Weekend", "That's Shanghai" and the various other
English-language publications circulating in town. Nor will there be a shortage
of foreign media; organizers announced at the end of March that they had
received more than 12,000 applications to cover the event, from 547 overseas
media organizations, in addition to 713 domestic ones.
A website with daily updates and information about every conceivable aspect of
the fair.  Augmenting this traditional web presence is the virtual-reality
"Expo Shanghai Online".  The basic concept of Expo Online is that
participating pavilions will submit a digital version of their displays,
allowing Internet surfers to tour the pavilions virtually, seeing the same
objects that they would see if they were actually at the event. Based on a
recent visit to this website, however, only a dozen or so of the nearly 200
pavilions have actually submitted the extensive necessary data to the virtual
site, so in all probability, the virtual site will only show the outside of the
building for most of the pavilions - and to be sure, the external appearance of
the pavilions is very interesting in itself.
As with the Beijing Olympics two years ago, the Shanghai authorities are taking
no chances whatsoever with security. Police are everywhere; metro station
entrances are guarded by pairs of PLA soldiers in dress uniform; plainclothes
policemen lurk on the metro platforms. The specific concern about the metro
system is probably motivated by a July 2008 bus bombing in Shanghai, which
killed at least three people; the "Turkestan Islamic Party" later claimed
credit for that attack. The metro stations have also been fortified with
airport-style security, including bag inspection, which has been aggravating
Shanghainese commuters for several weeks now (you don't have to take your shoes
off, though). The Expo site itself is surrounded by a double security fence
topped with electric shock wires.
Shanghai's preparation for this event is on a truly enormous scale, starting in
earnest in 2002 when the city formally won the right to host the fair on the
fourth round of voting (its main rival - Yeosu, South Korea - will host the
next event in 2012). The work involved extends far beyond the site itself; it
is not too much to say that the entire city has almost been remade in
preparation for the Expo. Spending has reported climbed to as much as US$45
billion, more than for the Beijing Olympics.
Transportation infrastructure, which will be used long after the Expo is over,
was a dominant spending item, notably the Shanghai Metro, the city's
underground rail system which only opened in 1995. The number of its active
lines has more than doubled to 12 from five just in the past three years, with
many existing lines extended and a vast expansion in the number of stations,
track length and the area served - almost the entire inner city is now within
three blocks of a station. The metro system now has 268 stations and more than
420 kilometers of track. If nothing else, Shanghai has proved to other Asian
cities that it IS possible to build a useful metro in a reasonable amount of
time (are you listening, Bangkok? Ho Chi Minh City?). Visitors can take the
metro straight from either one of Shanghai's airports directly to the Expo
site, although they will need to change lines at least once.
There was also massive highway construction; the city has three ring roads and
they will be mostly complete in time for Expo. These expressways are part of
China's National Trunk Highway System, an up-to-the-minute controlled-access
highway network closely modeled on the US Interstate Highway System. It is so
similar that American expats sometimes understand the system better than locals
- on one occasion, the author had to guide a baffled Chinese taxi driver
through a confusing interchange.