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Shanghai Expo - a message for all

2010. 3 May

Expo 2010, Shanghai's mother of all World's Fairs, officially opened on May 1 with crowds estimated at more than 200,000; even more came on Sunday for a total weekend attendance of 433,000, according to official sources.

by John Parker

( The opening day was blessed by good, though hot, weather, with no "artificial sky clearing" measures required according to Tang Xu of the Shanghai Meteorological Bureau; such artificial methods had been used for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, according to reports.

The general mood of opening-day fairgoers, the vast majority of them mainland Chinese, was one of positive, sincere interest, with throngs of middle-aged people methodically exploring the attractions, showing a kind of oddly earnest intensity. Younger visitors behaved more like typical international tourists, with countless 20-something couples strolling the grounds, taking photos and lazing on the grass. Many spectators cited the opportunity to experience other cultures without leaving China as a key reason for coming. A Xinjiang man interviewed by Asia Times Online said he was lucky to get opening-day tickets and thought the event was a "good chance to see the world". A young man from a rural province was enthusiastic about the fantastic architecture and the global cultures on display, in spite of the heat and long queues for popular pavilions. A woman who had traveled with her son from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, solely for the fair, also mentioned world cultures as an important reason for making the trip.

Among foreign visitors, one German man was very impressed by the event overall, comparing it favorably to Expo 2000 in Hanover, though he complained about "bad modern music" in the Austria pavilion. Several Americans leaving the area of the United States pavilion admitted they had not been inside due to the long lines, but seemed impressed with the Expo otherwise.

The lengthy, elaborate program for the Expo opening began on April 30, with a huge Las Vegas-like extravaganza at the UFO-shaped Expo Cultural Center featuring a reported 2,300 performers, including Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan, concert pianist Lang Lang, and opera singer Andrea Bocelli. VIPs who attended included French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, North Korea's de facto head of state Kim Yong-nam, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak , European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and other dignitaries from Armenia, Mongolia, the Seychelles, and many other countries. Besides these high-level officials, Kekyi Wangmo and Jangba Tsering, two children orphaned by the earthquake which struck Tibet two weeks ago, were also invited. At 8.30 pm, President Hu Jintao declared the Expo formally open.

After the indoor ceremony, an enormous outdoor display began along the Huangpu River separating the two main areas of the Expo grounds as evening fell; this included 80-meter fountains and a massive fireworks display, with streams of sparks showering off the Nanpu and Lupu Bridges over the Huangpu, and fireworks forming images of smiley faces and Haibao, the Expo mascot. Thousands of colored LED balls floated in the river, with hundreds of boats festooned with the national flags of countries represented at the Expo powering upstream through the brightly lit balls. On the Puxi side of the Expo site, what was claimed to be the world's largest LED screen at 25 meters by 80 meters, spelt out "Welcome to Shanghai, China" in red and gold. An expo song, written by American Quincy Jones and Chinese classical composer Tan Dun, was played, using words in Shanghainese dialect.

The Expo opening came as a welcome uplift during what has been a rough week for China, with the latest of several horrific knife attacks on children leaving dozens of youngsters injured in the Jiangsu province city of Taixing. A day earlier, a man had knifed more than a dozen students at a primary school in the southern city of Leizhou, in Guangdong province. Incredibly, on the same day as the Leizhou attacks, a man named Zheng Minsheng was executed in Fujian province for the murder of eight elementary students on March 23.

Also last Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped China of the bronze medal its womens' gymnastics team earned at the Sydney Olympics 10 years ago, after new evidence emerged proving that one of the Chinese gymnasts was aged only 14 at the time of the Games, well below the event's minimum age of 16. The IOC awarded the bronze, 10 years late, to the fourth place team - the US.

A number of minor political crises surfaced in the period immediately before the Expo. Concerns about Islamic extremism led the government to close the borders with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (though both countries have pavilions at the Expo). Another ripple involved Feng Zhenghu, probably the most famous dissident from Shanghai, who has criticized local corruption and the practice of forced eviction. Feng famously lived in the immigration area of Tokyo's Narita airport for 92 days, until February, due to Chinese authorities repeatedly refusing him permission to re-enter China. According to the London-based Independent newspaper, in mid-April, Feng pledged to launch a "Shanghai Expo of Unjust Court Cases", presenting problems with the city's legal system. Police responded by confiscating his computers and interrogating him for several hours; Feng claims that he was told he would "disappear" if he spoke out during the Expo.

Another issue involved, indirectly, one of the Expo's most famous attractions, the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen harbor, now on display at the Danish pavilion. To replace the statue during its absence, the Danish authorities permitted a video installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to be installed in the harbor. Ai, who provided the basic design for Beijing's Olympic stadium, is one of the most famous artists in China. Yet the choice by the Danish government has political implications, for he is one of the most determined and relentless critics of the Chinese Communist Party, most specifically over the lack of freedom of speech, especially artistic freedom, in the country. A few characteristic quotes:

" ... my blog is an extension of my thinking - why should I deform my thinking simply because I live under a government that espouses an ideology which I believe to be totally against humanity? And this so-called communist ideology is totally against humanity. Many generations of people over decades in this nation have been hurt by this: many are dead, many have disappeared and many have been damaged, whether conscious of this reality or not. ... Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward.

... China is facing tremendous problems ... it is not only China that is facing these new kinds of difficulties - the whole world is faced with them. But the difference here is that the old political structure remains fully intact. I believe that the primary concern and main struggle within that structure is to stay in control: and everything done within that structure is related to this mission. This is absolutely ridiculous to me. Even in a democratic structure it is very difficult to maintain power - and the pursuit of maintaining control generates more problems than can be solved."

... Totalitarian society creates a huge space that, as we know, is a wasteland. ... There is no revolution like the communist revolution. You simply burn all the books, kill all of the thinking people and use the poor proletariat to create a very simple benchmark to gauge social change. This has continued for generations - after just two or three generations deprived of continuity in education we inevitably become completely cut off from our own past." [source for all quotes: Simon Kirby, Truth to Power [1]
In the months leading up to the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown in 2009, authorities canceled several of Ai's blogs; he responded by posting pictures of himself jumping in the air, completely nude except for a stuffed "Grass Mud Horse" covering his genitals (in China, the "Grass Mud Horse" is a symbol of defiance to the government's censorship of the Internet). [2] It is unclear if the selection of Ai has caused any diplomatic friction between Denmark and China, and Ai may in fact be practically untouchable for the CCP due to his international and family prominence (Chairman Mao Zedong wrote five personal letters to his father, a famous poet).

Another political aspect, this one perhaps reflecting more positively on the government, was Taiwan's presence at the Expo; the island has one of the larger and more impressive pavilions in Zone A (where most Asian pavilions are located), featuring a large LED sphere. Several prominent Taiwan politicians, including Kuomintang (KMT) honorary chairman Lien Chan, former KMT chairman and Taipei mayor Wu Poh-hsiung, and People First Party chairman James Soong, were in Shanghai for the Expo opening. On April 29, PRC President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao met with these and other Taiwan dignitaries, saying, "Shanghai's hosting of the World Expo is a pride of all Chinese people, including those across the Taiwan Strait ... I believe the Shanghai World Expo will help boost the mutual understanding of people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait while enhancing exchanges and cooperation between them."

Local gossip during the opening days mostly concerned some last-minute measures to improve security and (purportedly) the city's image. These included a ban on sales of large knives for the duration of the Expo (perhaps related to the school slaying incidents, which generally involved knives), a ban on the venerable Shanghai tradition of walking the neighborhood in one's pajamas, and a ban on hanging laundry outdoors. Another bit of buzz concerned a last-minute decision to give free Expo tickets to local Shanghai residents; this offer included expatriate residents, but only those with families.

Queues, and more queues
The author visited on opening day with a Chinese translator, and tried to see a somewhat random sample of attractions. Regrettably, this did not include many of the most well-publicized pavilions, but to see more than two or three of these would have been impossible due to the long queues. We saw probably less than 10% of what is on offer at the Expo, but even that may allow a fairly accurate impression of the event's opening day.

Despite fears of long entrance lines, after a 15-minute walk from a metro station, we were admitted almost instantaneously, which suggests that post-trial day measures to improve the speed of entrance procedures have paid off. The security examination was very rapid and the female guard almost embarrassingly eager to please, saying "thank you" (in English) about five separate times. Our top priority was to see the North Korean pavilion, whose contents were the subject of numerous rumors before the opening. 

On the way, we passed the instantly recognizable China pavilion. The structure was startling, not due to unfamiliarity, but for the opposite reason - photographs and other stylized depictions of the building have been on show to the public to such an extent that had begun to seem unreal, like a castle in a video game. The reality was not a disappointment and although some critics have panned the architecture of the pavilion this author respectfully disagrees - it is impressive, and with detailing that isn't obvious until approached closely, culturally appropriate. Even so, it is oddly reminiscent of the Geisel Library at University of California-San Diego, which is also based on an inverted pyramid concept.

The North Korean pavilion was in a kind of "axis of evil" subsection of Area A, right next to the Iranian pavilion, and a good distance away from the South Korean pavilion, which, in this writer's opinion, is not only vastly bigger but has a much superior design.

In the early morning, the queue for North Korea was fairly small, consisting almost entirely of Chinese fairgoers, meaning that the writer may have been the first Westerner to see the pavilion after the official opening. The singularity of this attraction was already clear even while standing in line, due to the North Korean officials with Kim Il Sung badges manning the entrance gate.

Once inside, we were immediately struck by the pavilion's dominant feature. This was not an animatronic figurine of Kim Jong-Il singing "I'm so Ronery" from Team America: World Police but a scale model of the 170-meter "Tower of the Juche Idea" in Pyongyang, well positioned for photo opportunities, which many visitors took advantage of. The rear wall was graced with a mural of flying women in classical Korean dress, which one cynical blogger has compared with the "flying death angels from Raiders of the Lost Ark". Behind the Juche Tower, a slogan in English read, "Paradise for People", accompanied by video displays showing clips of purportedly typical scenes of North Korean life.

Placing the Juche Tower as the centerpiece was rendered remarkably ironic over past few days, although few of the North Korean staff probably realized this. On April 20, according to Reuters and other sources, South Korean officials arrested two North Koreans living in the South, who had been posing as North Korean defectors. They were allegedly on a mission for the North Korean government to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, a former top North Korean official who defected to the South in 1997, and has since become a vociferous critic of the "Kimist" system.

Hwang essentially invented Juche, the North Korean term for a kind of autarkic, us-against-the-world governing philosophy, and the Tower of the Juche Idea was built to memorialize the concept. A statue of Kim Il-sung or his son would perhaps have been a more appropriate representation of the DPRK, but North Korean officials may have been aware of the extent to which their Chinese neighbors regard the Kim personality cult as a joke, and decided against this.

This correspondent, who lived in South Korea for years, was fascinated by everything inside the North Korean pavilion, and quickly took pictures of the Juche Tower, the pavilion logo, and the flying women. However, when he started to take a photograph of an artificial tree surrounded by some rather haphazard looking green plastic matting next to a pagoda reproduction, matters took a strangely ugly turn. Within seconds, a North Korean guard materialized and very aggressively made a grab for the digital camera, while demanding to see the picture he had just taken.

The guard's request was complied with, and he stared at the blurry, underlit picture for a few seconds, then asked why it had been taken. The correspondent responded, truthfully if rather lamely, "I wanted to take a picture of this tree". The guard disappeared; the author stayed in the pavilion for another 10-15 minutes, then left without further incident, albeit slightly unnerved and perplexed by what had just taken place.

The incident was fully consistent with the behavior of North Korean government officials inside the DPRK itself. In North Korea, foreign visitors are normally accompanied by a government minder; one of this person's key responsibilities is to ensure that the foreigner does not photograph anything unflattering to the regime (a very large number of eyewitness accounts from travelers to the DPRK attest to this). These minders frequently confiscate film or, in the digital-photography era, insist on the deletion of certain images, to enforce the government policy.

What was surprising is that this occurred on Chinese soil, which raises questions about national sovereignty. In particular, when country A operates a World's Fair pavilion within the territory of country B, which country holds legal authority within the boundaries of the pavilion building? For national embassies, the rule of course is that country A is sovereign, according to the principle of diplomatic immunity. However, a World's Fair pavilion is not a diplomatic structure, per se. Perhaps some expert in international law could clarify this point.

Leaving North Korea with some relief, we went to the Kyrgyzstan pavilion, which had a short line and featured interesting felt dolls, along with displays stressing Kyrgyzstan's equine heritage. The friendly staff, including two stunningly beautiful young Kyrgyz women, soldiered on gamely despite the closing of their country's border with China, and recent political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan.

The Vietnamese pavilion, a bamboo-covered structure, was very popular - clearly planned by officials with an astute sense of what Chinese visitors would probably be interested in. Inside the entrance, an engraved plaque quoted - in Chinese, Vietnamese and English - the words of a Chinese scholar which can also be found in the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university in Hanoi (the remnants of which are still extant). At this institution, founded in 1070 AD, aspiring Vietnamese scholars studied Confucian classics to receive their "doctor laureate" credential; passing the final examinations was so difficult that only about 2,300 students graduated in 700 years. The intent of this plaque, of course, was to stress Vietnam's common heritage with China; when the Temple of Literature was active, Vietnam modeled itself after China in almost every detail. Interior exhibits included lotus flowers, modern and ancient Vietnamese art (influenced by Chinese examples, but still distinct), and a large water puppet (water puppetry is a unique Vietnamese art form).

From Vietnam, we went past the Japanese pavilion, some central Asian pavilions and the Saudi pavilion, which had the longest lines we had seen so far, to the Indian pavilion. The Indian structure was one of the larger pavilions at the Expo, and with a line to match; one woman, overcome by the heat, fainted just before we went inside. The pavilion is crowned with an eco-friendly bamboo dome, surrounded by examples of Indian culture and famous Indian celebrities; on its lower level, there were shops with handicrafts and an Indian restaurant, which unfortunately did not seem to be operating yet. The main attraction was a 3D laser show - with Chinese-only audio - presenting ideas on harmonious urban development, emphasizing elements of spirituality and relaxation. Just before the show began, a shouting match erupted between an Indian official and a Chinese man who refused to leave the dome; due to the crowd pressure, the staff, though friendly, were very keen to ensure that visitors did not linger after seeing the major attraction.

On the way to the US pavilion, past the China pavilion and dozens of stunning and indescribable European and Southeast Asian pavilions, we stopped only at the Hungarian pavilion (a sentimental priority for the author, who is 50% Hungarian by blood). The structure included a very well-done tourism film, but its main attraction was the largest gomboc ever put on public display. A gomboc is a unique 3D shape discovered in 2006 by two Hungarians, the engineer Gabor Domokos and the architect Peter Varkonyi. Wikipedia describes it as "a convex three-dimensional homogeneous body which, when resting on a flat surface, has just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium". [3]

In other words, although the structure is uniform in density, when it is placed on a surface, no matter which way it is turned, it will always rotate back to its resting position. This cerebral exhibit, perhaps intending to provoke curiosity, was somewhat undermined by the lack of placards explaining the gomboc; however, there was a counter at which you could play with several smaller versions. The Chinese attendants had been very well briefed, and were busily explaining the shape to visitors.

Walking past the spectacular and very large Russian pavilion led us to the Americas area and the US pavilion, whose underwhelming exterior design has been likened to a "combination air cleaner and Bose sound system". Nevertheless, it was extremely popular, with exceptionally long lines (2 1/2 hours according to one first-hand report); these lines were only for the main exhibit area, where the major attraction was a film based on the "rising to the challenge" theme. It was possible to enter a small part of the building, containing a gift shop and an area for corporate displays. The shop was doing a land-office business with keychains and souvenir sweatbands (made in China, needless to say); the corporate sponsors, who included GE, Microsoft, Citigroup, Chevron, Visa, Motorola, Wrigley's Gum, and others, were also attracting some interest.

A few Chinese visitors interviewed by Asia Times Online were favorably impressed by the pavilion, with one middle-aged man saying it was "great". An American staff member said the first day had gone fairly smoothly in spite of the crowds and politely referred us to a media liaison. The small Boeing exhibit featured the company's first airplane, the 1916 model C, designed by a Chinese-American graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wong Tsoo; unfortunately, the computerized display of the Boeing exhibit had crashed at the time of our visit, and was displaying an error message from another sponsor, Microsoft.

Other pavilions passed included those from Italy (featuring a huge sculpture of an orchestral hall complete with chairs, instruments, and a conductor's platform - all mounted on a vertical wall) and Spain (a jaw-dropping design with a cover of woven reed mats, resembling the scales of a giant reptile; the attractions inside reportedly include a giant animated baby.

Corporate pavilions
Our last goal for the day was to view some of the corporate pavilions. First up was Coca-Cola's, dubbed the "Happiness Factory". Roll your eyes, but Coke has built a sophisticated, well-oiled marketing machine, which made a dramatic contrast not only with the rudimentary DPRK pavilion but also with the US national pavilion. Its clever features included a performance stage to entertain visitors waiting in queues, and young staff trained to be both welcoming and enthusiastic - they even led the queues in chanting Kuai le gong chang ("happiness factory").

The pavilion went over Coke's history going back to the era of Asa Candler (1851-1929), who is largely attributed with the company's early success, but this seemed rather perfunctory; overwhelmingly, the presentation was aimed at making the company seem as Chinese as possible in every way, even including an outdoor area with human-sized Coke bottles decorated with themes of different Chinese provinces.

The main attraction was a film that showed computer-animated characters "preparing a Coke" after a handsome, young Chinese actor put his coins in a Coke machine (actually beverage vending machines are still somewhat rare in the country, although Coke products assuredly no longer are), with visual allusions to films like Lord of the Rings and Avatar. The limited quota of US-produced films screened in Chinese theaters invariably seems to include every single production made with cartoon animals - for example, Cars, Ice Age, and Ratatouille - perhaps because the government feels certain (with good reason) that such productions have no political content. The local popularity of this genre may be the reason why Coke chose a similar vehicle as the main attraction for its Expo pavilion.

Although the Chinese visitors we saw seemed almost nonplussed by the film, they definitely appreciated the free 200-milliliter bottle of Coke handed out to every visitor. (Note to Western corporates trying to impress Chinese convention or fair visitors: freebies are definitely the way to go, but you had better make sure you have enough for everyone or you might have a riot on your hands.) The presentation included an educational component, with employees carefully explaining the exact temperature at which Coke is best served (36-38 degrees Fahrenheit, 2-3 degrees Celsius). This is much less absurd than it sounds because China is fundamentally a hot-beverage culture; many Chinese still believe that cold drinks will "freeze your insides" or otherwise disturb the correct balance of yin and yang.

At night, the Expo assumes a completely different aspect due to stunning lighting displays; computerized LED technology was on offer almost everywhere, perhaps most spectacularly at the "Oil pavilion", collectively sponsored by China's three state oil companies. The outer surface of the Oil pavilion was covered with LED lights showing a striking computerized animation with continuously shifting colors.

Our last pavilion visit of the day, however, was at the State Grid pavilion, built by the Chinese state company that operates the country's electrical power grid. A very sophisticated offering, its main attraction was a cube-shaped theater, dubbed the "Magic Box", with a computer-generated presentation showing the importance of electricity to China, especially urban China, and the world. The State Grid gave out a nice freebie, a solar-rechargeable LED keychain. The pavilion also included a "business" area underground promoting various products and services, including a "smart grid" for carrying data over electrical wires, and a huge generator substation with modern features, available for export.

On our way to the exit, we passed the very large Japan corporate pavilion, a converted 1950s shipyard jointly sponsored by at least 14 Japanese companies including Kikkoman, the soy sauce maker. Its most striking external feature was three "climbing robots" which raced each other (slowly) up and down the pavilion wall.

Final thoughts from a surprising source
After seeing the US pavilion, wanting to see at least one Latin American pavilion, we had headed for the modest queues of the offering from Colombia. This focused mainly on a tropical-like main gallery introducing different districts of the country, and their investment opportunities - the apparent aim of attracting more Chinese investment was a common thread in many pavilions. The IT features here included touch screens - which worked very well, unlike those in some other pavilions and those created by the Expo organizers. Google searches reveal at least two "fossil" Expo websites that were apparently created years before the current one, but were never deleted from servers.

Colombia also preceded its main exhibit with a strangely moving video introduction; this video triggered an emotional response in the author which was so unfamiliar that it took a few minutes to identify it. The feeling was pride: not pride in Colombia, or in any specific country, or even in the Expo, but a kind of generalized pride in the human race and its not-inconsiderable achievements.

Considering the deluge of negativity, cynicism, and fear in which postmodern Westerners are immersed on a daily basis, there was something oddly inspiring, and jarringly unfamiliar, about the way the national pavilions strove to present the best aspects of each country. Every nation, even the worst, does have positive aspects; and at the end of the day, understanding this may be the best reason to go to an Expo.

Tips for visitors
- Inside China, the easiest way to get tickets is to call China Post (dial 11185) or the Bank of Communications (95559). China Telecom is also an authorized ticket seller, but has received a lot of criticism due to operators not being prepared to speak English or deal with foreigners.
- Skateboards, roller-blades and lighters are banned at the Expo site. Water, other drinks and pets are also prohibited; visitors can bring an empty water bottle and refill it at free water fountains on site, and bringing in food (within reason) is also allowed.
- Necessary medications, baby milk and toiletry articles (like sun cream) will be allowed on the site after an entrance security check.
- Smoking areas will be set up around the Expo site, where ignition devices will be provided (since cigarette lighters are banned). Outside these smoking areas, smoking is prohibited.
- No additional fees are charged for entering pavilions or watching performances at the site. However, for the most popular pavilions, advance reservations (which entitle holders to enter at a specific time) may be necessary. At reservation machines installed throughout the site, visitors can reserve up to six pavilions with one ticket, including the China Pavilion or one of the Theme Pavilions along with five foreign pavilions. Volunteers will help visitors with the reservation machines.
- Since the China pavilion is expected to be the most crowded one throughout the six-month exposition, the Expo recommends that visitors make reservations at the China pavilion first.

1. See here
2. See Google vs China: the endgame, Asia Times Online, April 14, 2010, and for an example of popular use of theSong of The Grass-Mud Horse.
3. The gomboc on show at the Hungarian pavilion.
For more information the following sites are recommended:
Official site
Shanghai Daily site.
Wikipedia page.

John Parker is a China-based freelance writer.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.) Source: