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Curious about the Saudi pavilion? Get in line

2010. 11 August

by Barbara Demick - Los Angeles Times
( Standing in an epic line to see the world's largest IMAX screen at the Shanghai Expo, you get the impression that the entire Chinese population of 1.3 billion has had the same idea.

On a crowded day, lines have stretched more than two miles long with wait times of up to nine hours for the Saudi Arabia pavilion, the most popular exhibit at the Expo.

It usually takes at least six hours to see the Japanese pavilion, with a wildly popular exhibit of robots, including one that plays the violin. As for the Chinese pavilion, you'd better start queuing at 2 a.m. outside the Expo gates. They open at 9, and if you're at the front, you can sprint to the pavilion, where each day workers give out coupons for admission. Move fast: The coupons usually run out in a few minutes.

After a slow start, the Shanghai Expo is drawing crowds beyond expectations, putting it well on its way to being the largest and best-attended World's Fair ever.

This being the summer holiday season, it's not uncommon to see more than half a million people in a single day. To get an idea of the scale: Consider that Disneyland reportedly draws 60,000 on a peak day.

The de rigueur accessory for the Expo is a portable chair. Vendors at all the gates sell a clever, multi-colored model for $1.50 that folds up small as a hardback book with a convenient carrying handle.

People bring books, cards and video games for the kids to fend off boredom during the long waits, as well as umbrellas - less for protection from the rain than the sun during the 90-plus-degree Shanghai summer days.

Those who can't endure the waits bring crutches. Or better yet, get a wheelchair.

The disabled get priority access to most pavilions, which has led to a suspiciously large number of visitors showing up with leg injuries. Expo organizers initially ordered 1,000 wheelchairs; they had to raise that number to 1,500 and then 3,000.

Another technique is to bring along an elderly person: Visitors over 70 are entitled, along with one companion, to jump the queue.

"Wanting to hire 75-year-old. Car will pick you up and bring home. Free lunch and dinner included," an Internet user advertised on one forum, according to a story that ran in the Shanghai Morning Post in mid-July. (The advertisement was removed after the article appeared.)

Reports of queue-jumping have so enraged those waiting their turn that the Internet is full of photographs of suspected cheaters - attractive young women sitting in wheelchairs, or in one case an 8-year-old boy stuffed into a baby stroller.

"There are so many people who say they are disabled. Now we're asking them to bring a doctor's note," said Loretta Huang, a spokeswoman for the Thai pavilion.

The U.S. pavilion stopped giving priority to the elderly after a few weeks because the lines for VIP access became just as long as the regular queues. People with babies, the disabled and pregnant women still get priority, although the staff laugh about one visitor who was seen caught taking a pillow from under her shirt and giving it to another woman.

"There are so many fakers. They'll show up saying, 'Oh, my leg hurts,' or use some other story to wheedle their way into the building," said Luke Mohr, a 24-year-old Chinese-speaking volunteer who was doing crowd control recently at the U.S. pavilion.

Despite the heavy presence of China's paramilitary police, there have been occasional stampedes. During the opening week, when the U.S. pavilion was experiencing technical problems, a crowd charged through an open door, leading jittery employees to take refuge on the second floor. More than 100 people were reported injured at the South Korean pavilion May 30 when thousands tried to get free tickets for a popular boy band.

Still, most visitors dutifully stand in line, if anything getting into the Zen of simply waiting.

Luo Jian, a 39-year-old businessman from Shenzhen, was one hour into an anticipated seven-hour wait for the Saudi pavilion with his 12-year-old daughter and family friends. The line extended about 500 yards, wrapping around white steel crowd-control barricades. Every few minutes, a cooling mist would spray the crowd to keep temperatures down. Luo's daughter hunched over a PlayStation Portable console.

"It's not so bad. The kids have games, so they are not bored," he said.

As to why he wanted to see the Saudi pavilion, he said, "I don't really know what's in there, but everybody else is in line, so I am too."

(Nicole Liu of the Los Angeles Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)