So I joined the eager masses and stood in line, bright and early at 8.30am, at the gates of the Shanghai World Expo. Having missed the best-attended World’s Fair of ’67 in Montreal, Canada (50 million people and counting… on nostalgia!), I was prepared to witness, and receive, an education. I learnt that hype can sell anything.
Despite the dismal attendance during opening week, I went because I wanted to discover what showboating at a national level meant. It doesn’t get more bombastic. Happening on both banks of the Huangpu River for six months running, the US$42 billion Shanghai World Expo is a modern spectacle, capturing the zeitgeist and prophetic visions of our generation in neatly designed pavilions. We’re going to have 70 million global attendees, they enthused, one for the record books. It goes to show you can’t put a price tag on pride.
The Expo theme is an inspirational “Better City – Better Life”. The city of Shanghai spent more than S$50 million to transplant 18,000 families and 270 factories on the river’s banks, subsequently clearing, cleaning and constructing 5.28 square kilometres – the largest ever – of exhibition space. Beijing had the show-stopping 2008 Olympics, so the Expo had to be Shanghai’s shine.
I wore light layers, comfortable shoes and made sure the battery in the camera was fully charged. My movie-star shades sat on my nose because the weather report dictated baking skies. But no sooner had the gates opened at 9am sharp, and the teeming hordes let loose into the fairground, did I learn the true insinuation of the Expo.
Nine out of 10 visitors were Chinese. Ten out of 10 of them were devouring every souvenir, every snack, every drink they could get their hands on, yelping excitedly in various dialects and snapping away at everything with state-of-the-art digital cameras. Snap, snap, snap, they go, before pointing and asking, “What’s that?”
After beating the two-hour long queues, they steam-rolled through the pavilions and exhibits like marauding Vikings attending a spectator sports event. Where was the quiet contemplation and ponderous appreciation of the works on display? Everyone just seemed eager to get to the end. Then they scuttled from pavilion to pavilion in search of greater amusement value. There’s no doubt that aggressive consumerism has become part of the Chinese aesthetic. Is this the height of cultural exchange?
But I may just be wrong, and slower on my feet than the rest. Who has the time to digest the cultural offerings of 190 countries and 50 corporate entities anyway? I might as well take a few photos. Quite clearly, they’ve made it a national goal to achieve best attendance records. If they had to ship thousands of farmers and students from the third- and fourth-tier cities to attend the Expo, Shanghai could, and possibly would.
Enjoy the issue… slowly.
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