Phantom of the Fair

A dispatch from the Shanghai World Expo.


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If Shanghai isn’t really China (as I was repeatedly told by Shanghainese), and the Expo isn’t really Shanghai (in but not of the metropolis, they also insisted), then I really have no clue where I spent 10 days last month. I ate Swiss fondue, bought a Kyrgyz felt hat, and had my passport stamped “Trinidad” by a young Chinese woman who never looked up from her text messaging. It was thrilling to visit North Korea and pretend the guard watching me was compiling a surveillance report on “the American with straw hat and a digital camera.” I think he really was. The replica of the Trojan Horse was undeniably creepy, hovering in the ominous blue light of a well-sacked mock-Troy. There was a parade every night and lines all day and the staff drilled and marched in military display. I was encouraged to consider the universality of 21st-century urban life by wax figure families from six different cities around the world. Disoriented and sweaty, I walked from one end to the other and back on this two-square-mile microplanet. Making sense of it all was impossible. All I really wanted to find out, in true world’s fair tradition, is if the future is going to be more interesting than the present.


Creatively confusing the visitor defines the core work of world’s fair designers, and much of the attraction for world’s fairgoers. You are meant to be off balance and thus receptive to persuasion, expansion of view. Ever since London’s path-blazing Crystal Palace of 1851, world’s fairs have served as bazaars for new products and showcases for mind-bending architecture and design innovation. Over the years fairs evolved into overlapping planes of temporary existence: corporate showrooms for consumer appetite cultivation like the legendary GM Pavilions of ’39 and ’64, techno-utopian fantasylands exemplified by Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, and pavilions for nationalist posturing like Cold War Brussels in 1958. None of it works without a crowd, ideally a slightly bored crowd hungry for the spectacle of the new. With a month to go Expo 2010, Shanghai has hosted 59 million visitors, and officials are prepared for more than 70 million — only Osaka 1970 comes close with its 62 million attendees. That’s as many people as you will find in Shanghai, Beijing, and the next four largest cities in China plus New York City combined. A great world’s fair also needs a resonant theme, a reason to call the meeting in the first place. In “Better City, Better Life,” Expo 2010 expounds its reason to exist — an exploration of “the common wish of the whole humankind for a better living in future urban environments.” The symmetry is perfect: the future of sustainable urban living on display to the world, in one of the world’s fastest growing cities.

A Chinese friend patiently explained to me after I enthused about all of this that “Better City, Better Life,” rendered into Mandarin, means something more like “The City Will Improve Your Life.” “What’s the difference?”  I asked him. I considered this as I waited almost two hours (considered short) in line for the China Pavilion with several thousand of the 340,000 people at Expo that day. Architect He Jingtang’s “Oriental Crown” — a green-energy advertisement in immaculate “Forbidden City” red (the escalator handles glisten like red licorice) — hovered over me like a lacquered UFO until I was at last summoned inside to learn the mystery of the Chinese Urban Future. Here I learned about the improvements on offer for the modern Chinese family. An ambitious 8-minute film follows a day in the life of the Chinese city; it is cross-cut with sweeping scenes conjured to render heroic the drama of 300 million people caught up in the meteoric Chinese urbanization of the past 30 years. The city comes alive, it swirls and makes money, it creates and walks down green park lanes, it sweeps up its mess and goes to sleep. The proto-typical family comes together in a tiny apartment and children enter the picture, work and sacrifice tender expanding numbers, both of children and square feet. Multiple generations celebrate life together amidst the material accumulations of a life well spent in the city. Then the lights come on, the crowd blinks, and shuffles out to see a football-field long scroll painting, “Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival,” alive with animation and set behind a real-fake flowing brook. The quiet comforts of the 12th-century village festival provide a palliative to the shock of the urban new.

Shanghainese I talked to told me that the city has not improved their lives. Everyone speaks of housing prices quadrupling in the past decade and of speculators growing rich. This rapid urban cramping has led the government to propose the need for a “Harmonious Society,” an acknowledgment that the minting of Chinese billionaires and glimmering skylines do not exactly square with the revolutionary ideology. In material ways, though, the Expo does seem to have improved life in Shanghai, or it has at least made its own temporary contributions. In a trick of Chinese federalism that might remind Americans of our own inter-governmental squabbles, it seems that the central government impressed on Shanghai the necessity of the world’s fair. Boosters in the city took this order and made the best of it, building new subway lines faster than the U.S. Congress can vote down a transportation bill. In addition, savvy Shanghainese planners selected an Expo site on the Huangpo River where the country’s largest and oldest steelmaking and shipbuilding facilities resided. Here is the site of the Chinese industrial miracle, the Chinese version of Homestead, Pennsylvania or the Chicago rail yards. Ordinarily, the status of these state-owned factories would be decided in Beijing, no matter the value of the land for local development, and without appeal. But the Shanghainese insisted that this was the best site for Expo and they won the argument — when Expo closes next month they will studiously go about disassembling the pavilions and start building high rises in their place. In real estate terms it was a tour-de-force of urban renewal, with the old and rusting packed away to the outskirts and the new and gleaming already drafted, funded, and ready to rise. Visitors to the fairgrounds next year will recognize the street grid, and the China Pavilion and a few other buildings will remain, but the rest will be merely The City, for better or worse, depending on whom you ask.

As I moved through the African Pavilion just before closing time, it occurred to me at last that I was merely a phantom at this fair. It’s a strange moment for an American abroad — and when it happens you wince and surrender your non-existent birthright: the realization that this is not all here to entertain me. In fact, though, all world’s fairs up to this one have in one way or another been there to entertain westerners, even Osaka. With Chinese nationals making up the overwhelming majority of the visitors to Expo 2010, though, I was really witnessing the creation of Chinese elites packaged and presented to the Chinese masses, a tour of the world as the elites want China to see itself, and as participating countries want to be seen by the Chinese.

This explains why the U.S. Pavilion — with its suburban corporate architecture, cowboy hats and basketballs for sale — is focused on bland ideas like teamwork and the victory of the little guy, with no mention of democracy. Certainly if more Americans or Europeans had been expected in the audience it would be unacceptable to show a feel-good film with a Chevron executive lecturing the world on environmental sustainability. This also explains why pavilions from Venezuela to Mozambique to Uzbekistan featured huge portraits of the nation’s leader smiling and shaking hands with Hu Jintao. This explains the appeal of the startlingly large globe over which you stand in the Urban Planet Pavilion. As a latter-day John Glenn (or 21st-century Chinese astronaut?) you orbit and watch helplessly as the blue planet turns brown and withers before your eyes. Global warming is real in Expo, it must be confronted, and China will be part of the solution. Chinese carbon emissions are not much up for discussion. Neither are U.S. carbon emissions, or Australian carbon emissions for that matter. That is impolite and definitely bad business. Instead, the focus in Expo’s version of contemporary history is a world with its hands open to China in gestures of friendship and free trade. The troubles of the world are the troubles of China, and the way forward cruises effortlessly through the Chinese city in the sustainable car of the future. This nifty little car, by the way, is on display at the hugely popular General Motors/SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) Pavilion; performers in colorful future-driving-suits sing and dance around them while you gaze.

The Better City of the future is full of people of good will and good ideas who will render the Better Life of green industry and international harmony. Expo 2010 may be the first world’s fair ever to balance the enthusiasm of an emerging nation with the temperance of international concern—in this case concern over the environmental impacts of the history of emerging modern nations. Toward the end of my visit I asked an Expo official over lunch if the success of the fair meant that Beijing would be next, Hong Kong, Xi’an? Once Chicago succeeded, I ventured, St. Louis had to have one, and so on. He laughed and said no, there will never be another world’s fair in China. Having done it big and correctly once, and at enormous state expense, there was no need to do it again. It wasn’t exactly the competitive spirit of the free market, I thought, but it was telling of a culture trying to balance reverence for tradition and rapid urbanization. Expo 2010 Shanghai will serve as a reminder of this conflicted moment in time for modernizing China; presumably the website will at least remain. But as for the site itself, well, in a month it will all be gone, replaced by cranes and returned to the mundane, no more confusing than the average city of 20 million. • 4 October 2010



Scott Gabriel Knowles is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America and teaches history at Drexel University.