In Shanghai these days it is impossible to avoid the expo. Hotels are packed with domestic tourists and school groups; subway and bus televisions show a constant news loop about events at the expo; and Haibao, the rectangular, blue mascot of the expo grace the front of numerous government offices, posters, and in numerous official merchandise stalls. To ensure the target of 700 million visitors is met and exceeded for the duration of the expo from the beginning of May to the end of October, various government offices in Shanghai have handed out expo “gift packs” of one free ticket per Shanghai resident family. Work units, danwei, have also given out tickets to employees both current and retired, some valid only during a particular month. All of the hubbub has guaranteed a massive influx of visitors, with long lines at many of the popular pavilions, and images of old and young alike sprinting from the gates at the opening of the expo park at 9 am each morning.
Despite the images of surging crowds and rumors of near riot conditions at the soft opening of the expo park at the end of April, I have to admit to that I was quite excited to finally see the results of years of intense preparation. An entire fleet of buses has been commandeered to serve as direct shuttles to the expo park from various points around Shanghai. On the morning of Tuesday, June 15, 2010 a group of friends and I walked to the nearest shuttle pick-up point, little knowing that the day, in the middle of a three day holiday period, would prove to be the most jam-packed yet at the expo. By 9:30 pm, the official tally reached 552,000 attendees. If we didn’t realize the extent of the crowds at the entrance gate, we certainly got an inkling when the loudspeakers in the park announced around 10 am that the lines at the popular Japan and Germany pavilions had already reached 5 to 6 hours long.
The expo is a behemoth stretching alongside both sides of the Huangpu River in the southern corner of the city. The larger Pudong side of the river features the national pavilions, while the Puxi side has a number of pavilions sponsored by companies, including China Telecom, China Eastern, and GM. Realizing the futility of spending half the day trying to enter the Japan pavilion, we decided to first head towards the Iran, Mongolian, and North Korean pavilions, clustered in one corner of the park. Even the North Korean pavilion had a line, albeit a fast moving one. Big screen televisions inside showed children dancing and other happy images of the “socialist paradise,” and a small gift shop was doing brisk business selling stamp albums, and Kim Jong Il’s collected works, including his treatise “On the Art of Cinema,” in Chinese, Russian, and English.
After listening to a live music performance at the Iranian pavilion and examining dinosaur fossils in the Mongolian pavilion, we decided to take a shuttle bus and head towards the African countries at other end of the park. Even taking the bus, however, turned into a harrowing situation, with throngs of people surging onto the bus. At one point, people started shouting at the driver to let them off, although it wasn’t clear that the doors could open with people packed in so tightly.
The East Angolan pavilion proved surprisingly informative. The massive warehouse like structure of consortium of African countries had enthusiastic crowds of people holding their expo “passports,” going around trying to get them stamped at each country. For those too lazy to spend hours on line, there is now apparently a brisk online market, with these passports filled with country stamps going for as much as 5000 yuan or over $700. The price seems far less astronomical given the amount of time spent on lines it would take to collect the stamps.
Around 4 pm, we decided to head to some of the more popular pavilions. Canada and Spain both have externally spectacular pavilions with neatly designed, multi-media displays inside. And in the late afternoon, the wait times for these two were around one hour. Even at 7:30 pm, however, a long line of people snaked around and in front of the Japan pavilion. We had to be satisfied with joining a stampede to the ferry across to the Puxi side of the park. At the end of our long twelve-hour odyssey in the Shanghai expo, all of us were ready to collapse from exhaustion.
The western press has largely focused their coverage of the expo as an expensive enterprise for the Chinese government and Shanghai to showcase their entrance onto the world stage. Stories in the New York Times and other outlets have examined various complaints over the cost of the expo and various mishaps along the way, including the disastrous soft opening. I think all these stories make valid points, and moreover provide an essential counter to the hagiographic press coverage in the official Chinese media outlets. Yet all complaints aside, now that I have spent a very long day at the expo with 552,000 other attendees, I must admit that I witnessed genuine excitement among the largely Chinese crowd.
At every pavilion, after waiting patiently on long lines, people rushed to get their expo passports stamped. The prices have been set at reasonably accessible points, 160 yuan for regular one-day tickets (around $23), and 90 yuan for retirees, and students. While tickets to the 2008 Beijing Olympics were notoriously difficult to acquire, especially for popular events, post offices, China Mobile branches, and several convenience stores and supermarket chains all offer tickets to the expo. In this sense the expo is perhaps the most democratic event China has hosted for its own citizens.
The expo park also contained the greatest concentration of waidiren, visitors from other provinces, speaking in assorted dialects, I have ever witnessed / heard in Shanghai. In the years after 1949, in many ways Shanghai had become an insular city. Outsiders were immediately looked upon askance once they opened their mouth and spoke the standard Putonghua rather than the local Shanghai dialect. In recent years, Shanghai has attempted to reclaim its spot as an international city in the ranks of Paris, London, and New York. With the 2010 world expo, however, Shanghai is finally also a Chinese city, opening its doors to visitors from around the country.