Shanghai Expo 2010

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By Adam D. Frank

On first blush, one would think that reviewing Nick Land’s Shanghai World Expo Guidebook 2010 would be an exercise akin to reviewing a movie poster for Avatar—a kind of 2-D portrait of a 3-D experience.

But Land’s guidebook, it turns out, has more in common with the grand tradition of literary travel writing than it does with, say, an American Automobile Association treatment of an interstate highway tour. Like the Expo itself, its style is both substantive and sensual, nineteenth century in its way, yet thoroughly “modern” in its central theme of Shanghai’s shifting, baroque, and often unique interpretations of modernity. Lafcadio Hearn’s work comes to mind, but so does Paul Theroux’s.

Land’s opening paragraph foreshadows the combination of intellectual carnival ride and useful information about to come:

Modern Shanghai and the World Expo were born within a single decade, over 150 years ago. Since then, the twin histories of the world’s most iconic modern city and the greatest festival of modern civilization have unfolded in parallel, with frequent cross-fertilizations, through dizzy ascents and calamitous plunges that tracked the rise, fall, and renaissance of the modernist spirit. Through all these vicissitudes, each has reflected in large measure the trials, tempests, and triumphs of worldwide industrial modernity, defining its promise, nourishing its achievements, and sharing in its setbacks. At World Expo 2010 Shanghai, these parallel tracks melt together, into the largest discrete event in world history.

The guide is organized for both readability and practicality. “Part I: Overview” places the six-month-long Shanghai World Expo in the context of the two-week-long 2008 Beijing Olympics, historical economics of world expositions (“exponomics”), the philosophy of the world exposition movement as exemplified by the Bureau of International Expos (BIE), thematic shifts in recent world expos, and the highlights of the Shanghai Expo’s unique innovations. It is here, for example, where we first learn of the Shanghai Expo’s central theme—“Better City, Better Life,” and its five sub-themes: Blending of Diverse Cultures in the City, Economic Prosperity in the City, Innovation of Science and Technology in the City, Remodeling of Communities in the City, and Interactions between Urban and Rural Areas. We learn that “World Expo Shanghai 2010 shatters Expo records” for site size (528 hectares, including the Puxi and Pudong sides of the Huangpu River that splits the city in two); projected visitor numbers (70 million, a figure Expo officials expect to reach by October 31, 2010, the official end date of the event); number of participating nations (240 plus); unique innovations of a special Urban Best Practice area with large-scale models of city life around the world, the Online Expo Shanghai (www.expo.cn), and numerous techno enhancements to ease the visitor’s experience.

“Part II: History” brings Land’s somewhat furtive project for the guide (hey, isn’t this supposed to be a tourist guide?!), as well as his formidable literary skills, into full view. “The modern world arose unexpectedly and has always perplexed itself,” he writes as his opening salvo in this section:

Modernity’s ceaseless, cumulative change defies every pre-existing pattern, abandoning stability without embracing the higher order of a great cycle or the simple destination of an eschatoalogical conclusion. Although establishing something like a new normality, it departs decisively from any sort of steady state. It displays waves and rhythms, but it subsumes such cycles, rather than succumbing to them. Whilst nourishing apocalyptic speculation, it continuously complicates anticipations of an end time. It engenders a previously unanticipated mode of time and history, characterized by ever-accelerated directional transformation, whose indices are quantitative growth and qualitative innovation. The worldwide consolidation of modernity only deepens its fundamental mystery.

Were in not for its context within a healthy supply of practical information about ticket prices, useful maps, and blow-by-blow accounts of Expo pavilions, such intellectual waxing poetic might come off as rather standard, perhaps even somewhat overblown, cultural studies fare. But as an introduction to and means of reflecting upon the powerfully sensual experience that is the actual Shanghai World Expo, Land’s ruminations of modernity make sense and, indeed, will illuminate the Expo tourist’s experience.

In his history of the Expo movement, Land takes us on a temporal tour from London’s 1851 Crystal Palace, through the birth of the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, to the Wild West-esque American coming out party of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (which perhaps deserves to be seen as America’s nineteenth century equivalent of the Shanghai Expo in terms of brashness and splashiness—though Philadelphia did hold the country’s first World’s Fair seventeen years before earlier in 1876), to the science fictiony embrace of “the future” that became the hallmark of twentieth century expos, the existentialist disillusionment with modernity that marks the slow decline of the preeminence of expos on the world stage, and, finally, to China’s unabashed re-embrace of techno-charged future visions at the Shanghai event. Particularly noteworthy in this section is Land’s sociocybernetics-tinged discussion of “Modernity 2.0”, citing neomarxist sociologist Ulrich Beck’s notion of “second modernity” and Carlos Escudé’s and Agnes Heller’s defense of “the restoration of core modernist themes, as well as a fairly detailed discussion of “neomodernist” architecture as a response to the perceived “sterility” of a postmodernist style.

Heady stuff for the business traveler blowing off an afternoon in Shanghai with a trip to the Expo, but wonderfully relevant for those willing to take a tour through Shanghai’s architectural history and the not unexpected variety of zany/innovative architectural choices that world expo pavilions are famous for (in other terms, “modern” Crystal Palaces and Eiffel Towers giving way to new modernities in Shanghai). “Part III: The City” actually spotlights these features of Shanghai’s urban landscape, addressing Shanghai’s distinct early twentieth-century rejection of a modernist International Style and embrace of Art Deco, a tendency toward a “luscious cosmopolitan style,” Land points out, “perfectly adapted to the Shanghai of the early 20th century.” He brings us up to date, by the end of the chapter, on Expo-related urban design projects, including new transportation hubs and upgrades in power, water, and communication networks.

This latter section of Part III is perhaps the only section of the guide where Land opens himself up to accusations of adopting the apologist role for the Party. While he notes frustrations among Shanghai people regarding chaotic construction over the last decade, he leaves unaddressed the displacement of whole neighborhoods from the Expo site and the continuing complaints of unfair compensation from residents of many of those neighborhoods. While such governmental muscling out of the locals in the name of “the public good” is not unique to China (happens right here in Conway, Arkansas, US of A, as a matter of fact), the magnitude of the displacement in Shanghai results in “better city, better life” for Party officials, real estate moguls, and construction companies (often in the same person), far less so for the average worker. Land, of course, would have little choice in whether or not to address such issues here. The kind of abstract intellectualism (and, by association, abstract political discussion) that Land engages in throughout the guide passes muster among the censors these days in China, but for something so public, international, and riddled with security issues as the Expo, any overt political critique, even one that Party officials support, like “anti-corruption,” could not appear in the guide if it were to have any reasonable chance of publication. This is, after all, still a guidebook, isn’t it?

“Part IV: The Expo Site” really is a guidebook in terms of providing us with the lowdown on several of the national pavilions (still in the design and construction phase when the guide was published), followed by several useful maps and a detailed index.

Aside from the guide’s simultaneous utility as a treatise on modernity and as a tool for tourists, Shanghai World Expo Guide 2010 is pleasingly designed, with color and black and white photos and drawings on almost every page. Though much of the guide is devoted to advertising space, ads are relatively unobtrusive and notably include information about hospitals, activities for families with children, etc.

Though he achieves them with substantially more panache and aplomb than one would expect, Land’s goals in Shanghai World Expo Guide 2010 appear properly humble for a guidebook: to provide a readable, practical, yet intellectually challenging account of the Expo. That the guide does so while offering a serious dose of cultural critique not only makes for a surprisingly stimulating read but also serves double duty as a serious effort to document the biggest coming out party the world has ever seen.

Adam D. Frank is Assistant Professor (Asian Studies and Anthropology) in the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man:  Understanding Identity through Martial Arts.

Read two excerpts from Nick Land’s Expo guide here.

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The Freshest Kids in China

R16 at the Shanghai World Expo

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By George Zhi Zhao

June 19, 2010 I hear the voice of the late James Brown shouting over the booming speakers, and I watch a crowd of dancers move and contort to every minute rhythm and sound that is being controlled and manipulated by the DJ. The energy in the air is tense, as different b-boys (breakdancers) take turns stepping inside a circle of bodies, all asserting themselves in back-to-back solo performances of gravity-defying sequences of dance movements. The competitive performance of breakdancing happens all over the world, in metropolises ranging from New York City to Tokyo, from Moscow to São Paulo. Today, it’s happening in Shanghai, China at the Korean National Pavilion of the 2010 World Expo, with seven of China’s best crews competing for a chance to represent China at the R16 World B-Boy Master Championships in Seoul, South Korea on the fourth of July.

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DJ Dong of South Korea on the wheels of steel

Luckily, I had the opportunity to compete at the event as the organizer of one of these seven crews. Being a Chinese-American b-boy who came out of the Boston and Washington, DC dance scenes, I have been blessed with the opportunity to live and study at Shanghai’s Fudan University over the course of the past year, all the while being immersed in the street dance community in Shanghai and meeting dancers from around the world. My crew, the Art of War (named after Sun Tzu’s book on military strategy), consisted of a mixture of foreigners and native Chinese, with Bureheine from Ukraine, RW from the Netherlands, Jingyu from Shanghai, as well as four members from Beijing’s Forbidden City Rockers. I had met Bureheine and RW at practices at Caster Dance Studio in Shanghai, and the Forbidden City Rockers on a previous trip to Beijing. The Forbidden City Rockers had been trained in part by another Chinese-American b-boy named Ticky from an internationally renowned Boston crew named the Floorlords; the four of them joined our crew at the last minute, only meeting the other three members of our crew on the morning of the competition. Lastly, Jingyu, a slightly overweight b-boy that I had met during my first weeks in the Shanghai scene, had been featured under the name Kung Fu Panda (功夫熊猫) on the nationally televised song and dance competition 全家都来赛 (Quan Jia Dou Lai Sai), and will be featured on this season of Shanghai Television’s 中国达人 (Zhong Guo Da Ren). A language barrier did exist, and I found myself constantly translating so that my crewmembers could communicate with one another.
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Shanghai seems to have turned into a massive game of “Where’s Haibao?” as the image of everyone’s favorite Expo mascot pervades the city, in places both expected and not. Gina Bock, an entering student at Pomona College, recently returned from her first trip to China and shared a few photos of her Haibao sightings with us. They’re now in a Picasa album (link below, and also accessible through our “Media” page). If you have Haibao photos of your own to add (the more unusual, the better!), let us know by writing to thechinabeat[at]gmail.com. Though we suspect Haibao will be only a memory after the Expo ends, we’d like to document the various ways in which the Gumby-like mascot was deployed during his brief lifespan, and we need your help to do so.

Where’s Haibao?

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Expo Watch 2010

By Shellen Xiao Wu

In Shanghai these days it is impossible to avoid the World 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, graces numerous government offices, posters, and official merchandise stalls. To ensure the target of 70 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 (watch a video of this at Shanghaiist).

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A steady crowd of people stream into the Expo park from one of eight entrances.

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, 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.

The China pavilion looms over the central axis of the Expo park. Entrance is limited to 50,000 people per day and requires a reservation.

The China pavilion looms over the central axis of the Expo park. Entrance is limited to 50,000 people per day and requires a reservation.

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 shuttle. 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 a 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.

By late afternoon, many people simply camped out on the grassy areas in the park.

By late afternoon, many people simply camped out on the grassy areas in the park.

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 its 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. Ticket 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 ever 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 or 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 mouths 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.

Shellen Xiao Wu is a graduate student at Princeton University.

This post originally appeared at History Compass Exchanges. It is republished here with permission.

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By Susan Brownell

This posting marks my return to blogging after a break following my participation in the founding of The China Beat in 2008 with my postings from Beijing leading up to the Olympics. Contacts I made during the Olympics led to an invitation to do some informal work for the Forum Department of the Expo Organizing Bureau, and so I am now in Shanghai and blogging about China’s second mega-event.

As the Expo organizers conceive it, the Expo consists of three categories of activities: exhibitions, events, and forums. Of the three, the forums most closely carry out the main concept and ideas of the Expo.

The 1889 Paris exposition was the first to include a Scientific Congress that aspired to assemble the top minds in the world (in those days, the “world” meant Europe and North America). For many decades world’s fairs functioned to gather great thinkers into one place, which facilitated the transnational flow of knowledge and possibly accelerated globalization (a possibility that, in my opinion, awaits fuller exploration by historians). The assertion that the International Congress of Arts and Science at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (about which I have edited a book) constituted “the most noted assemblage of thinkers the world has ever seen” was not far from the truth. The list of luminaries in attendance included Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Henri Poincaré; in the fledgling discipline of anthropology the friction between WJ McGee and Franz Boas expressed there arguably contributed to the paradigm shift toward cultural anthropology.

Recent Expo Forums do not seem to have matched their former luminescence, probably because modern communications have made it unnecessary to physically collect great minds in the same place anymore. The Shanghai Expo aspires to emulate the old model. Between April 2009 and April 2010, some 60 public forums were held all over China and in Hong Kong and Macao. Six international “Theme Forums” will be held during the sixth months of the Expo, culminating in a “Summit Forum” in Shanghai on the final day. The purpose of the Theme Forums is to put forward “significant strategic recommendations” for sustainable urban development. The Summit Forum will bring together heads of state and the U.N. and other leading figures. At the Expo closing ceremony, the “Shanghai Declaration” will be read out and signed. China considers it a very important document that will consolidate the results of the forums and express a consensual declaration of intent to achieve sustainable urban development. The Expo Bureau hopes that it will be one of the main achievements of the Expo that will shape the future of global society.

Input into the content of this document is being sought from multiple groups and individuals, of which I am one. However, I suspect that my more important contribution might be to help the Forum Department with English translation. In any case, on May 15-16 I attended the first forum, the Forum on ICT and Urban Development in Ningbo. As a cultural anthropologist, I admit that the topic was so foreign to me that I first had to figure out that ICT means “information and communication technology,” which is how the Chinese 信息化 was translated. The latter is a word that demonstrates that in some cases Chinese is a better language for the 21st century than English, since it is the more elegant equivalent of the awkward English “informatization,” or sometimes “cyberization.”

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Wall outside the Forum hotel

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