Hi Mum, I’m in China and 197 other countries

One day, back in 2009, I read a newspaper article about the world-famous Little Mermaid statue, usually resident in Copenhagen harbour, being removed and sent to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. This immediately filled Alex and I with excitement. Who doesn’t love a World Expo?

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Of course, our excitement can be directly traced back to the heady days of 1988, Australia’s bicentenary year, and the year when Brisbane put itself in the world spotlight by hosting Expo ’88. We both attended and have individual memories of an awesome time. So when we heard that Shanghai would be hosting the Expo, and that we could squeeze in a visit on day 1 of its 6-month opening time if we reorganised our itinerary a bit, then by god, reorganise we did.

China seems to be in a weird place right now. Countries such as Australia and the US desperately want to be friends with it, and China equally desperately wants to show to its own citizens that it is one of the Big Kids on the world stage. Together with feeling like second best after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, this meant that the Shanghai Expo had to be big. Bigger than big. It had to show Beijing that it could do this ‘huge event’ thing, it had to show the rest of the world that China is here to stay, and most importantly, it had to show the Chinese that they are important.

What this all meant is that our expectations of a slightly daggy, very welcoming event (such as Expo ’88) didn’t match up with reality. Various estimates of the total cost of Expo 2010 are in the range of USD55 billion. 55 billion dollars! I can’t even conceive of so much money. But once you enter the site, you begin to see where the money went.

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The site, built across two sites on either side of the Huangpu River, is apparently more immense than Monaco. Alex and I entered first thing at 9am, and left, footsore and incredibly weary at 10pm, and we hadn’t covered the whole thing. We maybe covered 2/3 of it. It’s just huge.

China proudly boasts that 198 countries came to the Expo and have a pavilion there, but in reality lots of the smaller, developing countries had a fancy-ish stall, but were empty inside. Many of these were in the enormous African and Carribean nations pavilions. As wandered through desolate and empty stalls purporting to glorify countries like Benin and Chad and Equatorial Guinea, the whole Expo thing seemed to be a bit of a sham.

So we hightailed it to a rich country’s pavilion. Parochially, we chose to queue up for the popular Danish pavilion. It glowed bright white in the sunshine, and from afar you could see happy visitors travelling down its spiral facade on pushbikes. Good fun.

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The theme for Expo 2010 is ‘Better City, Better Life’, and the best pavilions discussed the issues of healthy urbanisation. Denmark did this really well, showing some great short films about life in Copenhagen, addressing the issue of transport (hence the bikes) and painting life in Denmark as quite idyllic.

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We agree. They sold cold, cold beer there, which was very welcome after an hour queuing in the hot sun.

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We also visited the Australian pavilion, which had tremendous queues and pretty good content, although the revolutionary circular rotating screen film thing was only in Chinese – early teething problems meant there were no English headsets available.

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Still, this is an improvement from the teething problems of the trial opening, when people queuing for the Aussie pavilion were apparently getting into fistfights. Anyway, we enjoyed it and especially enjoyed that the people who put it together resisted the temptation to include any cute, furry animals in the pavilion (with the exception of the giftshop, of course). We left and visited the New Zealand pavilion just in time to see a burly Maori guy lead a few scrawny Chinese dudes through the haka.

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The focal point of the whole site is the upside-down Lego structure that is the massive Chinese pavilion (see first photo). It is immense, visible from very far away, and, it seems, impossible to get into. We didn’t even try.

In total, the experience was just as China so often is – huge, frustrating, amusing, amazing, tiring, and with horrible queues. We’re very happy we went.

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