There is a buzz around China at the moment. No, not that misfiring scooter that’s just gone past, but a more permanent buzz - Shanghai’s World Expo.
The World Expo is showcase for the World. Each country has a pavillion (the size of which being dictated by the size of it’s political ego), showing tit-bits that aim to represent and flaunt each country’s virtues. It’s only held every 5 years, the last one being in Japan, and as with the Beijing Olympics China has made sure no-one can accuse them of undercooking their hosting of the event.
The World Expo is everywhere. Television adverts run between documentaries about the Expo and its effect on Shanghai. The news brings updates on how queueing visitors are coping with the heat, and snapshots of the country who’s Pavilion day it is. But above all these things the one thing you can’t escape, be you in Shanghai, Beijing or (no doubt) stranded in the middle of the Tibetan plateau is HaiBao - the Expo’s mascot. HaiBAo
HaiBao looks rather like a Smurf who’s been squashed by some lift doors. He’s an irrepresibly-blue, unashamably-smug, forcibly-cute omnipresent icon. He’s also meant to represent the
Chinese character for people (ren - 人). I’m utterly unconvinced.
Before you even reach the Expo site in Shanghai HaiBao’s current stranglehold over China is inescapable. Street sellers thrust HaiBao stuffed toys at you. Mobile shops try and sell you HaiBao covers for your phones. There are HaiBao t-shirts, umbrellas, mugs, stools and everything else you can think of. I can only presume that the Chinese Navy have HaiBao shaped frigates, Tibetan monks have HaiBao branded prayer-wheels and that Hu JinTao is wearing HaiBao Y-fronts at this very moment.
China’s attitude to HaiBao is also China’s attitude to it’s world fayre. It has to be done, ticked off. Crowd mentality. Some Western friends recently went to Shanghai for a long weekend, without frequenting the Expo. This was met by a general feeling of bemusement, puzzlement and disbelief. 500,000 a day? Not too shabby…
On average everyday the Expo sees 500,000 people. This is an extraordinary number. Imagine if half of Manchester went to Lego land on the same day. It will run for 6 months, meaning around 100 million people, or 1.6% of everyone in the world, will pass through its doors. This rather blows my mind.
*I pause to note an advert with HaiBao currently playing on my TV*
What disappointed me was that the World Expo didn't appear to be designed to show the World to the rest of the World - it is designed to show the World to China. Well over 95% of visitors will be Chinese nationals, thus international visitors are by-the-by. Some pavilions don’t even have English captions. I'm used to it in Chinese Museums, but I had hoped a world fayre would be different. Scaling the Queues
We managed to skip the biggest queues by keeping it obscure. We only visited an array of small countries, and didn’t queue for more than 30 minutes for anything. The most populated country we visited was Libya but we certainly saw an interesting, and varied array of places. Particular highlights included the Pacific Joint Pavillion which was full of fascinating glimpses into countries barely on the world radar.
We got chatting to a friendly guy on the Papua New Guinea pavilion. He is currently studying Chinese, in readiness for increasing Chinese investment in his country. I was puzzled how he got his Expo job.
“Oh they knew I
was in China, so rang me up to see if I could come along and help” he explained. I wondered how “they” (implying the Papua New Guinea powers that be) knew who was in China; he made it sound like they had tracks on everyone.
“So how many Papua New Guineans are there in China at the moment?”
“I think there’s about 12, mainly up in Beijing though”.
By the end of the conversation I was captured by his country. I vowed to visit at least, and thoughts of getting a job and settling down to a Papua New Guinea life became incredibly attractive. But then again, the same could be said for a Vanuatu display next door…
Of the Expo as a whole two things really struck me about the place. Firstly was the incredible investment and infrastructure. Only five buildings at the site are permanent, all the other are temporary. Most are fantastic works of design, inspiration and engineering and it’s a shame that after 6months they will be flattened. Then there were people’s investment into pavilions - many queues were massive. We went on an ordinary Wednesday yet some pavilions had 5 hour
queues. That’s half a day for a pavilions that will probably take 20 minutes at most to see. It’s been said that if the World Expo achieves nothing else it will teach 100million Chinese how to queue.
There were also some wonderful display of international politics and national pride on show, none more so than in the placement of the Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau pavillions - nestled at the foot of the Chinese pavillion which towers above, sheltering and guiding her young. There’s no question who is boss.
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