Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Shanghai World's Fair: Day 2

Andy at the site of the NYWF
I opened the drapes and beheld a thick, dreary sky. Shanghai pulsed with cars and a hint of rain, and we were going to the World's Fair. As a scholar who writes about these things, it's strange to admit, this would be my first world's fair. All the others, I'd merely studied. Not that I hadn't come close to the real thing.

Looking out the window, I remembered another day, about a decade ago, when I was invited to present a speech in New York about the 1939-40 and 1964-65 World's Fairs. My talk would be part of a celebration for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, site of those famed expos. For me, it was a chance to solidify my reputation as a serious researcher on world's fairs.

I spent months preparing that speech, and days memorizing it: the number of fake plants in Norman bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit, the amount of acreage claimed from land once described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the "Valley of Ashes," the names and key pavilions of the fair's various "zones," stuff like that. I wanted to do well.

Over the phone, the person running the show described the set-up. There'd be a portable stage built near the stainless steel Unisphere (you know, that metal Earth that was blown up in Men in Black). There'd be no LCD projectors or other media-crutches, though. just me and a microphone - and an hour to talk about the world's fair as a global phantasmagorium of commerce.

I was terrified.

When I arrived, a little before midnight, I focused only on the next morning. I flowed from airport gate to taxi to hotel room, my eyes nearly shut the entire time. The speech filled my vision, each word a potential stumble into public humiliation. Being driven along the Grand Central Parkway, I barely noticed when we rode past the silvery Unisphere, lit up at night.

In my hotel room I shut the curtains and paced in the darkness, practicing and practicing. By about three in the morning I could do the entire speech without a glitch. A gentle tapping sound against the windows helped me drift to sleep. Two hours later I awoke and opened the curtains, ready to see the city at last.

The sky was blotted out with pouring rain.

The event organizers were packing up when I arrived. The celebration was canceled, with no backup plans. The visionary who booked my speech: nowhere to be found. One of the set-up guys looked sadly at me and fished out some t-shirts from the back of a van. "Thanks anyway, dude," he said, handing me souvenirs of a speech I would never give.

Ten years later, while our guide was driving us through Shanghai, I took comfort in private knowledge: For all my practicing, I wasn't ready for that speech. I didn't yet know enough. Heck, I'd never even seen a real world's fair; I'd merely read about them. I would have made a fool of myself.

Well, today I was going to see a world's fair. And not just any fair, but the largest and most expensive expo in the history of the world.

Merging into the convoluted stream of cars, buses, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians, heading for Expo 2010, Jenny and I laughed at the site of googly-eyed Haibao dancing on an animated sign. The smiling blob and his cheesy blue pompadour is supposed to resemble the Chinese character for "human" (though he more closely mimics Gumby to American critics, and his name actually means "sea treasure"). In all sorts of media around town, Haibao is even being used to instill new rules of courtesy into Shanghai life.

In one cartoon, we see someone in a movie theater talking too loudly on a mobile phone while other folks are trying to watch the show. The patrons are getting surly when Haibao bounces to the rescue, gently reminding the social scofflaw to be more considerate. The cell-yeller's cheeks grow red; the lesson has sunk in.

Haibao is everywhere in Shanghai: as topiary, on manhole covers, in comic books: a constant presence reminding people to avoid abandoning bags in metro stations, to offer elderly people seats on crowded trains, and to stop wearing pajamas outside their homes (outdoor pajama-wearing is still a fashion amongst some of Shanghai's older residents). Haibao also reminds locals to see the Fair, of course.

Waiting to enter the world's fair
As the weight of Shanghai's humidity began to bear down on us, a morning scorcher promising a high that could exceed a hundred degrees, our guide dropped us off at the Fair's entrance. That's where we faced our first real sense of what was ahead. A swarm of people, thousands of them, were waiting for officials to open the gates to the security tent. This wasn't a line but a long collection of lines, row after row of sweating, jostling, chatting, laughing, arguing humanity.

Which line was the one for us? Our tickets offered no clue, so we just fell into one crowd and commenced to wait for the gates to open. I'd read somewhere that entrepreneurial folks were hawking fold-up stools, and right away I bought a couple. At ten Yuan a piece, these cheap plastic gimmicks would become two of our favorite and most practical world's fair souvenirs.

Over a half hour or so, the mass of people packed deeper and deeper. More lines would form with the logic of bird clusters splitting from a flock, and sometimes cops would tell a large group waiting in one queue to join another, inspiring groans but no apparent anger. These folks, it seems, know about lines, and they were generally homogenous in projecting a spirit of calm in the face of the potentially maddening crowd.

I should add that the population of this growing community of fairgoers was almost entirely Asian. Rarely did I see anyone who looked like they'd traveled from Europe or the Americas (though I got used to hearing an occasional crock of Aussie twang). Planners expect that 95 percent of all fairgoers will be from China, which means that Jenny and I were sure to stand out. We drew smiles and some awed looks, along with a few nods of encouragement, especially when we opened our folding chairs and joined the congregation.

Courtesy reminders are everywhere in the expo
Getting into the fair and seeing its most popular exhibits is a matter of waiting and walking and sitting. Wait for the group in front of you to move ahead. Walk into their section. Sit down (or stand if you need to stretch your legs). Then there's security, followed by more waiting, some jostling, and a little cutting. While I wouldn't presume to speak authoritatively about the Chinese people, I can say with confidence that folks in Shanghai have no problem taking some slowpoke's place in line. Leave an opening and you convey in universal terms: "I don't really care when I get there." Lacking any appearance of remorse, the faster, more determined local will snap up your spot and never look back. Jenny and I learned to smile in these moments, but also to zealously advance when space became available, lest we get turned in circles like slipstreams from a jet airplane. Around here things move fast, or not at all.

Security proved to be a perfunctory affair, with the guards doing as well as possible to move the crowd along without allowing gaping hazards onto the expo site. It didn't take long to get pushed out of the sweaty tent onto a concrete square. Riding that human current, our hearts gladdened to finally get started, we headed for the stairs. Just one quick pass through a metro station and then… Another line, this time to board the train that leads to the fairgrounds. This is Line 13, a newly built three-station stretch that conveys visitors to the east or west banks of the Huangpu River. Knowing the difference, we'd soon discover, is critical to enjoying the fair.

Water misters help manage the heat
Just ambling along the broad boulevards under those punishing temperatures leads to frustration, if not heat stroke. Extending over two square miles and packed with about a half million visitors on some peak days, the expo is just too big for browsing. Best to approach the fair somewhat more methodically, understanding first that it's built on both banks of the river. On the east side (the Pudong) lay most of the national pavilions; that's where most visitors start. On the west side (the Puxi), corporate and state exhibits command slightly less attention. The Puxi lines are still long - oh, yes - but not quite as long as those on the Pudong. Jenny and I agreed that we'd start slow and steel ourselves for the more crowded side later in the day.

Communication technologies are showcased throughout Expo 2010
Our first stops were practical: an ATM to get some cash and a souvenir stand to buy a "passport." By passport, I mean a booklet used by fair visitors to collect pavilion stamps, which are colored ink icons applied by hand. Perhaps the most popular collectible at the expo, the passport produces a sense of accomplishment, especially, observers note, for locals who may never travel outside of China. Colorful names from faraway places will do nicely instead. I'd heard tales of older folks (who supposedly love these things the most) walking from stamp-table to stamp-table, collecting inked proof of having gone somewhere while ignoring the pavilions themselves.
Expo 2010 passport
That's why when I read about how these trinkets get snapped up quickly each day, I insisted that we dive into a scrum of people shoving money at the poor young woman trying to get rid of the things. Once again I was amazed to see the disappearance of any sense of decorum (don't get Jenny started on the locals' propensity for outdoor loogie-hocking). Passports didn't go to those who waited longest; they went to those who shouted most loudly or pounded the counter most forcefully. Later I'd learn that the fair is stocked with passports; they're everywhere, and in lots of varieties. Nonetheless we got ours and commenced on our tour of civilization as imagined by Chinese planners and corporate PR-types.

We started, inevitably given my research passions, at the SAIC-GM Pavilion. SAIC refers to something called the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, but I was there for the GM side of the show. General Motors, after all, produced one of the most famous pavilions in world's fair history: the Futurama exhibit, back in the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.

Futurama was a demonstration of America's future, the thrillingly almost-here world of 1960, as it could be imagined by car manufacturers. A dark-ride through a diorama of modern planning, Futurama asked: Why should we suffer in crowded cities and rundown small towns when we could stretch out across a continent? Why poke about in packed buses when we could drive our own cars? All-weather interstate highways and reasonably priced autos would transform public life, allowing each worker to own a piece of the American dream: a suburban house far from work, a garden away from the machine! For years I'd imagined myself as a time traveler standing in one of Futurama's famously endless queues (I'd prefer the 1939 version, though I would have settled for the lamer 1964-65 model).

For 2010, GM and SAIC teamed up to produce a vision of Shanghai in the year 2030. OK, that's pretty cool too. Anyway, it's a line that leads to a "4-D" theater that leads to a set of interconnected stories told in Chinese language (and no subtitles). Something about how mobility and the spirit of "Xing!" connect us all. Whatever. The fun part is sitting in these cool moving seats that jerk with each motion of the film, immersing yourself in the Shanghai of Tomorrow: an urban fantasy of cartoon people, crazy architecture, and futuristic gadgets. And driving.

Cars of the Future
In the SAIC-GM future, everyone drives, even blind people. But no one worries about controlling their Future Cars. No, they're immersed in a colorful mediascape of heads-up displays and videoconferencing. Of course they experience drama in the world of tomorrow too. A young woman is set to give birth, a video game-obsessed boyfriend chases after the girl who dumps him, and an estranged father and daughter reconnect. The film presents hazy memories and near-death moments and a global concert witnessed by everyone, from space-borne Chinese astronauts and drunken American revelers. The film's got self-charging, self-driving, self-parking Bubble Cars! (and a piano that explodes into a burst of birds for some reason). The film is an unabashed celebration of corporate power to produce the greater good [Here's a YouTube video made by another fairgoer]. After the show, child performers cavort around real-life versions of the Car of Tomorrow, prancing around the techno-maypole.

Andy and Jenny at Pavilion of the Future
Afterward we walked by the Oil Pavilion, which has been reviewed as a must-see. But those lines already looked like they were stretching past the hour-mark. So we kept moving toward Pavilion of [the] Future, an exhibit dedicated to tomorrow's visions of urbanity that is incongruously located in a Rust Belt-era power plant building topped with a smokestack called the "Expo Harmony Tower." The pavilion starts with a long hallway showing cinema-sized clips of movies depicting tomorrow's cities. Then there's a room filled with stacks of oversized books that address utopian themes, and even larger books with digitally turning pages that rise above fairgoers' heads.

Toilet of the Future
And then there are the toilets of the future -- two of them! (both, western pedestal models). Tomorrow's toilets illustrate the promise of new technology, I guess. Then comes the darkened statue room lined by naked people watching videos of, well, I'm not sure. Best not to dwell too deeply here. Finally there's a 110 foot tall screen featuring five visions of future cities as they'd be imagined by children. It's the perfect world's fair pavilion. Crowded, complex, and confusing. I loved it [Oh, and Star Wars fans should look carefully for Y-Wing Fighters on the "Intelligence City" display].

Y-Wings over China
Outside, the temperature was nearly starting to melt the sidewalks. Happily the clouds that had been gathering all morning burst into a perfectly timed shower (maybe an example of China's cloud-seeding technology at work). Jogging into the Urban Best Practices Area, Jenny and I sauntered through "case buildings" that featured local examples of livable city-life. I was drawn immediately to the Malmö exhibit and its miniaturized version of the Swedish city, and we both enjoyed the chance to walk over an ersatz Charles Bridge in "Prague."

Jenny visits a tiny town
Other memorable moments from the UBPA include the long line for Osaka's 360-degree film about the role of water in the city's history, a Beijing Tiny Town reproducing the 2008 Olympic Village, and Hong Kong's animated floor that allowed us to present an impromptu remake of Michael Jackson's "Beat it" video. I got some good natured ribbing at a case focusing on Izmir, Turkey, when I failed to present my expo passport opened to the supposedly correct page. After directing me to the proper page for stamping, the woman smiled mischievously and pronounced her verdict: "You naughty" [Maybe she was still steamed that Izmir's proposal to host Expo 2015 was bested by Milan's sleep-inducing pitch]. Nearby fairgoers who'd packed their own lunches were sitting alongside walls, enjoying a break from the weather.

Andy practices his LunchFu against Bruce Lee
Once the rain turned into light drizzle we headed to Kungfu for a Chinese version of fast food: steamed spareribs, vegetables, rice, and chicken quarters. We both thought the meal was pretty good, even the soup was tasty (though the viscous lumps of gunk floating in our pots of chicken broth gave me pause). Potty breaks introduced us to the delightful option of the traditional squat toilet. By now, lines to popular pavilions were snaking around the buildings. GM's had ballooned to epic size, and the community outside the Oil Pavilion had grown large enough to potentially elect a mayor (or Central Committee, I guess). I estimated, roughly, an hour-long wait, and some sections of the line seemed to shuffle along pretty fast. It couldn't be that bad.

Line outside the Oil Pavilion
Yes, it was worse. In fact the line was composed of three sections, each its own little sub-contained cell of long marches down one row and back up the next. The sun had returned, its heat only dissipated by misters that rained water drops down from the open-air roof. At one section, folks would dig through boxes containing hunks of ice. At other parts of the line, guys would hawk sodas and ice creams over the fences (Jenny and I sprung for cups that contained some sort of creamy pineapple concoction). One family even passed out vegetables, which contributed to a cooling sense of solidarity.

Andy enjoys a cucumber at the Oil Pavilion
Still, that line was annoying. One section would appear to race toward the entrance while ours wouldn't budge. Perhaps jumpers were crowding in somewhere? Later I understood that the dynamics of the line were similar to the whole "flapping butterfly in China causing a hurricane in America" phenomenon. Eventually we'd move too, rapidly, clearly on the wake of motions that took perhaps a half hour to filter to us.

Waiting outside the Oil Pavilion
Toward the end of our wait, which passed the two-hour mark, a couple of women broke into a screeching fight, much to the amusement of folks standing nearby. The scene of shouting and clinched fists was so remarkable because it was so unlike the rest of the experience. Indeed, after marching (mostly) patiently around fenceposts toward the yawning entrance of an air conditioned pavilion dedicated to oil production, sharing that time with a thousand other Chinese fairgoers, I found myself feeling downright philosophical. Thus I present…

Zen and the Art of Chinese Line Standing:

5. Trust your neighbors: It's OK to hang heavy stuff on a fencepost as long as your row will head this way back again. Everyone is watching, and no one will swipe your stuff.

4. Celebrate the success of strangers: If someone else is moving closer to the pavilion entrance, that means you're getting closer too.

3. De-stress: Just because you can fill a gap in the line, you don't have to (especially if that section is exposed to the sun). While disorganized lines can be sites of chaos, solid barriers and peer pressure can produce a community of people willing to follow the rules. So cop a squat and catch up once you can advance to the next shady spot.

2. Stay humble: It may take you hours to get from the rear to the front; It's OK to feel good at the finish line. But remember, in a tightly compacted line you're never that far from folks who are just starting out.

1. Be nice: When standing in a line that snakes back and forth, smile at folks on the other side of the railing. You'll see your neighbors again.

Oil Pavilion mascot gets fresh with Jenny
Was the Oil Pavilion worth the wait? Of course it was! I was thrilled by each nonsensical geegaw and every deceptive piece of pro-oil propaganda. A mannequin that vaguely resembles Marilyn Monroe? Sure! An inverted pyramid of, I dunno, grains fed by petrochemicals? Where's my camera! A corn-colored "oil-drop" mascot competing with our beloved Haibao for love and affection? Go get 'em, you golden bastard!

Yeah, I was a little punchy by this point. As a result I was perfectly primed for the 4-D film - you know, with bursts of air and hidden seat-mechanisms to produce that "You Are There" feeling in a movie that can't be somehow approximated by mere characterization and plot development. In one scene, an oil-hand produces and sets aloft a glorious airplane. In another scene, three-dimensional candy floats inches from our faces. The movie supposedly tells the story of oil in human affairs, how our lives revolve around each barrel. I loved every minute.

Jenny wasn't that impressed
Jenny, less enamored with the two-hour wait, quoted The Simpsons:
Lisa: "They can't seriously expect us to swallow that tripe."

Skinner: "Now as a special treat, courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council, please help yourself to this tripe."
Later I'd learn that our lengthy wait to enter the Oil Pavilion was actually quite short. In fact, the Shanghai Daily reported in an article entitled Heat Thrills Foreigners that century-mark temperatures had cut the crowds to a more manageable size, resulting in wait-times being halved at some pavilions. The locals, we were told, were too smart to brave the heat today.

By evening, we both were pooped. But I had to see the other side of the river, to get closer to some of those national pavilions we'd heard so much about. So we did a quick pass through the State Grid Pavilion, which offered a dazzling video presentation inside a giant cube called a "Magic Box," meant somehow to convey how energy is "everywhere" (even in video displays on the ceiling and beneath our feet). It was a total sensory experience, like standing in the center of the cosmos as stars wheeled around in all directions. We were tired, sweaty, and a bit cranky, and yet the show was undeniably cool.

Inside the "Magic Box"
Back outside, the buildings were now aglow with exterior light shows. The bubbled facade of the Oil Pavilion pulsated with saturated colors that radiated in complex patterns. The other pavilions danced to their own symphonies too. Jenny sat awhile to rest her feet while I shot some video. A few minutes later we agreed to head across the Huangpu. Our expo map was now thoroughly crumpled and drenched with sweat from being stuffed all day in the left pocket of my cargo shorts. Ever the patient navigator, Jenny surveyed the map and charted a course to the nearest dock. Before long we passed through the gates and boarded a ferry that would take us across the river to the fair's Pudong Side.

Jenny navigates Expo 2010
Disembarking about 15 minute later, we wandered through a dimly lit park. The crowds dissipated as folks followed their own directions, and we enjoyed the sound of waves lapping against the shore. In the distance, China's massive inverted pyramid, a sky-filling display of national might dwarfing every other pavilion, seemed a million miles of walking away. Jenny and I drifted toward a collection of European exhibits, knowing that we'd only have time to sample one before our legs gave out entirely. For me there was no other choice: I had to see that Spanish exhibit. Jenny was ready to call it a night, but she kindly relented to my pleading and allowed us to join the queue that crawled along the building's wicker basket exterior. Even past 9 p.m. a long line still circled the building.

Video displays at the Spanish Pavilion
Getting inside the Spain Pavilion, much to our delight, didn't take as long as we feared. Once more we were transported to a multimedia explosion of sounds and images. At one point, Pamplona bulls tore through the building, such that even the floors seemed to shake from the tumult. Elsewhere, scenes of Spanish culture and urban life, photographs without names, dripped with anonymous pathos. We walked under a video display of people looking down upon us - we visitors now exhibits - unsure just what it all had to do with Spain, lit by all those random synapses firing at once. But we'd come to see one thing and one thing only: the big baby.

Sitting nearly 21 feet tall, "Miguelín" is an animatronic colossus of cooing, blinking, nodding infantile gigantism built, it turns out, by the same experts who produced the nightmarish aliens in the Alien vs. Predator and Starship Troopers movies. I've read about tensions arising from Spain's choice to focus its culminating moment on babies in a country with a (semi)strict one-child-per-family policy, leading me to wonder just what was Miguelín's creator Isabel Coixet thinking when she designed this monstrous robo-sapien.

Unfortunately her explanation suffers both from the limits of translation and the bland politics of diplomacy: "All our actions have direct consequences on our children's future… [We] have to react to this." OK, then. We saw the Big Baby. We had to see her, to photograph her, and to take some guess at her deeper meanings. Thereafter we grabbed a quick and regrettable meal before making our way toward the exits, through Shanghai's subway system, and finally to our hotel for the night.

See More: Check out my 2010 Expo Video!

Day 1 | Day 3

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