|Andy at the site of the NYWF|
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|
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|
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|
|Communication technologies are showcased throughout Expo 2010|
|Expo 2010 passport|
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|
|Andy and Jenny at Pavilion of the Future|
|Toilet of the Future|
|Y-Wings over China|
|Jenny visits a tiny town|
|Andy practices his LunchFu against Bruce Lee|
|Line outside the Oil Pavilion|
|Andy enjoys a cucumber at the Oil Pavilion|
|Waiting outside the Oil Pavilion|
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|
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|
Lisa: "They can't seriously expect us to swallow that 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.
Skinner: "Now as a special treat, courtesy of our friends at the Meat Council, please help yourself to this tripe."
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"|
|Jenny navigates Expo 2010|
|Video displays at the Spanish Pavilion|
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!