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|Written by Adam J. Smith|
|Thursday, 29 July 2010 00:00|
One critical aspect when grasping Chinese culture is to understand the importance of ceremonies. Whether this be the Beijing Olympics or an annual company dinner, the opportunity to put on the glitziest, most overblown ceremony possible is never taken lightly. The Shanghai World Expo, currently running until October this year, is no exception. The Chinese have made every attempt to make this the biggest, most expensive, most visited World Expo in human history, with the largest geographical footprint.
Upon arrival, I scanned the Expo site from the grand entrance. The pavilions were arranged like UFOs on a vast stretch of tarmac, extraterrestrial architectural inventions surrounded by massive crowds of camera-clad tourists. I made a mental note of the pavilions I must see: the UK, USA, France and Japan. The European area was certainly most impressive in the way of innovative architectural design, North and South America were clumped together, Africa was almost reduced to a single pavilion, Asia was kitsch and cartoonish, and the Middle East showed a clear penchant for gold and sparkly things.
Despite being British and therefore biased, I considered the UK pavilion to be one of the most intriguing pavilions at the expo. The British committee had obviously thought beyond the traditional museum format, and aimed to present something a little different -- in this case, an artwork by Thomas Heatherwick. The centrepiece of the UK pavilion was a six-storey-high object formed from some 60,000 slender transparent rods, which extended from the structure and quivered in the breeze. During the day, each of the 7.5m-long rods acted like a fibre-optic filament, drawing on daylight to illuminate the interior, thereby creating a contemplative, awe-inspiring space. The pavilion sat on a landscape looking like paper that once wrapped the building and that lay unfolded on the site.
I feel the UK pavilion suggested the approach London may take in hosting the Olympic Games in 2012. While China presented the world with the largest and most expensive games ever held, big does not always equal best. I hope London will present an artistic extravaganza, and articulate itself as a true global city in which 150 languages are spoken every day, people from every nation live, and any food, style of clothing and product can be found. While China must bring the world to Shanghai in the form of an expo, London doesn't need to do this: ''the world' is already all there.
The USA was most disappointing. The exterior pavilion resembled a cross between a high security prison and an insecticide factory, which led me to believe that whatever was inside had to be better! I was wrong. Basically, after waiting in line for three hours, a large crowd, including myself, was hustled into a vaulted dark room where a video was projected of Americans trying to speak Chinese. The Chinese people in the room loved it and laughed uproariously, but the joke was kind of lost on me. We were then hurried into another room in which another video was projected, introduced by Hillary Clinton, about American values and the need to create a sustainable green economy. Again, we entered another room with a final video projection, this time featuring a young girl's desire to create a community garden out of a vacant lot in what looked like New York or Chicago. Fair enough presenting just videos, but at least make them better than amateur YouTube fodder. The overall feel was rushed, like the US committee had spent months arguing about how the USA should be represented in China, and the night before the final plans were to be realized, they decided, "Fuck it! We'll throw up anything!"
France was shameless, as it appeared to exist purely for its sponsors: Citroen, Michelin, and, of course, Louis Vuitton. I could have seen these products in the stores of downtown Shanghai and would have saved myself at least two hours waiting time. People were crowding around the items like they'd never seen a car or (real) LV bag before!
The general ethos of the Japanese pavilion was how technology is the answer to every problem, whether those problems are environmental, economic or spiritual. While I admire Japan's optimism, this idea might be somewhat naive. There was an eclectic animation though, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack, about a young girl and an old boatman riding down a polluted river lined with factories and coking plants. The old man helps the young girl find a rare type of bird on the brink of extinction, which is dying on the riverbank. The animation was presented in traditional water-colours, and the soundtrack incorporated ancient Japanese instruments. It really was a breathtaking piece and possibly the most effective ecological statement I saw at the expo.
Ecology and the protection of the environment were overriding themes that tied the majority of the exhibits together, and that created a real sense of urgency to tackle the converging crises of the 21st century. Evidently the expo suffers from a case of green-washing. The exhibitions that urged people to take action on saving the planet came across as somewhat contradictory, considering the amount of people encouraged and projected to fly into Shanghai from around China and the world to visit the expo site. It's also bizarre that China is so enthusiastic about envisaging itself as a country concerned about the environment, considering it is now the world's number one emitter of carbon, it trashed the talks at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009, and shows worryingly little concern for protecting its own localized environment.
What I found most striking about the Expo and Shanghai in general, is how it compares with the rest of China. Yes, Shanghai is a modern, vibrant and wealthy city, but it in no way reflects the rest of the country. Most Chinese provincial cities and towns are overwhelmingly depressing, ugly and impoverished holes you wouldn't want to visit never mind live in. In many ways this is what I found frustrating about the expo and Shanghai in general. Despite both expo and city aiming to represent China and the world, they really didn't do this in my opinion; instead they offer an airbrushed and impressively well-funded version of China and the world. Just for the record, the Chinese government spent an estimated $48 Billion USD on constructing the expo and sprucing up Shanghai for the event, more than was spent on the Beijing Olympics.
The Expo could be viewed as a stunt by the Chinese government in an attempt to lead everyone to believe that China is now a progressive, open and developed nation, despite its continued denial of basic human rights, its creation of environmental devastation of epic proportions, and its storming of nations around the world from Tanzania to Indonesia on the hunt for resources. This view, though, is pessimistic, and I left the expo feeling differently. I believe the Chinese have gone to great lengths to create a favourable impression of just how accommodating China can be of cultures from around the world, and how accommodating the Chinese are and will hopefully continue to be.
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