Despite splash and cash, expo's underwhelming

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 May, 2010, 12:00am

Roll up, roll up, it's the greatest show on earth. Maybe.

Just over a week ago, Shanghai officials were getting ready to bask in the admiration of the known world as they prepared to open the doors of the World Expo 2010.

The city has spent the past eight years preparing for this six-month show and pulled out all the stops to make it the biggest and most expensive in the event's 159-year history.

Desperate to repeat - if not beat - the success of the Beijing Olympics two years ago, the local government has preened and polished, renovated and redeveloped, and upgraded the transport infrastructure to an unprecedented extent.

The world - or more precisely, the domestic tourist market - was supposed to come and 'ooh' and 'aah' at the appropriate moments.

So far, reality has been somewhat different.

Unfortunately, nobody thought to mention to Shanghai's political elite that, as far as most of the world is concerned, expos are old hat. Very few recent expos have developed much coverage outside of their host cities, and the punter in the street from New York to Amsterdam would be surprised to learn they are still held at all.

Even in China, where the expo is a novelty, it's not clear whether anybody really cares. It would seem that ordinary Shanghai people don't - not that many of them, anyway.

Last night, expo organisers claimed slightly more than 100,000 people had come into the site before 5.30pm, pushing the first week's total attendance just over the one million mark. According to their initial predictions, they should have reached that milestone within the first three days.

In public, expo organisers and the city are trying to put a brave face on the situation, but it is fairly safe to say that somewhere in the back corridors of the municipal headquarters, heads are being bashed against walls in frustration.

The expo has taken a bit of a drubbing over the past seven days, and probably nowhere more so than inside the media centre.

First, we expressed our dismay at the dreadful queues outside the busiest pavilions, where people were waiting patiently for four hours or more despite the sweltering heat.

Then we giggled at how few people were showing up on Tuesday - a special local holiday in Shanghai and the first chance ordinary people had to buy day tickets at the gate - and even fewer on Wednesday.

It may surprise you to learn that mainland reporters seem to take even more glee in laughing at the expo than the rest of us - so long as their editors are out of earshot.

They, like many locals in Shanghai, seem to be relishing the opportunity to thumb their noses at an unrepresentative and unaccountable government.

Expo aficionados - such people do exist - often describe the fair as the Olympics of architecture. Never having visited any of the previous ones, I can't compare, but so far the analogy doesn't seem to stand up. To be brutally honest, it's more like a handful of retired medal winners showing up at a village sports day.

As one architectural photographer recently opined: 'There's a lot of tat at the expo, but very little worth seeing.'

In the European section - home to the greatest number of countries that 'get' the expo concept - there are some really striking buildings. The UK pavilion is a bizarre fuzz of acrylic rods set in a landscaped park of silver Astroturf. The exploded diagram of a city street that is the Netherlands pavilion climbs up into the air like a child's drawing. Spain has covered its curvy sculptural steel construction with raffia mats for what we'll call the shaggy-dog look.

Love them or loathe them, they have certainly tried to make a statement, and it's no surprise that this is where the biggest crowds are to be found.

Much of the site, though, is more reminiscent of either a dull industrial estate or a low-budget amusement park - minus the rides.

The Americans, in particular, have drawn widespread derision for building probably the most expensive, nondescript multi-screen cinema in history.

That said, it is also easy to lose sight of the positive side of this shebang, and there is plenty going on at the expo to be proud of.

Even in Shanghai, where wages are significantly higher than in most of the rest of the mainland, travelling abroad remains a fantasy for most locals. Today, they have a chance to tour the world right on their doorstep.

All around the site, people are finding out about countries and cultures many of them had barely heard of before.

Despite all the complaints about the extortionate price of food, the hours wasted in queues, the stifling heat and the distances they've had to walk, people are still managing to have a great time.

With 177 days to go, the Shanghai government can only hope they will tell their friends.



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