Why bother with expos when shopping malls do it better
with Jake van der Kamp
Six thematic exhibitions will be held at the atrium of the Hong Kong Pavilion throughout the Shanghai Expo period from May 1 to October 31, 2010 to promote various aspects of Hong Kong, including its unique connectivity and creativity.
Government news release
The shift to the second of the six has just been made. Number two theme is the global connectivity of our airport. If you get on a plane in Hong Kong you can connect to anywhere in the world. Where else can you do this, eh? Hong Kong is unique, you see.
Number one theme was 'Green Living in Hong Kong' - I leave you to make your own obvious remarks on that one. Coming up soon we will have 'Stories Behind Banknotes'.
No, I'm not kidding. Let me set the scene here. It is bedtime and father has just picked up a book to read to his children who are already tucked under the blankets.
'Now, my little ones, what shall we have tonight? Would you like me to read Cinderella or maybe Jack and the Beanstalk?'
'No, Daddy, we want to listen to Stories Behind Banknotes. That's the best one of them all. It's sooooooo good.'
I once saw an expo I enjoyed. It was in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C. The city of Philadelphia in 1876 had staged an expo to highlight the achievements of American industry over the first 100 years of independence. Everything was packed up after the show and in 1976 the Smithsonian put it all on show again for the bicentennial.
What a superb idea. It offered a matchless insight into how American culture conceived itself in 1876, all the real achievements along with the idiocies, the dreams along with the delusions, quaint notions along with grandiose boasts.
I went back several times and spent hours there. But that expo also highlighted what is wrong with the whole expo business. It is a dated concept, a 19th century idea that does not really fit in the 21st century.
It is dated, first of all, because it is best suited to the display of artefacts, for the most part industrially manufactured ones. These are the sorts of things you can most easily put in display cases against the walls or on the floors of the pavilions where you showcase the offerings of an expo.
This was a great winner in the 19th century, a stunning success for the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, when the idea was first tried out. But now you can find the same show available in any shopping mall with more variety, swifter changes of displays and a greater range of offerings.
What is more, it can all be yours. Just pull out your credit card. We now have expos every day of the week on every street in town.
The promoters of expos don't like to admit this but they have nonetheless recognised it by putting the emphasis in recent years on the pavilions rather than on the contents of the pavilions. Shanghai clearly exemplifies this trend. Of course no one is going to put a great deal of money into such buildings. They have a design life of only a few months. The emphasis is therefore on the architecturally cheap and cute, the Hello Kitty of building design.
But there is no reason to go to Shanghai to see this practised. Just get yourself a few boxes of Lego bricks (knock-offs are available at a fifth the price in most street markets) and you can do it yourself. You'll have more fun, too.
Then there is the flag waving element of expos. At the Crystal Palace in 1851 there was no denying that the marvels labelled as British were all British indeed. Try doing that for a portable DVD player these days. Industry defies national borders now. Manufactured artefacts do not wave flags.
So then you have governments looking for other things they can display to give themselves distinction. They find it difficult but they pull out all the stops nonetheless. For the Shanghai expo Denmark flew in the actual Little Mermaid of the Copenhagen harbour.
You look at it and, surprise, surprise, it's exactly like the photos showed it to be, like any replica easily made in Shanghai itself, ho-hum, no Michelangelo's David here, just a tourist trap that the Danes brought to the tourists rather than the other way round.
And we couldn't even manage that much. Global connectivity at our airport? Yes, if you fly to some other airport first. Let's just run up a list of the major European cities to which you cannot fly from our airport because Cathay Pacific did not find it convenient and no other airline was thus offered reciprocal rights.
No, I don't think I'll bother going to Shanghai for the show. I side with the majority on this one.