In all the rushing around at expo, something new: the orderly queue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 June, 2010, 12:00am

There is a viral text message making the rounds in Shanghai.

'Nothing to do and want to waste some time? Go to the expo and queue up. Want to break up with your lover? Take her to the expo to queue up. Do you hate someone? Give him an expo ticket and make him stand in a queue. If you still hate him, send him more tickets and make his whole family stand in a queue.'

It's hardly cutting satire, but it neatly depicts the city's residents' overriding impression of the World Expo so far.

Despite a truly dismal opening fortnight that gave Shanghai officials serious jitters about the six-month fair's viability, business in the vast park has finally started to pick up.

Last Saturday - by far its busiest day yet - the park drew a crowd of 505,000 and now regularly has more than 300,000 visitors on ordinary days. (There is widespread scepticism about just how accurate those figures are, but even the most fervent of the expo's detractors admit it is busier than before.)

At last, Shanghaiers and tourists from neighbouring cities and provinces have woken up to the fact they have the world on their doorstep and are coming to take a look.

But that has come at a price - barely imaginable overcrowding in the busiest areas of the 5.28 sq km site and waits of up to eight hours to get into the top-rated national pavilions. I find it hard to fathom the mentality behind standing in the sun for several hours to get into a building that will most likely take less than 15 minutes to view.

Truth be told, a large number of visitors don't seem to have a well-formulated idea of what they're doing there, either.

The word has gone around that the expo mustn't be missed, and so the masses have faithfully trotted along - their numbers largely made up of packs of sweaty schoolchildren and dazed retirees. Nobody seems to have stopped to wonder what it's all about and what it's all for.

There is a kind of expo mania that grabs hold of these swarms of visitors and spurs them to race back and forth, determined to get around as much of the park as possible, simply to be able to say, 'been there, done that'.

The insanity reaches its peak in places like the combined Africa pavilion - an enormous hangar segmented into displays for dozens of the continent's nations. There are giraffes, monkeys and mud huts aplenty here, but the cultural diversity on offer goes largely unnoticed. The vast majority of visitors stride from booth to booth, crowding around the counters where some unfortunate staff member is constantly stamping mock passports. Invariably, they move on to the next country barely having glanced at the exhibits.

But to a degree, it is the same story even in the star national pavilions - the ones where visitors have spent hours crammed in cattle gates waiting to get in. Finally allowed through, gaggling tour groups rush from one display cabinet to the next, taking photos of everything in sight - but without pausing to reflect on what is on show.

This isn't all mainland tourists' own fault, though. Apart from a few notable exceptions - the Czech Republic pavilion's playful collection of digital artworks, for example - most national pavilions have opted for oddly unimaginative content, favouring style over substance and frustratingly - nay, insultingly - passive. Most places have built what is effectively a hugely expensive tourism promotion that fails to address the expo's core theme of urban design and sustainable development.

There are understandable reasons for this: The exhibitions were designed with the express wish to maintain a smooth and constant flow of people. But it's hard not to feel that a great opportunity has been lost for truly engaging and interactive exhibits that could have made a lasting impression on mainlanders.

Much has been made in some international media of a few sporadic incidents where the visitor flow broke down. Just last weekend there was some kind of a crush outside the park's performance centre when several thousand fans of Korean pop attempted to grab tickets for a performance by the boy band Super Junior. Accounts vary about what actually happened, but the Korea pavilion insists that reports that several people were injured were greatly exaggerated.

There have been other reports of irate tourists chanting insults about the Germans being Nazis when they have had to close their pavilion to fix a technical fault. Perhaps understandably, the German organisers are not keen to comment about that.

These episodes are the exception rather than the rule, though. People may complain about the length of the queues, but they do queue with remarkably little pushing or shoving. Anyone attempting to jump into the line for a national pavilion can expect to get a thorough trouncing from nearby visitors.

As anyone who has done any travelling on the mainland will attest, that is certainly a new phenomenon.

It is almost as if it's another symptom of that expo mania, the change in mindset that normal rules don't apply inside the park.

Let's hope it's catching.