Curtain drawn on Expo in a blaze of neon glory

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am

Six months of international festivities ended yesterday as Shanghai shut the gates on the biggest and most expensive World Expo in history.

Canto-pop stars Andy Lau Tak-wah and Leo Ku Kui-kei, and Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan were among the highlights of a 65-minute closing ceremony dominated by kitschy, mass-choreographed performances.

Following a brief address by Vice-Premier Wang Qishan and Jean-Pierre Lafon, president of the Bureau International des Expositions, Premier Wen Jiabao declared the expo closed and the nine-act programme opened with the theme song Ode to Expo by tenors Wei Song , Dai Yuqiang and Mo Hualun .

The tenors were joined on stage by a procession of models dressed in sparkly pink-lace gowns and wearing hats shaped like the expo's various pavilions, all painted in garish colours. The kitsch mood of the show was lifted another notch when the stage was flooded with ultraviolet lighting, picking out the pavilion-hats in all their neon glory.

Organisers hailed the multibillion-yuan fair as an overwhelming success. It smashed records for attendance and international participation, and passed without a security incident, which had been a serious concern before the May 1 opening.

Addressing the event's final summit forum earlier yesterday, Wen praised expo organisers for prevailing against difficult circumstances.

'The Shanghai World Expo was held against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and for the first time in a developing country, for the first time in the heart of a major city,' Wen said. 'For China, this was a serious challenge.'

He called the expo an 'eye-opening' celebration of diversity that would leave the 'expo spirit' etched on visitors' hearts. 'The expo tells us that every country, every race has a traditional culture that is worth being proud of.'

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the conference he hoped the expo's theme of 'better city, better life' would help the mainland become an 'urban pioneer'.

'Since May of this year, all around the world, people have been talking about a remarkable, even historic event,' Ban said.

In reality, however, the fair got off to a decidedly wobbly start, when far lower than expected visitor numbers and bad press about huge queues and complaints about food prices and service quality left local government officials privately admitting to concerns that the event could leave the city with egg on its face.

Apart from the 29 billion yuan (HK$33.7 billion) the city invested in building and running the 5.28 sq km park, Shanghai underwent a massive, eight-year build-up. The subway system's expansion has made it one of the most extensive in the world, ring roads were completed and the iconic Bund was given a complete facelift.

But the event rallied in early summer, and visitor numbers soared.

In all, more than 73 million visitors passed through the park's gates over its 184-day run - almost 9 million more than the previous record attendance set by Osaka, Japan, in 1970.

The attendance reached astronomical proportions during the fair's second-last week, when daily gate numbers did not drop below 600,000 over a 10-day period. That late rush brought in 7.5 million visitors - more than the population of Hong Kong and nearly 10 per cent of the total.

Few of those visitors paid the full 130 yuan entry price out of their own pockets, as the city was awash with free tickets for months and packs of scalpers were offering tickets at knockdown prices.

The Shanghai government gave away about 10 million tickets to local residents as part of a 'thank you'. Then in an apparent last-minute push to make the target 70 million attendance, organisers allowed one full-day ticket to be exchanged for two evening tickets. Night-time attendance mushroomed.

With 190 exhibiting countries, plus a further 56 international organisations taking part, this was arguably the most global expo in the event's 159-year history. However, though the fair played host to hundreds of state leaders and government ministers from around the world, fewer than 3 per cent of the visitors came from overseas, by the organisers' own admission.