End of the expo lifts a weight off city's shoulders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am

So that's it. After six months of mayhem, World Expo 2010 is over and Shanghai has heaved a collective sigh of relief. In just six short days since the curtain came down, the mainland's biggest city has become a different place, its mood changed in a thousand tiny ways.

Gone is the nervousness, the constant subconscious looking over the shoulder to make sure everyone is on their best behaviour while in the glare of (mostly domestic) media attention. A weight has been lifted from the city's shoulders - one many didn't notice it was carrying - and the reduced tension is uplifting. It's like being a student after exams, free to run riot until the results come in.

But gone, too, is a touch of the city's vitality, the almost tangible buzz in the air brought by countless visiting domestic tourists, plus the odd overseas business delegation.

Visit the Bund, the city's colonial riverfront, and the sudden lack of crowds is astounding. Last week, it was virtually impossible to move on the recently widened promenade; in the past few days you could almost play a game of football there.

Love it or hate it - and there are plenty in both camps - the expo undoubtedly left its thumbprint. Locals largely feigned indifference throughout its 184-day run, none more so than drivers of the expo taxis contractually obliged to check in at the site's gates once a day.

'The expo is just for tourists. We locals aren't interested,' one driver pontificated near the end of the fair. 'I haven't been in and I don't have any plans to. The only Shanghai people who'd bother are parents with small kids, and I suppose the little ones might like it. But for adults, the whole thing is pointless.'

But with just about any event taking place in the city over the past six months having been plastered with the expo's logo and annoying blue mascot, Haibao, the fair has been impossible to avoid.

Of course, this goes back much further than the fair's May 1 opening. The city's propaganda team has been hard at work since Shanghai was named host eight years ago, and it went into overdrive once the event got into full swing.

Local media were crammed each day with smiling visitors and brightly coloured performers. They celebrated the record-breaking crowds (when they eventually turned up), the vast scope of the park and the huge variety of nations participating.

It was pilloried early by the city's trendy young online community. This increasingly anti-authoritarian subgroup got plenty of satirical mileage out of the fair's top-down approach, obsession with style over substance and the long queues. They dubbed it the 'SB' fair, after a Shanghainese insult that sounds similar to the Chinese for 'expo'.

For this journalist and many Western-educated visitors, the expo was naff - falling well under already low expectations. With the exception of a few eye-catching pieces of architecture (counted on one hand), most of the pavilions were crass or simply unimaginative.

Inside, the exhibits were rarely engaging, falling back on patronisingly simplistic messages, tourism advertising or overly conceptual displays that failed to convey their intended meaning.

America's visual show was dire - three lacklustre eight-minute videos that cost more than US$20 million. Pavilion staff insisted they had mostly positive reviews from their 'target audience': domestic visitors getting their first glimpse of the world beyond China's borders. Perhaps the people they spoke to were just being polite; the ones this writer encountered were less than enthusiastic. The polls back me up: a recent visitor survey ranked the US pavilion the 'most disappointing'.

In fact, there were many things in the expo that would make you stop to think, they just weren't obvious. The water in the pool containing Denmark's Little Mermaid statue, for example, reportedly came from Copenhagen harbour to show it was possible to have a port that was clean enough to swim in. But this went over the vast majority of visitors' heads because there was nothing by way of explanation in sight. The only way a visitor could have known was to have a personal guide or to have done extensive background reading in advance.

The food - ordinarily, expo veterans assure, one of a fair's highlights - was one of the biggest disappointments, apart from a few notable exceptions (Belgian waffles, anyone?).

From pavilion restaurants to the various eateries dotted around the site, the menu was either outrageously overpriced, inedible or both. There was something particularly insulting about the way fast-food chains assumed expo visitors would be happy to pay over the odds for lukewarm swill slopped onto a tray.

But enough of the cynical disdain - as one expo enthusiast terms it - this show was never intended for the foreign media audience. It was aimed at the huge domestic tourism market, showing off Shanghai's exalted status and, perhaps, opening mostly rural visitors' eyes to new places and ideas.

Those visitors stood through wind, rain and blazing sunshine, waiting for hours to get into pavilions; they tasted new foods and they delighted in collecting stamps in their expo 'passports' from as many countries as they could.

They weren't always enthralled by what they saw inside, but they were almost all determined to have a grand adventure during their world tour in a day.

The question is, was that all worth the price tag of 29 billion yuan (HK$33.6 billion) - and counting?