Shanghai Expo 2010: Better City, Better Line

Shanghai offers truly magnificent sights. To me, the city is at least as beautiful as any of China’s famous natural scenic spots such as Huangshan or Guilin. It is even more impressive, however, because in a mountain or forest all you need to do is build some trails, chain off some vistas, and set up a few hotels—the scenery is already there. Shanghai, on the other hand, as been nearly entirely rebuilt over the past two decades and everything in the urban environment has been created by human hands. Whenever I take a taxi on one of the elevated highways that winds through the “forest of city buildings” (市林) I enjoy counting the number of layers of buildings that stretch off into the distance. Each time I visit, I make at least one trip to see Nanjing Road at night and the magnificent stretch of lights and fantastic architecture along the Huangpu River between The Bund and Pudong. At night much of the city is lit up like an amusement park, a celebration of the built environment and the aspirations for China’s future. Tokyo might have been the inspiration for Bladerunner, but if flying cars are to make a debut anywhere my bet is that they first take flight in Shanghai.

Shanghai has been designed to be seen—to stoke the admiration of both foreign and domestic spectators. On the frontlines of China’s reform era economic development, it yearns to impress and be recognized as an international global city, a place that is urban, connected and cosmopolitan in every way. Overt reminders of this are everywhere in “government public relations work” (宣传工作) reminding residents of behavior befitting an urban resident—drive in a civilized manner, don’t spit, and stand in line. Images of happy consumers, tree-lined roads, middle class urban living, and smiling passive tourists taking in the sights can be found on billboards lining the streets.

The 2010 World Expo has amped up the volume on Shanghai’s city leaders’ desire to impress and assert its cosmopolitanism.  Its slogan, which in English has been translated as “Better City, Better Life”, accurately reflects the way that the Expo has been used to transform many spaces of Shanghai urban life—from the massive investment in subways, to the improvement of parks and tourist attractions. In Chinese, however, “城市,让生活更美好” could be translated “Urbanity Makes Life More Beautiful” and more accurately conveys the message that it is, above all, the celebration of an urban lifestyle and an urban subjectivity that is the goal. Since arriving in Shanghai earlier this week, nearly every interaction I have had has ended with the question, “Have you seen the Expo yet?” or “Are you here to see the Expo?” As a foreigner visiting Shanghai, I assume my presence signifies the “international” eyes that have come to see. Indeed, I had seen photos of the magnificent buildings and the futuristic vistas.  Since I teach about museums and exhibitions I had been waiting to take a look at my first World Expo.

Yesterday I went to check out the Expo and get a taste of the wonder of urban life and see the future.

Folks in China are constantly reminding me that there are “too many Chinese!” (中国人太多!), the ideological assumptions of which I hope to take up in a future post.  I had heard from taxi drivers that there were “too many people” at the Expo, so I just assumed it was another example of the same tendency. Nothing, however, really could have prepared me for the reality of the numbers at the Expo site. When I arrived at one of the many entrance gates, the crush of people—tour groups, student groups, individuals, guides, police, drivers and Expo employees—was amazing.  On a cooler day it might have been a bit more festive, but it was a sultry, hazy Shanghai summer day.  Even at nine o’clock in the morning the humidity was oppressive.  Standing in line for thirty minutes just to get into the site was a harbinger of waits to come.

The space of the Expo is vast. In line with the current city planning that emphasizes large open spaces filled with concrete, wide streets and minimalist design—the site is not built to human scale. It is impressive to see, but moving around in the heat was more like trekking than walking. Most of the day I kept a water bottle in my hand to rehydrate as pushed forward. Judging from the expressions on others’ faces, I was not alone.

After making my way to a few of the pavilions that I was curious about—particularly those of Iran and North Korea. I thought I’d make a go of visiting a pavilion of a larger country such as Japan or Korea.

Bad idea.

Even an hour after the site opened, the lines at pavilions were already unbelievably long—demanding waits of many hours. I decided to try one, waited fifteen minutes and when I realized the line wasn’t moving at all, I left. Most visitors came prepared with stools, reading material, snacks and cellphones loaded with games and videos. Without these I was alone with only my thoughts and sweatglands.

After my aborted attempt to actually get into a pavilion, I decided to focus on what was available to me—the external views of the Expo site and the tens of thousands of people.  Everywhere people claimed spaces in underpasses, on seats, and on the ground. While camped out, they chatted, they snacked and they napped. They fanned themselves and waited. I struck up conversations with quite a few people and most were taking breaks between massive waits to get into pavilions. Some had, like myself, simply given up and were making the best of the cost of attendance by hanging out.

At one point, I walked past the line to get into the most popular site at the Expo, the Saudi Arabian pavilion. The line for the pavilion was over five hours long.  The snaking line of people, packed shoulder-to-shoulder more than five layers deep took four minutes to walk past. I was fascinated at the way people would endure life in the line—spending so long to get a glimpse of something inside—to see a bit of another world. Spirits were quite high, and as the video shows, when I turned the camera on them people waved and smiled even in the middle of the line.

Their patience was unimaginable and made me consider what I would wait so long to see. I couldn’t come up with anything. I wouldn’t have waited in that line to meet the most famous movie star, the American president or a surprise gift.  I figured I’d wait for a chance to experience time travel, fly into space or perhaps to meet some famous historical figure, but those aren’t real options. For the rest of the day I watched the lines and the visitors.  I asked a guy, who had just emerged from the USA pavilion after a 3 hour wait for a 15-minute presentation, why he had endured it.  He admitted that he felt disappointed by the experience—the pavilion didn’t teach him anything about the US—but that he wanted to see what was inside. The Shanghai city government had given free tickets to Shanghai residents and he thought he would take a look—it was, after all, a lifetime chance to attend a World Expo.

Later in the day while eating some dumplings in the shade of an overpass, surrounded by masses of exhausted visitors, I thought about the difference between the imagined Shanghai that I enjoy from the passenger seat of an air-conditioned taxi zooming along an elevated highway and the reality on the ground of lines of people waiting patiently at the Expo. The views of the Expo promise a future of comfort and leisure, the reality was much different.

At that moment, nearby I saw a father pouring over a map with his daughter. They appeared to be figuring out where to go next. The intensity with which they examined the map impressed me. They were getting oriented, making a plan, or perhaps just lost.

Considering the pair, I realized that the 2010 Expo could be considered a metaphor for contemporary Shanghai. It is a place represented as a cosmopolitan dreamworld of the future—globally connected and a place to “be”. It is something seen from the distance as bright and beautiful. Like the distant view of space-age Pudong from the other side of the Huangpu river it can be seen, but is just out of reach. Like the fantastic design of an Expo pavilion it hints at hidden wonders inside. It is a future with the promise of a better life of wealth and comfort for all.

As the Expo slogan proclaims, “Urbanity Makes Life More Beautiful”.

Of course, the catch is that “beauty” is not a quality of life.  It is an effect of vision.  Seeing the future is not the same as living it. As the Expo demonstrates, even satisfying the desire for a glimpse requires the physical endurance of the line—the sacrifice of hours of an individual life waiting around. I couldn’t help but imagine the productive capacity of thousands of people for five hours.  Multiplied by the millions yet to wait, the number is staggering.

Of course, I couldn’t help but compare the dreamword promised by Shanghai and the Expo to that of the Socialist period. In both cases, it is a dream deferred. A promise that is getting closer, but has not yet arrived. Like that earlier dream, the state offers the tickets, the infrastructure and the policing.  If you wait long enough, you will get there.

Later in the afternoon I went to pick up a VIP pass to the Expo.  A friend had contacted her friend who had arranged for her friend to lend me a pass for the afternoon. The pass made it possible for me to use the “green channel”—a VIP lane that cuts around the long lines a most sites. I had solved the waiting problem in the way that most Chinese do—through personal connections. After obtaining the pass I zipped through four pavilions in under 45 minutes. Inside I got to see South Africa, Egypt and some others. The places I visited were remarkably underwhelming.  Like the man who visited the USA pavilion, I was disappointed. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t find it. Some things are better imagined, I guess.

A bit later I thought about the father and daughter I had seen with the map, planning where to go. Whichever direction they ultimately went the only thing I knew for sure was that they were likely standing in a line somewhere.

Unless, of course, they were just looking for the exit.


  1. Tys

    I remember a Dave Davies sleeping out on a cold sidewalk overnight in a line to get U2 concert tickets – the night we had gone to a David Bowie concert! that was some real waiting.


  2. Anonymous

    My translation: “The city (hopeful sigh), please let life be more beauty…” (the beauty instead of beautiful gives it a more Chinese feeling, I think.) I was led to reread Langston Hughes “A Dream Deferred” after reading this. Great post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: