Shanghai World Expo 2010>Video>Days and Nights in Shanghai>Cover Archive
UPDATED: April 30, 2010 NO. 18 MAY 6, 2010
Shanghai Keeps Its Cool
The city maintains a low-key ambience for the World Expo

THE BUND: Visitors enjoy themselves at the Bund, which was newly renovated before the Shanghai Expo, on April 22 (WANG SONG)

For a city about to receive an estimated 70 million visitors, Shanghai is remarkably composed as it nears the opening of the World Expo. Walking along the Bund and strolling through the former French Concession on a Saturday afternoon in spring, it would be easy for a foreign visitor not to realize what is going on. There are notices in hotels apologizing in advance to guests for any inconvenience caused by enhanced security measures. Taxis advertise hotlines for visitors having trouble in communicating with their drivers in English. But the air of suppressed hysteria which characterized Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics is absent. Shanghai is looking forward to a party, but is far too sophisticated for any display of overexcitement.

The theme of the Expo is, of course, cities and urbanization. Chatting to people along the Bund and in the cafes of Xintiandi, I was struck by the complete contrast in the attitudes of Chinese and visitors from overseas. For the latter, the attraction of Shanghai is predominantly the past—or a romanticized version of it. Shanghai conjures up for them images of Art Deco architecture, 1920s hotels, cocktails, jazz bars, sepia photographs, silk pajamas, Noel Coward writing Private Lives and the film sets for Lust, Caution and Empire of the Sun. A Norwegian couple I met were navigating their way round the streets with the aid of a 1930s guidebook, and told me that they had only got lost once. For the Chinese, though, Shanghai is a Mecca of modernization, "more modern now than Hong Kong" as one young man proudly told me. "And we're spending more on the Expo than Beijing did on the Olympics!" his girlfriend said.

There's certainly money being spent on infrastructure projects. On the subway, Line 7 opened recently, and construction workers are still racing to finish some of the new building projects round the Expo site. A new station on Line 13—now known as the "Expo line"—opens in May. Areas such as Shiliupu, or the 16th Dock, where river cruises and ferries to the Expo site will start, are being developed as tourism, shopping and eating venues. Expo officials are being modest about the scale of the opening ceremony, saying of course it will not compare to the Beijing Olympics. Nevertheless, plans for April 30 are said to include fireworks, laser displays and water fountains along both sides of the Huangpu River.

Naturally, the pavilions are a major focus of attention and the cause of pride and rivalry. The scale of the Expo site is daunting, and the theme of cities and urban life has led to some eerie futuristic similarities among the pavilions, like walking through the set of a science fiction movie. But national characteristics are there in abundance, too. The Korean pavilion is based on Korean characters, the New Zealand takes its inspiration from Maori legend and the Moroccan from traditional architecture. The British pavilion is possibly the strangest and most futuristic, composed of many rods, each containing a seed, which both move and illuminate at night. And reports say the Japanese Corporate Pavilion boasts "the world's most comfortable and cleanest toilets," said to be akin to "a comfortable living room."

Shanghai is quietly confident. I was surprised by the lack of tacky souvenirs, guidebooks, histories and T-shirts. It is possible to buy soft toy versions of Haibao, the Expo's blue mascot, but he's certainly not everywhere. Instead, Shanghai goes about its business: the shops are crowded, development continues, the restaurants (at least on a Saturday) are busy, and the people continue to live the urban life the Expo celebrates. The Bund is crowded with all sorts of people—foreign tourists, local tour groups, schoolchildren, seniors in wheelchairs, businessmen going to appointments, ice cream vendors, and ordinary Shanghai folk. The Pudong skyline celebrates the future—and the clock tower still plays The East Is Red.

So, back to the past. Shanghai has a fascinating museum in the building where the first Party Congress was held, full of historical artifacts and documents telling of the early days of the Chinese Communist Party. One room holds waxwork models of the 13 men (including Mao Zedong) who founded the Party in 1921. I talked to another visitor, an elderly man from Anhui Province, who told me he was visiting Shanghai for the first time and was planning to visit the Expo the day after the opening. "What do you think they'd have made of it all?" I asked him, gesturing at the models. He looked serious for a moment. "People say, of course," he began, "they wouldn't recognize the place. Or they'd disapprove. But I think that they'd be rather proud!"

The author is a British researcher in China

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