Shanghai Dispatch #1: Expo City

The Switzerland Pavilion at the World Expo Eugene Regis

Having grown up in Orlando, I have many recollections of ubiquitous public marketing. Everywhere we went as children we were subjected to Disney’s latest nauseating marketing scheme. Likewise, you realize from the moment you land in Shanghai that the Expo extends far beyond its relatively small confines. There’s the obvious evidence of Expo
omnipresence, and then there’s the subtle. Let’s start with the obvious. Multiply the saturation of Orlando’s or Anaheim’s Disney imagery 100 times and you might come close to understanding how the Expo has completely taken over. Public images of its mascot, Haibao—a blue Gumby knockoff—are everywhere. There are Haibao blowups at every school I’ve passed. There are Haibao topiaries, Haibao statues, and images of Haibao in different costumes, my favorite being the cowboy. Haibao decorates the windows of all sorts of businesses, the most odd I’ve seen being an ulcer center, and a psychotherapist’s office. Every morning at my hotel I eat breakfast to a Haibao centerpiece. Posters beckon passersby to “touch the future,” celebrate the coming together of world civilization, and suggest we go to the Expo to find better ways of urban living.

In fact the whole city is theme parked out. Some of the developments here (many of which were scheduled to be completed for this year’s Expo) do not at all subscribe to the dictum of form following
function, and some are absurdly if delightfully whimsical. The airport’s maglev train is a thrilling ride through Pudong. Yet it only has one stop. The taxi from there is slightly more convenient than leaving straight from the airport itself. The so-called sightseeing tunnel, which connects the prime districts of the Bund and Lujiazui, would have made a wonderfully convenient pedestrian walk beneath the Huangpu river. Instead it’s a costly Epcot-like ride that uses lighting effects to simulate meteor showers, a submarine trip, and a volcanic eruption. Walking around the city, in short, can at times feel like walking around an Expo itself. The down side to this is that the city’s vibrant, ground-up street life is being suffocated by the sanitized redevelopment vision that the Expo embodies. After all it’s the teeming, vibrant side streets and alleys that really make this city worth visiting.

This is the lighter side of the Expo City. The darker side is the culture of censorship that has ratcheted up due to the Expo. It didn’t take long to run into evidence of this. Police shuttered an art
gallery here which had recently showcased an exhibit critical of the Expo. I promised not to divulge much detail at this point, because the gallery is currently negotiating its reopening, but my source in the gallery tells me that they had been spied on, had work confiscated, and had to issue a letter of “self criticism”. Now their website is blocked. When I brought up the fact that I had been denied media credentials to the Expo, my source (well versed in government censorship tactics) said their response sounded a lot like a “Chinese no.” After an exhaustive effort by NAC to get my application through,
Expo officials denied me on the grounds that my passport had expired (it hadn’t). Maybe they followed our website and noticed my mixed views on the Expo. Maybe they really made an honest mistake. Maybe they were nervous about a magazine that is an unknown quantity in Asia. Maybe they just wanted my $26 entry fee.

All this is to say, as I’ve been told by multiple sources familiar with the run up to Expo planning, that the culture of openness at the Expo is very much a veneer. That said, my feeling is that Expo critics are in the minority. The mobbed outlets specializing in Expo products (think Disney store, but with floor to ceiling Haibao dolls) are an indication of this, which begs the question: Why censor at all? Well,
here’s my estimation of the government’s thinking. Raging consumerism: Good. Independent political commentary: Bad. The open-city-with-controlled-message approach is of course paradoxical and not much of a model for the Expo’s stated theme of “better city, better life.” This tension isn’t unique to the Expo and is something the government has had to deal with as it injects elements of a free flowing capitalistic society while trying to maintain its own authority. In any case, instead of being able to blog directly from the Expo’s amply equipped media center, I’m stuck here on my hotel’s one available computer, hurriedly typing away on something called “Word Pad”. Nevertheless stay tuned, and find out what urban best practices are actually in the Expo.

Tags: culturegovernancechinashanghai