Weekly Insights and Analysis

Shanghai Expo and Memories Conjured

August 18, 2010

By John J. Brandon

Recently I attended the Shanghai Expo, which has been labeled as “the biggest expo ever.” China spared no expense spending $55 billion – more than twice the amount Beijing spent on the 2008 Olympics – to ensure that people could get to the Expo by adding metro lines, airport terminals, railway stations, and other infrastructure.

Shanghai Expo 2010

China's pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 Expo is three times taller than any other country pavilion. Photo used under a Creative Commons license.

By the time it ends in October, Chinese officials anticipate 70 million people will have passed through the Expo’s turnstiles. Even if there were no long lines, it is absolutely impossible to see everything in one day. With 192 countries represented, one could easily spend a week at the Shanghai Expo.

The only other Expo I ever attended was as a 10-year-old boy at the Expo ’67 in Montreal. I remember visiting “Habitat 67,” a form of architecture that was designed to depict how modern apartment living in crowded cities would be in the future. I thought “Habitat 67” looked ugly, though I was impressed by the plush blue wall-to-wall carpeting, something I had never seen before. I also remember visiting a number of country pavilions, particularly France, Ethiopia, Japan, and Thailand.

But when I think of world expositions I can’t help but think about the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. (Up until the late 1960s, most world expositions were referred to as fairs, but are now more commonly referred to as expos.) As an 8-year-old, I was enthralled by the “Futurama” show at the General Motors pavilion which took people in moving chairs to show what life would be like in the year 2024: from what it would be like to vacation at an underwater hotel, to living on the lunar base of another planet. This was at the time of the great space race to see who would send the first man to the moon, America or the Soviet Union. There was also the “City of the Future” where the streets moved, so people would not have to walk. I remember also watching in awe as a lifelike robot of Abraham Lincoln recited the Gettysburg Address, and going past Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican pavilion. In the mid-1960s, America was feeling good about itself and understandably so, as we were a great power and our economy was strong. What better place to hold the World’s Fair than in New York, when the city was at the height of its economic power and world prestige? Although President Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year before, Americans were not yet facing the escalation of the war in Vietnam, other political assassinations, or the increasing struggle for civil rights.

In 1964-65, I visited the New York World’s Fair seven times. I spent five days in Montreal at Expo 67. On this trip to Shanghai, I was there for only five hours but wanted to make sure I visited at least two pavilions: China and the United States. I spent over 90 minutes in the China pavilion, a striking, massive, inverted red pyramid with hints of a modernized Forbidden City. It is three times taller than any other pavilion at the Expo, with exhibits from 31 of the country’s provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, and special administrative regions. The pavilion portrays China as a nation wanting to do things bigger and better, with a particular focus on its modernization and development over the past three decades, while at the same time, harking back to China’s 5,000 year-long history. Shanxi province touts its production of LED lamps and methanol-fueled vehicles and other advances in science and technology, while Xianjiang touts itself as a “harmonious land” – an intentional effort to put behind the ethnic tensions that flared between the Uyghurs and Hans in 2008 and 2009.

While the other provincial exhibits didn’t stand out as much for me, Hebei province, site of the Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 that killed 250,000 people, was an exception. The exhibit featured a short, computer-animated movie whose main character is named “Phoenix One.”  “Phoenix One” is a cloned man who finds himself living in Tangshan in 2076. He is both confused and awestruck by all the technological advances made since the earthquake reduced his town to rubble 100 years earlier. The film goes back and forth between 2076, 1976, and today. The story illustrates how Tangshan has literally risen like a phoenix from the rubble and that its people have not only endured and survived, but have thrived.

Taiwan had its own separate pavilion next to the mainland China pavilion. A decade ago, Taiwan would likely not have even had a pavilion because of its strained relationship with the mainland. However, with improved cross-strait relations under Ma Ying-jeou’s administration in Taiwan particularly in the area of economics and trade (as evidenced by the recent signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement), there are now direct flights between Taipei and Shanghai and increasingly more and more Taiwanese are visiting the mainland, and vice-versa. As a goodwill gesture, each family coming from Taiwan to attend the Shanghai Expo is given one free pass.

Although I found some of the Chinese provinces’ exhibitions weaker than others (and I did not have the opportunity to visit the top floor of the China pavilion), I found the United States pavilion disappointing all around. What I liked most were the three young American college students who are studying Chinese greeting people in Chinese. Two of the three students were African-American and, given that few Chinese have any interaction with African-Americans, I thought this was very positive. There is a short film where Americans from many walks of life say hello and a couple of other polite phrases in Chinese. Some people are well known, such as Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, while others are simply American citizens, like Con Edison workers in downtown Manhattan. I thought this was a nice way for the U.S. to recognize China’s importance economically, politically, and culturally.

The rest of the pavilion left quite a bit to be desired. In one section, a short film called “The Garden” was shown. The thrust of the story was how a young girl got other people of all ages and races to work together to create a garden in a drab, urban area. I found the film boring, and from the audience’s reaction, most Chinese people felt the same way. Given the considerable investment made by America’s corporate giants, including Chevron, McDonald’s, and more than 50 other companies, perhaps they could have hired the Children’s Television Workshop and had Sesame Street characters in the film which may have been more recognizable to Chinese audiences since Sesame Street is broadcast in China.

The last room near the gift shop consisted largely of advertisements for companies like Motorola, FedEx, and Visa that funded the pavilion. The gift shop sold tee-shirts that said “I Love the USA Pavilion: Shanghai 2010,” straw hats, stuffed teddy bears and American bison, and pins. All of these products were made in China. The only thing I found which wasn’t made in China were boxes of Wisconsin ginseng. Sadly, the United States pavilion lacked a sense of vision of what the future might be like; something the U.S. has been characterized as having over the last several decades.

Perhaps because I was a young boy at the impressionable age of eight, I regard the New York World’s Fair much more highly. I was proud of American astronauts, impressed by the “city of the future” and the technological advances they encompassed, but most of all, I remember that palpable optimism held by many Americans then, something I don’t believe exists today.

What I was able to see of the Shanghai Expo made me think it was more a government- and corporate-sponsored theme park than a great exposition of lasting impression such as the ones held in Paris and Chicago in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the Shanghai Expo is important to the Chinese national psyche and its people should be proud of their nation’s economic and development achievements over the past three decades. I am sure there are plenty of 8-year-old Chinese children fascinated by the exhibits and country pavilions like I was in New York in the mid-1960s.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. His visits to the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65 contributed greatly to his interest in the world and other cultures. He can be reached at

Related locations: China
Related programs: International Cooperation


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