Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai – Better City, Better Life

Better City, Better Life. That's the official phrase of Expo 2010. It's plastered in English all over Shanghai along with their rendition of Gumby which they call Haibao. Haibao appears in neighborhood squares sculpted out of bushes, in both male and female form, unlicensed bootleg stuffed Haibaos are sold by hawkers on the stairways down into subway stations. You can buy a tiny Haibao to hang from your cellphone, blow up Haibaos, all sorts of Haibao shirts, there are Haibaos that wear a Mexican sombrero, Haibaos that play the bagpipes; collect the set! Olympic tchotchkes are for sale at official souvenir stands. The Chinese public has been whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy over Expo 2010 in a similar fashion to their fervor over the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government supposedly spent the equivalent of $60 billion US dollars on Expo 2010, rivaling or exceeding what they spent on the 2008 Olympics. Thousands of people and business were uprooted from what is now the Expo site, new subway lines were built and brought in. There are Expo information desks staffed with young English and Chinese speakers wearing white Expo 2010 uniforms set up in subway stations, hotels, airports, shopping malls and street corners. Handles for standees on the Shanghai subway bear the Expo logo. There's an official Expo song by Jackie Chan (who also appears in ads plastered all over China and all over town for frozen dumplings, appliances, Canon and some kind of Chinese herbal hair darkening shampoo for men called Bawang. Is there anything that Jackie Chan won't shill?). Attendance figures are updated the days Expo highlights are transmitted to displays inside Shanghai's subway cars on the Shanghai Metro's TV channel every 15 minutes.

So after the Chinese government unloaded their fat piggy bank on Shanghai what's the Expo like? I found it sterile. Security is tight, tighter than any recent US domestic flight I've taken since 9/11. My possessions were x-rayed and I was fully wanded before my $13 US ticket for evening admission was accepted (a whole day at Expo 2010 costs a steep $23.50 US).

The first thing I saw after passing through the turnstile was the China pavilion. It's a massive, in your face, upside down red pyramid of a structure and very popular with Chinese fair goers. I saw no reason to go inside, it had a giant line snaking around it and I was already inside China. For me being in China is sort of like a visit to a giant China pavilion anyway so why brave the lines to see in miniature what was already before me?

The European and USA pavilions were very popular as well with lines snaking around them. But unlike most of the Chinese visitors to Expo 2010 I can probably go to these places if I want to. For most Chinese today world travel is just a dream. It's a dream that's closer to reality for your average Chinese national than it was 20 years ago and China's rich and well connected does travel internationally but for most of China's 1.3 billion it's out of reach and will remain so for their lifetimes. Expo 2010's expensive day pass will be as close as they come to seeing the cultures of the world.

With that in mind I chose to avoid most of the pavilions and exhibits. But while the throngs of Chinese fair goers had no desire to see one particular pavilion, I did. No waiting! The North Korean pavilion was much smaller and more sparsely attended than the one from South Korea but it was the #1 pavilion on my to do list. For a follower of all things DPRK such as myself who has come as close as a cruise on the Yalu river it might be as close as I come to actually experiencing the closed land of Juche. What's inside? Not much. North Korea must be a pretty boring place. There's a model of the Tower of the Juche Idea in front of a large mural of Pyongyang and a few other cheap statues, artworks and recreation. Any good souvenirs for sale? Kim pins are mandatory for DPRK citizens, maybe I could buy one to go with the one I bought years ago in Dandong? Nope, just some postage stamps and a small gaggle of Chinese Expo fanatics wanting to have their Expo 2010 passports stamped. Whoever was in charge of the placement of the national pavilions either has a sense of humor or once worked in the Bush administration, or both. Yes, Expo 2010 has its very own Axis of Evil section. Right next to the DPRK discount house of dioramas was the pavilion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, howdy nuclear neighbor!

Without the Expo Shanghai is a bustling city of 20 million or 25 million, nobody's really sure. There are many more subway lines than when I was last in Shanghai a few years ago and trains are frequent, cheap and backside to navel SRO any time of the day. The food in restaurants ranges from Chinese and American chain fast food to what to North American eyes is most unusual. A sharply dressed middle class is on the move. The women are sharp dressers who tend to wear more cosmetics, higher heels and show more skin than their poorer and more peasant western sisters in Chengdu. Thanks to the Treaty of Nanking Shanghai has more western influence than perhaps any other Chinese city except for Hong Kong. Some of old Shanghai hasn't fallen to the wrecking ball and the historic Bund along the Huangpu river has just completed an expensive makeover.

As when we took the high speed CRH train to Tianjin I had wanted to take a CRH train for a day trip to a different Chinese city. Nanjing is 2 hours from Shanghai by CRH, other cities are closer. These trains leave from Shanghai's North railway station but unlike Beijing's sedate and organized railway station Shanghai's was a madhouse of peasant migrants with stained decaying teeth bearing huge cheap plaid bundles made out of a shiny cheap tablecloth material full of god knows what along with buckets of bottled water and packages of instant noodles for their long journey on the what the Chinese call “Iron Big Brother” to the provinces. Security was tight as it is at most Chinese transit facilities so we couldn't even investigate buying tickets without waiting on long slowly moving security lines where the peasants got wanded and their bundles x-rayed so we gave up, it was simply too much of gauntlet to run.

Shanghai pictures are here
Panda pictures are here

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