Dispatch, Shanghai: Broiling at the Expo

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Dispatch from Shanghai World ExpoTravel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is in China attending Shanghai World Expo 2010. His dispatch from the fairgrounds follows.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s on Long Island, N.Y., my parents regularly drove past the grounds of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, on the way to visit relatives.

Speeding along the Long Island Expressway, past the rusting, Jetsons-like towers of the former New York State Pavilion and the massive, still-gleaming globe of the Unisphere, I wondered just what went on at that iconic event, which I just missed by a few years thanks to an accident of birth.

Intrigued by the faded, now-unused remnants of that event and resentful of my temporal misfortune, I’ve always wanted to attend a World’s Fair exposition but just haven’t had the occasion.

There was a near miss in 2000 — I bought tickets to the World Expo in Hannover, Germany, but personal circumstances at home intervened — so it wasn’t until this week, a whole decade later, that I was finally able to set foot on World Expo fairgrounds, here in the booming Chinese metropolis of Shanghai.

Shanghai World Expo Gate 8I and several other journalists were in town, courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways, to check out the new Peninsula Shanghai hotel.

Shanghai World Expo 2010 is a massive undertaking, on a scale comparable to that of the hugely successful, and massively expensive, Beijing Summer Olympics held two years ago.

Set on the world’s largest fair site ever — more than 2 square miles on two facing banks of the Huangpu River — the six-month Expo features 190 countries and 50 international organizations as participants. Organizers predict it will have attracted up to 70 million visitors (90% of them Chinese) by the time it winds down on Oct. 31.

It felt like all 63 million expected domestic visitors were there the other day, at least at Gate 8, under the searing sunshine and oppressive heat of one of the clearest, sunniest days usually-smoggy Shanghai has seen in the better part of 10 years.

A sea of multicolored parasols — and scores of vendors, hawking folding chairs, battery-powered fans and, yes, yet more umbrellas — sprawled as far as the eye could see

I was warned that the heat and crowds would be unbearable, with waits of up to nine hours at the most popular pavilions. But I was determined to at least get an up-close gander at the exteriors of some of the innovative, world-class structures promised to be on display.

I wasn’t disappointed for the most part, and the crowds, once inside the sprawling grounds, proved lighter than I’d feared — apart from the pavilion lines, which were fearsome, as predicted.

Shanghai World Expo Poland PavilionPavilion highlights spotted along the way included gorgeous, sinewy Spain; Britain, bristling with thousands of diode-tipped tendrils that swayed in the occasional breeze; paper doily-like Poland, with sounds of Chopin wafting out into the midway; the curious, Lego-like Serbian structure; and amazing Switzerland, with an enticing rooftop ski-lift attraction that, unfortunately, appeared to be down for repairs. The entire French pavilion, too, was out of commission, due to broken air conditioning.

The imposing highlight of the whole affair is the cantilevered, bright-red Chinese Provinces Pavilion. Our group of journalists was given express passes but was told the wait outside was still up to an hour (down from four or five). We voted no, largely due to the heat.

The one structure we did enter was the underwhelming but extremely popular USA Pavilion. The perimeter features an all-American diner, some souvenir stands and a few large cut-outs of basketball star Kobe Bryant (a hero to many Chinese) to pose for pictures with.

Our hosts from the Peninsula Shanghai managed to get us onto the express VIP line, and within 20 minutes we were out of the sun and shuffling into the wonderfully cool, air-conditioned structure.

There we were shown a series of three films. One somewhat embarrassing movie showed Americans attempting, and failing, to greet Expo-goers in Mandarin (which I think was meant, also unsuccessfully, to be amusing).

Another film expounded on the importance of educating children, featuring a multicultural sampling of kids, some executives from the pavilion’s corporate sponsors and, representing the executive branch of the U.S. federal government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

ShanghaiWorld Expo USA PavilionFinally, there was a puzzling multimedia presentation about an overly made-up, preteen girl of indeterminate ethnicity trying to plant a community garden in a rundown urban lot in the face of daunting odds, including neighborhood indifference, garden-supply store owners’ greed, scowling teenagers prone to vandalism and, finally, inclement weather.

A simulated thunderstorm, complete with shaking benches, strobe lights, roaring loudspeakers and plenty of sprayed mist, was the highlight of the pavilion experience.

In the end, the intrepid would-be gardener, of course, triumphs, in a classic, feel-good Hollywood ending.

The point was, I suppose, that stick-to-itiveness, community cooperation and urban renewal are all American values worthy of emulation in China.

The message was lost on my fellow journalists, who gave the cloying film and the entire U.S. pavilion a universal thumbs down as we exited through — you guessed it — a gift shop.

The Chinese in attendance politely (if quickly) applauded before speeding off en masse to the next pavilion line.

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