As a former Shanghainese, it was my duty to go to the Shanghai World Expo. Actually, it was more curiosity than a real obligation. The event has much less worldwide media exposure than the Beijing Olympic Games. But the budget is far superior. In 2007, Shanghai was already gearing up for the event. I knew all about Haibao, the expo’s weird looking mascot. It supposively represents the character 人 ren or man (well probably from a distance, in the fog). I always thought it resembled a tooth (please refer to dentists and childhood traumas). Even then, I was getting excited at the prospect of seeing a new metro station open in front of my university. Yes, cycling there was probably healthy (and the only healthy part of my life then) but I can assure you that fearing for my life every minute and having to avoid taxi drivers spitting out their window under the scorching heat was far from being fun. Now the sheer number of metro lines (from 4 to 13) makes taking the taxi practically useless in the daytime (drivers must have petitioned to close it at 10 pm so that they can still transport the hordes of expat party people), which is always good for my lazy but poor ass. I would still naturally use my dear zu chu ches at rush hour (if you wish to become agoraphobic, go to China).
I could only foresee the magnitude of the thing. I could trust the Chinese government on that. They have apparently been going on and on about it, especially in the last year. I have heard expats complaining about the omnipresence of the expo everywhere. It would surely have made me bang my head against the wll the way the Beijing Olympics anthem did at the time. But that’s the way they do it. And you do have to consider that Shanghai is somehow wanting to be a counterpower to Beijing.
So there I was, all sweaty, stomach full of xiao long baos, still recovering from jet lag and my nostalgia outbursts from the first few days, but now feeling ready to explore. I was not disappointed to say the least. This Expo is a real demonstration of the new Giant (I read they just passed Japan as the second biggest economy in GDP). It is seemingly more one to the Chinese people, as there were very few foreign visitors. It was a perfect opportunity for other countries to show what they were, what they could bring and what they were capable of. And many grabbed it. There is the biggest number of participants ever. China even subsidized the poorest countries and parked them in common pavilion (mind you, even North Korea has one, and it’s pretty scary). To tell you the truth, I am always amazed at the Chinese ways of diplomacy and international development.
The theme was “Better city, Better life”. Urban development sure is one of our biggest challenges for the future and Shanghai, with its sprawling population of over 20 million, is a perfect example. Let’s say that most of the countries played the game. But in a way, I have a feeling that France did not.
Of course, one of the first things I did was fight through the crowds (even at night, there was an incredibly huge number of people) and see what MY pavilion was all about. Thankfully, I could skip the hours long queue I had been avoiding all along. With my french passport, I could go through the VIP entrance. Thank you for feeding my feeling of self importance! So… What can I say about it? This pavilion is one big Box. A box full of cliches, a box where the world would like to see France stay put. From the outside, it does look like a box and it is pretty much as boring. Not as bad as the USA, but nowhere near the UK or Spain, which we should be directly competing with. The disappointment goes even further once you’re inside. The “garden on walls” is rendered completely tacky by the concentration camp spotlights and the cheap nonsensical fountain. No one is eating at the over expensive restaurant (by the way, I had the best Wurst and white beer at the German pavilion). The walk which we are made to go through (called “sensual city”) is just a succession of bad cliches on our “romantic” cities and “art de vivre”, made even more ridiculous by the screaming pack of Chinese country people. It was actually just a bunch of movies on walls. No reference whatsoever to city of tomorrow. The sponsor spaces had no relation with the theme either. The most noticeable one was of course one of the offsprings of LVMH with a cheap display of so called luxury. Is it really what we want to show China? Is this really how we want to keep appealing to people? I did not even see a single French person there. Not even in the kitchens of the restaurant we could see from tiny foggy windows. Surely France has more to offer than food and luxury goods. I do believe we are innovative and can be forward thinking when we want to be. If the issue is only the lack of sponsorship as it is said to be, then it is a shame French companies didn’t jump on the occasion. Even if times are hard, they are actually the best to show what you are capable of (kindly refer to my bachelor thesis 🙂 )
Even Venezuela, which maybe hasn’t played the “Better city, Better life” game, has managed to make its pavilion more entertaining and different, though it is one big ode to Chavez’s social revolution. It didn’t need that much investment.
I am just dreaming we could have had one big badass European Pavilion… Chinese Pavilion like…
It’s time France got out of its box. Sadly, the Expo is not the only warning. What do you think, my little people, in your little boxes?