There’s something both exciting and boring about the idea of a “world’s fair.” On one hand, there’s a big hullabaloo about it: lots of people, balloons, cotton candy and bright lights and all. On the other hand, there are no rides—not a roller coaster to be found. After a while you realize you’ve spent a lot of time hearing about things like soda ash production and the third runway at some capital airport. Yet both of my “home towns” so to speak have hosted world’s fairs that have left their mark. In New York, the grounds of the 1964 world’s fair left us those wonderful structures you see off the Northern State Parkway when you drive out to Long Island, the ones that turned out to be a space ship (if you believe Men in Black). And, of course, let’s not forget that the Eiffel Tower was originally built to be a temporary structure serving as the entrance to the 1889 world’s fair in Paris.
Like the Olympics, world’s fairs have often been hosted in order to put a city on someone else’s map. No one outside of the United States had heard of St. Louis before the 1904 World’s Fair, with its fetching little song (“Meet me in Saint Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair”), and Expo ’98, in Lisbon, was widely touted as having introduced Lisbon, and by extension Portugal, to the rest of the world (funny, I had always thought that Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco de Gama had done that).
China recently decided it was time to put Shanghai on the map. Of course, Shanghai has been on a lot of maps for a very long time, but perhaps the Chinese government was unhappy with the labels associated with the city (“Shanghai, former European trading post”, or something like that). For Chinese, that kind of widely-held impression of Shanghai is just as frustrating as the pinches your batty great aunt gives you at family reunions, when she repeats, “You’ll always be that chubby little boy to me” even though you’re forty-years old, a successful surgeon and you’re on your fourth triathlon.
Shanghai is the most bustling, most city-like city in the world (and I’m from New York… it pains me to write that). It has a population of 19.2 million people, a density of seven thousand per square mile, an average elevation of four meters, and sits at 31°12’ N, 121°30’ E (sometimes I wonder why I bother putting this stuff in when it’s so obvious that I just looked it up on Wikipedia). And, as my French friend from the last dispatch pointed out… it’s the place to be if you want to make money. China wanted to drive that point home with emphasis, and so they hosted the Universal Expo.
Or so I thought, until I went to the grounds of the expo.
Once there, I started getting a different impression. Perhaps it wasn’t China that was extending its bid to be considered as something beyond the world’s prime manufacturer of vuvuzelas, perhaps they figure they’ve gotten past all that, even if you’re not aware of it. Perhaps they had decided to host the world’s fair so that other countries could try to come and impress them. This was driven home to me once I was on site and I realized that everyone at the expo was Chinese. Aside from the people working there, I didn’t see more than twenty non-Chinese faces among the great throng of visitors. This wasn’t a means to get the world to visit China; this was a means to allow China to visit the world.
In order to set up the expo, in true Chinese fashion, the government moved 18,000 families and almost three hundred factories out of a five-square kilometer region on the Huangpu river. No sweat. They then invited the countries of the world to come and set up pavilions to show off whatever it is they wanted to show.
Some of these pavilions are damn impressive. Of course, the big whopping mother of them all is the Chinese pavilion. The Chinese wanted to make sure that no one else could come close to having a pavilion as overwhelming as their own, so they constructed this enormous red inverted pyramid thing right near the main entrance. Many other countries tried to make up for the sheer mass of the Chinese pavilion with artistic flair and catchy design. However, none of them made the slightest effort to coordinate with each other, which resulted in the architectural equivalent of an orange suit with blue polka dots.
When I arrived at the expo I didn’t know which way to turn, there were so many possibilities amid this cacophony of forms and styles. You get this little map that titillates with the density of things to see and places to go. I thought about the Chinese pavilion, but then I figured, “Hey, I’m already in China.” Plus, of course, the lines were daunting, to say the least.
In fact, far from saying the least, the most should perhaps be said of the lines. There are lines. Long lines. Some of the pavilions have lines lasting three or four hours. And Chinese are bad at lines, they try to deny their existence by pushing past others in line, and they argue with each other even while standing still. The Chinese argue a lot, in what is already a shrill-sounding language. Anyway, I decided to skip the Chinese pavilion, which led to the question of where, exactly, to go.
The short answer was, anywhere inside. The weather was awful: it was a sweltering summer day, the kind of day when you’re not even sure it’s raining, the humidity in the air just periodically coagulates into actual drops before shifting back to almost raining. The sky isn’t up, it’s all around you, and it’s so white that it’s bright, despite the kind-of-rain, but you can’t put on your sunglasses because you didn’t bring them, given the weather, and you’d look stupid wearing sunglasses in the rain anyway. Furthermore, I had neither umbrella nor hat and was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. My clothes were clinging to me via a slick slime of humidity, pollution and sweat. I needed shelter, and air conditioning.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to go just anyplace. Then it struck me—I should take advantage of the expo to visit countries I’ve never been to. That’s when I noticed that I was next to the New Zealand pavilion.
I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand. There are two countries in the world whose inhabitants invariably describe their country with unbridled enthusiasm, and these are Norway and New Zealand (must have something to do with fjords). Kiwis will all tell you that their country is the most beautiful on the planet and that you must go there. I’m willing to believe them, not only because they tend to be both trustworthy and well travelled, but because I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings. The problem with New Zealand is that it’s far from Paris. It’s also far from the States. It’s even relatively far from Australia. It is, in fact, far from everything and it takes a long, long time to get there. But here it was, right under my nose, just a line’s wait away. And the line was moving at a brisk pace. I therefore joined right in and shuffled forward under the video screens peppered along the line’s route until I entered the New Zealand pavilion.
Inside the pavilion, you shuffle past other video screens. In fact, the line is the visit—you keep on shuffling, looking at still pictures and videos of, primarily, suburban scenes: a Kiwi putting on his tie; another Kiwi cooking lunch; a bunch of Kiwis driving in their cars. Then there are other images—cityscapes, sheep, mountains, a cave troll, sheep. Then you’re out. That’s it.
I think I’ll have to visit New Zealand itself.
There I was in the sauna again. I looked at the map and made a decision—not only would I visit places I had never been, but I’d concentrate on those to which I was unlikely to go. I still harbor hopes for New Zealand, after all. I therefore skipped all the other nearby pavilions, all from countries I have been to (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, etc) and headed for… you guessed it, Brunei.
Brunei had a number of distinct advantages. Two, really. First, it’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever go there, and second, it had no line to speak of, only about five-minutes worth, during which those in the Brunei line gazed up longingly at the Indonesia pavilion towering next door with its palm trees and loud music. The Brunei pavilion boasts neither, but it does have a nice portrait of the Sultan of Brunei at the door, as well as photos of the Syariah Law Building and the Legislative Council Building. Nearby is a clear description of the National Development Plan: “It is an outline of programmes, projects and policies to be implemented during a five-year period for the socio-economic development of the country”… What fun!
But that’s not all: there is also a model of an Airbus 320 sporting the colors of Royal Brunei airways and for the literary-minded there is a “book gallery” containing nineteen books in English, published in Brunei. Fourteen of these are children’s books, four are nature guides, and one is written by a prince (for those of us struggling to get books published, note that in Brunei you need only be a member of the royal family). At the exit of the pavilion (which is really just a small garage-like thing) there is a little snack bar called “Flavors of Brunei” offering such local specialties as tuna croissants wrapped in plastic.
After learning so much about Brunei I decided to head towards Europe. After all, if I were going to tick off places to which I had never been, I might as well start with those closest to home, and there are a number of European countries I have not had the pleasure of visiting. I was tempted to go into the Australia pavilion along the way, but I do plan on getting to Oz one day, and of course the line was really long. (Yes, I know, it’s surprising that I haven’t been to Australia. I’ve been on the verge of going a couple of times, but it never quite worked out. Believe me, if I get there, you’ll be the first to know. But I digress.)
So it was that I left the Pacific rim and headed to Europe, which was all the way across the street.