In a Shanghai park the other day, I chatted with a venerable Chinese gentleman about his hometown’s past and present. The city, we agreed, is China’s barometer, and the shifts in its fortunes have been legendary.
In the 1930s, he recalled, warlords used to hang the severed heads of communist strikers from lampposts -- three faces to a bamboo cage. Thirty years later, it was Chairman Mao Zedong doing the killing: During the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai served as headquarters for the murderous, ultra-revolutionary Gang of Four.
Now, some four decades on, the city is hosting a mammoth international exhibition, Expo 2010, and the old boy was touchingly proud. The key to everything, we agreed as we parted, was “he-ping” -- peace. That and daily exercise, the spry 93-year-old added, striding away.
I certainly got my exercise that day. At some 1,300 acres, or 526 hectares, the riverfront exhibition is advertised as the world’s biggest ever. To get from one end to the other, you have to take a ferry across the Huangpu River, dodging the endless stream of barges carrying timber, steel and cement into one of humanity’s fastest-developing cities.
Of course, everything in modern China seems to set a record of some kind, including the Maglev train that magnetically levitated me from the airport to the city in seven minutes, at 430 kilometers per hour, or about 270 miles per hour.
Crowd of 350,000
Then there were the Expo crowds, projected to reach 70 to 100 million during the six-month opening. Before I went, officials had voiced some trepidation about hitting the target. We’ll see. More than 8 million people had visited by 9 p.m. on May 31, one month after the opening. On the day I attended, there were 350,000, and it felt like it.
The Chinese are readier than the rest of us to wait in line, especially outside the most spectacular of the almost 200 countries represented. Yet the Chinese aren’t automata, attracted only by the flashiest buildings. They are actually a discriminating lot.
Yes, there were throngs outside the most flamboyant structures, notably that of Spain, with its clever echoes of Spanish and Chinese handicraft traditions. The exterior resembles an assemblage of wicker baskets, while the swirling interior is composed of bamboo, paper and other sustainable materials.
Still, the longest line was outside the French pavilion, a plain affair in latticed concrete that houses genuine exhibits: original paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, plus a sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
The U.S. pavilion, scraped together by corporate contributions after it looked as if there might be no pavilion at all, feels like a convention center. It shows off some environmental technology and wisely avoids any preachy stuff about the American political system.
“It’s fine,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have said about the building on a visit, a remark that reflects the less-than-ambitious tone.
With its traditional vermilion wooden roof, China’s pavilion may seem conventional -- except that it’s inverted. The best symbol you could imagine in a country turned upside-down in a mere few decades, though the structure seems solid enough. And of course it’s colossal.
The theme of the exhibition -- “Better City, Better Life,” focusing on urban and environmental themes -- came to mind when I visited the garden city of Suzhou, where many cars as well as the motorcycles and Vespa-like scooters were powered by electricity. A peaceful paradise, you might think, with China showing the way. Except that the drivers incessantly honked their horns to alert pedestrians to their otherwise inaudible proximity.
Just as new museums often turn out to be more arresting for their architecture than their contents, what stays in the mind from Expo 2010 are the dozen or so truly extraordinary structures. That includes the British offering, which resembles a giant glass hedgehog.
And then there’s the fact that the exhibition took place where it did. Shanghai has been spruced up to look its futuristic best -- flowers everywhere, trees glowing with lamps after dark, and bridges snaking helter-skelter among a forest of skyscrapers illuminated in blue. In its surging progress, Shanghai itself is on a helter-skelter ride toward becoming the world city of the new century.
Just one thing: While I was talking to the old gentleman, someone offered to shine my shoes, for 50 yuan, or about $7.50. And the hotel where I stayed threw on a 15 percent surcharge for no stated reason. How long before Shanghai adds “world’s most expensive city” to its string of superlatives?
(George Walden witnessed the Cultural Revolution as a U.K. diplomat in Beijing in 1966-69. A former Member of Parliament, he is the author of “China: A Wolf in the World?” and a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)