In face of the daunting economic and ecological challenges of an uncertain world, China is quietly yet rapidly changing. Her dreams and aspirations of a better future are perhaps most palpable in the Shanghai Expo with an overall Theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’. This underlines China’s relentless urbanization drive to achieve a more balanced and sustainable economy with a middle-class majority in the coming decades.
Taking advantage of my trip on permanent relocation back to Hong Kong, I visited the Shanghai Expo in a week-long trip ending 3 June. I wanted to feel the pulse of China’s urban aspirations and sample some of the exciting delights of this once-a-decade global grand stand.
The Shanghai Expo is the first ever hosted by a developing country. It is also the world’s largest so far with a site area of 5.28 sq km, twice the size of Monaco. The overall construction cost is estimated at US$58 billion, double the cost for the Beijing Olympics, excluding the cost of upgrading Shanghai’s infrastructure. A record number of 192 countries and 50 international organizations are represented with an target attendance of 70 -100 million visitors during its course from 1 May to 31 October 2010. About 95% of visitors are expected to be Mainland Chinese.
Save for express arrangements for those with disabilities or aged 70 and above, there were massive queues everywhere. For the more popular pavilions like those of Germany, Saudi Arabia and Japan, there were regular announcements that the waiting time could be up to three or even five hours. The daily attendance during my visit was in excess of 300,000. If this rate is maintained, it would not be surprising that total attendance would at least exceed the current record of 50 million visitors held by the Montreal Expo in 1967.
The diverse architectures of the pavilions are as stunning as their evening illuminations. Not unexpectedly, the largest is the Chinese Pavilion standing 63 meters tall, with a construction cost of US$220 million. It consists of 56 vermillion wooden beams interlocked with intricate nail-less joinery (‘dougong’) dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BCE). The beams symbolize the 56 different ethnic groups holding China together as a nation. The Pavilion’s eye-catching multi-media contents are a celebration of the struggles and progress of the Chinese people through the centuries. Indeed, each national pavilion is a refreshing invitation to get to know the respective country or entity a little better, though opinions seem to be divided whether some interiors are worth the queuing especially in the sultry summer heat. The network of complimentary air-conditioned shuttle buses and ‘golf-cart’ carriers between major site thoroughfares definitely make things a lot easier.
A brief introduction to ’15 Amazing Pavilions from Shanghai Expo 2010’ may be accessed at https://freshome.com/2010/05/14/15-amazing-pavillions-from-shanghai-expo-2010/
Apart from the various national pavilions, in a class of their own are the following five Theme Pavilions giving substance to the overall Expo Theme of ‘Better City, Better Life’:
(a) Urbanization Pavilion
The core concept is that comprehensive human development is the prelude to sustainable development. Using materials from real-life cases selected from six cities around the world, distinct urban aspects of ‘home’, ‘work’, ‘interaction’, ‘learning’ and ‘health’ are highlighted in a multi-media expose.
(b) Pavilion of City Being
The core concept is that a city is a living organism demanding human care. This is brought out by simulations in four display sections: (i) the dynamics through the ages of rail transit for the flow of people, goods, energy, capital and information; (ii) the complexity and fragility of a city’s life-support utility systems; (iii) the diversity, vibrancy and renewal of cities showcased in a 360-degree piazza, from the passion and romance of Buenos Aires to the energy and bravado of Mumbai; and (iv) a kaleidoscope of city life in diverse neighborhoods around the world.
(c) Pavilion of Urban Planet
The exploration of a win-win relationship between humans, cities and Mother Earth is choreographed in the context of urbanization through the centuries, the challenges of dwindling resources, the changing faces of a Blue Planet, and the Path of Sustainable Development.
(d) Pavilion of Footprint
This explores the footprint of urban development through the sands of time, unveiling pearls of human wisdom in early settlements in Mesopotamia, in the Yellow and Yangtze River Plains, and in ancient Egyptian, Indian and Myan cities. A Hall of Development celebrates the architectural elegance of cities of European Renaissance, the Ottoman Euro-Asian urban interaction, and the connection between Tibetan civilization and the Central Plains in ancient China. A Hall of Wisdom shows how human ingenuity rises to the challenge of industrialization and urban heritage in world cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai.
(e) Pavilion of the Future
This captures the imagination of the future of cities in four display zones: (i) Yesterday’s Dreams; (ii) Dreams and Realization; (iii) Multiple Possibilities; (iv) Making Future Happen. Using various mediums including sculpture, this highlights the pillars supporting Life and Ecology in such concepts as ‘Intelligent Homes’, ‘Healthy Neighborhoods’, ‘Low Carbon Cities’, and ‘Harmonious Environment’
In addition to a visit to the Shanghai Expo, I was privileged to set foot in the environs near the cities of Ningbo and Hangzhou , in particular in Wuzhen, an ancient ‘water-village’ (nicknamed ‘China's Venice’) dating back 6,500 years and now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. A short glimpse of this magical heritage lost somewhere in time can be had at https://www.funtouristattractions.com/a/wuzhen-ancient-town-hangzhou-china/115
In Hangzhou I also managed to fit in watching ‘Impressions West Lake’, a nightly ‘son et lumiere’ extravaganza directed by Zhang Yimou, the award-wining film director who masterminded the choreography of the Beijing Olympics. It features a familiar Chinese legendary love-story enacted with ancient colorful Chinese attire, set in soulful modern music and performed on the waters of the world-famous West Lake. You may sample the show’s dream-like images and music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEcPJRiRaT4Last but not least, I shouldn’t forget the elegance, subtlety and richness of the regional Ningbo-Hangzhou cuisine. All in all, this turned out to be a trip I don’t mind repeating.