The Greatest Show on Earth?
Image Credit: Stefano Meneghetti

The Greatest Show on Earth?


Standing atop one of the many high-rises on the west bank of the Huangpu River, south of the iconic Bund waterfront area, it’s possible to get a clear view of the five-square-kilometre plot of  land that Shanghai hopes will help showcase itself to the world.

In recent months, it’s been almost impossible to read a news report from here that hasn’t mentioned the fevered construction of pavilions and facilities—and the municipal reconstruction generally—aimed at making the city’s Expo the greatest show on earth.

In the decade since Shanghai won its bid to host the event, the city has morphed and grown—in 2004, a maglev train started doing 8-minute, 250 kilometre per hour laps to and from Shanghai Pudong International Airport; in March 2008 the airport itself sprouted a second terminal; early in 2010 the city’s other airport, Hongqiao, did as well; and meanwhile the metro system has gained several new subway lines.

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Meanwhile, a two-year renovation of the Bund has helped the area recapture some of the aesthetic and pedestrian appeal it lost in the decades following the Chinese civil war.

‘I was born in the Bund area,’ says one 30 year-old, third-generation Shanghainese woman. ‘We had a 13-metre-sqaure room for our family of three, shared one bathroom and one big kitchen with a dozen other families, and had no heat in the winter—and we were considered middle class at the time! But look what’s become of my city in just a few decades. I’m stunned.’

‘Expo’ is short for ‘Universal Exposition,’ the inheritor of the World Fairs that began in London’s Hyde Park, led by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1851. Unlike the Olympics, which lasts only a couple of weeks, Expos last half a year and include hundreds of exhibitors (mostly countries, but also other entities) who spend millions of dollars for the privilege of being there.

Traditionally, Expos have been about national pride (and in China’s case, there’s often plenty of pride to salve, with the media and education system frequently reminding Chinese of the so-called hundred years of humiliation at the hands of foreigners from the First Opium War until the end of World War II).

But while to the outside world the Shanghai Expo, which opens on May 1, may be seen as an attempt, like the Beijing Olympics, to showcase China’s emergence onto the international stage, Shanghai’s (slightly) smaller brother and two centuries’ rival is in no mood to share in the festivities.

For while locals here are apt to point out that the Expo will draw an estimated ten times the number of visitors that the Beijing Olympics did, the national leadership has resolutely refused to visit the site. And although Expo countdown clocks are ubiquitous in Shanghai, none are visible in Tiananmen Square, where previous events of national importance, such as the handovers of Hong Kong and Macau and the Beijing Olympics, have traditionally been recognized.

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