By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Visiting Expo 2010 Shanghai

I spent a fun day at the Shanghai Expo during my visit to give a lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s best. The overwhelming majority—in fact, almost all—of the visitors were Chinese, though they were drinking Coke and eating food from KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut.

By far the biggest surprise for me was the U.S. Pavilion, which has been criticized in the United States for being too commercial. (The funds to build the pavilion came exclusively from companies, due to a congressional prohibition on spending appropriated funds for pavilions at international expositions). Actually, our pavilion, probably more than any other I visited, conveyed a sense of our values, as opposed simply to showing beautiful scenery and people or displaying stunning technical effects.

The most commercialized pavilion I saw, perhaps violating that country’s self-perception, was the French pavilion: It was filled with promotions for French brands covering a wide array of products. I saw a number of brand-obsessed Chinese taking pictures in front of the Louis Vuitton luggage display. Lafarge Cement was another featured name.

The U.S. pavilion was manned by 70 American student volunteers, all Chinese-speaking (only a small number of them Chinese-Americans), who introduced to the audience, in Chinese and English, the three films that are the pavilion’s centerpiece. The first was a funny, disarming film showcasing Americans – young and old, workers and students, white and black -- fumbling with trying to say “Welcome to the American Pavilion” in Chinese. It was slightly goofy, but very endearing, I thought, and the Chinese onlookers responded with friendly laughter and smiles. At the beginning of the film, Kobe Bryant, who has an iconic status in China, greeted the audience with “ni hao” (hello).

The second film was on the Expo’s theme of environmental conservation, featuring both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama – when Obama came on the screen, lots of cameras came out to take pictures.

The last film was extremely well done and was designed to demonstrate the American ideal that “one person can make a difference.” A girl plants a flower in a garbage-strewn courtyard of a dingy, gray apartment building. At first the passers-by ignore the decoration, but eventually some begin to plant their own flowers, then others come to clean up the garbage. By the end of the film, a beautiful garden has replaced the ugliness. I asked the Chinese students accompanying me how they interpreted the film, and they indeed got the message that this was very American – “an individual can do a lot.”

One interesting thing I noticed was that at the Chinese pavilion—which was, not surprisingly, packed—there were almost exclusively older people, many of them by appearance from the countryside. By contrast, the foreign pavilions had some older Chinese, but mostly younger ones. It marked an interesting generational shift in orientation toward the outside world! I was somewhat surprised to see the location of the Taiwan pavilion, a modest-sized (though well done) display literally in the shadow of the enormous Chinese pavilion, in a special area also occupied (on two sides of the Chinese pavilion) by the Hong Kong and Macao pavilions. A Taiwanese told me, however, that the pavilion was located at a somewhat greater distance away from the Chinese pavilion than the Hong Kong and Macao ones.

There also is a huge Africa pavilion, featuring small exhibits from a large number of African nations (South  Africa has its own pavilion.) The Chinese government paid the entire cost for this pavilion, reflecting the Chinese push into Africa. The weirdest thing in the whole Expo was the location of the North Korean pavilion. Rather than being with the other Asian pavilions (Expo is organized by geographical area), it was located in the Middle Eastern area – next to the Iran pavilion!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Thu, Sep 30, 2010 Bob Jacobson

As future readers may be confused by the comments here: 1. It has come out that the cute films cited by Steve cost $23 million, or about $1.5 million a minute, part of a deal that resulted in the resignation of Nick Winslow, founding CEO of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the corporation that actually owns the USA Pavilion. Conflict of interest. 2. Carlos deVillaVilla makes assumptions he has no business making. At any time, the State Department was empowered by law to go to the Congress and seek funding for a US Pavilion. Conversations with Senate staff persuade me that an appropriation would have been forthcoming as part of the Recovery Act. However, the State Department under Clinton declined to ask for funding, preferring instead to pursue privatization of the US Pavilion, a strategy formulated by a Bush Administration working group in 2006. 3. Yilya Jing, if he or she is an American citizen, may choose to believe whatever he or she is appropriate to express via the US Pavilion, but the application filed by Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., with the IRS makes certain representations about what would be presented. These were more expansive than demonstrations of technology. Moreover, when the State Department first agreed to work together with Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph, even before they were incorporated, they agreed to represent the full breadth of American values and culture. 4. Xinping is kind. Virtually every major press that covered the Expo found the USA Pavilion wanting, even embarrassing. Hillary Clinton herself, who personally raised $60 million-plus for Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., when it was going out of business for the second time, was reported to be startled by the overwhelmingly corporate, commercial environment. All that aside, several agencies are looking into the matter with the intention of avoiding a repeat of the Shanghai debacle if the US decides to participate in Milan 2015 or another Expo. Thank you for permitting me this clarification of my comments.

Mon, Jun 28, 2010 xinping Shanghai

I agree most of your views. Among all the pavillions, I think Taiwan Pavillion and US Pavilion are the most successful ones. Concerning the "old" people in Chinese Pavilion, it is always true like that and we, the 80s and 90s, are being thought that we are not love the country.

Sat, Jun 26, 2010 Yijia Jing

Steve, thanks for sharing your very subtle and thoughtful observation of the Expo! It is also interesting to read the discussion on the funding of the US pavilion. While I didn't go to the US pavilion, I don't think it necessary to highlight values like democracy there. It is equally true that we don't want to burden the US players in South Africa to promote democracy or other nice but not so relevant values there. What I really care about the US pavilion is whether it exhibits some high-tech ideas or products that demonstrate its strength as the world’s most technically advanced country. It looks Expo is more and more commercialized and technical innovations are dimmed. People dare not to show their high-tech explorations to avoid being imitated or stolen.
BTW, in my last message which was not posted due to reasons unknown, I suggested you to treat Shanghai Expo as just one aspect of modern Chinese life. I don't know if you will have an opportunity to visit rural villages in Suburban Xi'an. Some people say that there are four worlds in China (HK, Beijing, and Shanghai; big cities and capital cities of provinces; middle-sized and small cities; pure rural villages). Foreigners need to have a look at all these worlds to be confident about your impression of China.

Fri, Jun 25, 2010 jiexu

I read a report somewhere that chinese government support some money to American pavilion.I am not sure if it is true.

Thu, Jun 24, 2010 Carlos deVillalvilla

Actually Bob is incorrect about the federal funding of exhibitions being a myth. The United States officially withdrew from the Bureau of International Expositions in 2001 during the George W. Bush administration, essentially to avoid paying the $25,000 annual dues. However, in 1991 (during his Father's presidency) Congress enacted legislation barring the State Department from funding national pavilions from international expositions. While it is true that other departments of the Government (such as the Department of Commerce, for example) are legally allowed to fund such pavilions, the reality of the situation is that international expositions fall under the purview of the State Department; it is unlikely that any other agency of the government would be willing to not only spend the money on an American pavilion but would be willing to risk the legal and inter-departmental warfare that would result from such an attempt. Therefore while your assertion is technically true, on a practical level you're absolutely incorrect.

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