End of Expo: Why Expo 2010 Mattered

The personal and professional interests of the foreign media in China have never had much in common with the average Chinese people with whom they cover. Sometimes, this is a good and necessary thing: if the foreign media won’t cover Chinese dissidents, who will? But often, this produces absurd results that distort – for readers and viewers outside of China – what matters to China.

Take, for example, the near obsession that China’s foreign correspondents have with Jia Zhangke, a very good Chinese filmmaker who makes “serious,” socially conscious films that have almost no audience in China, but which win awards abroad. This year, during the Expo, the New Yorker (to choose just one English language publication) devoted thousands of words to Mr. Jia. Fair enough, I suppose, except for the fact that – at the same time Jia Zhangke was appealing to a decidedly small audience of hyper-educated New Yorker writers, readers, and editors, the turnstiles at Expo 2010 – the Shanghai World’s Fair – were rotating at a rate that eclipsed Jia Zhangke’s entire Chinese audience by noon, every day, May to October. If New Yorker readers wanted to know something about why people were rushing through those turnstiles, they’d have to look elsewhere because, aside from a few blog posts, the magazine published nothing on Expo 2010 – the biggest and most expensive event that ever took place in China (and, some argue, anywhere). Of course, the New Yorker, and its terrific China correspondent weren’t along in this choice of coverage – they were joined in the decision by most of the China-based foreign media (and their overseas editors). What a pity.

If you believe the official figures, Expo 2010 was visited by more than 70 million people, many millions of whom waited in long ticket lines, outside of the gates, in the heat of July and August (to be sure, quite a few visitors also received their tickets for free), for the chance to wait in long lines within the Expo grounds. The obvious question is: what was the appeal? The less obvious question is: why didn’t the foreign media probe this question? More precisely, rather than ignore the phenomenon, why didn’t anyone pause to ask what was it about contemporary China that drove so many people to do something that most foreigners – especially foreign reporters who are lock-step disdainful of crowds and mass events enjoyed by Chinese – had no interest in doing? Continue reading

End of Expo: The ‘Americans are Potato Chip Eating Losers’ Pavilion (especially compared to us)

Considering that Expo 2010 [Shanghai World’s Fair] included exhibitions by some two-hundred countries, it’s remarkable that the six-month event was all but devoid of politics and negative depictions of other countries and cultures in the national pavilions (excepting a pretty heated film in the Palestinian pavilion). I’m not sure who or what place everybody on their best behavior, but whatever (or whoever) it was, that entity clearly had a sense of humor when it came to policing the oft-overlooked, and mostly awesome Urbanian Pavilion. In brief: the massive Urbanian pavilion, which I only visited for the first time recently, follows the lives of six families in six countries. As visitors enter the monstrous space, they are introduced to these six families via life-sized wax figures. Below, the American family, the Reids of Phoenix, Arizona:

Now compare, for a  moment, the Reids – their shopping cart filled with boxed breakfast cereal and potato chips only, with the representative Chinese family – I think they are the Zhangs (I wasn’t taking notes) of Zhengzhou. Rather than pushing a shopping cart filled with junk food, they are depicted holding a clean-cut birthday party for their aged grandfather. I’ve lived here long enough to know that this is no more typical than a Phoenix, Arizona shopping cart outing, but whatever:

Now, as an American, I take only minor umbrage at this comparison (I know my countrymen, after all). And I would take no umbrage but for the fact that the Urbanian pavilion was designed by a Dutch firm, Kossman.dejong, and not a Chinese one. In other words, what we have here is 1) a starry-eyed comparison of two cultures, neither of which are native to the designers, and 2) a Dutch commentary on how to kiss your client’s ass (Shanghai Expo aka Shanghai gov’t, which, surely has more work to commi$$ion from these liberal-minded Dutch designers). With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at this Dutch provocation against US interests. Continue reading

End of Expo: A Small(er) Country Perspective

Was Expo 2010 worth it? Depends, I suppose, on who you are. If you’re from a small-town in China, and your only experience of Expo was had on a blazing hot August day when you had to stand in lines for hours with several hundred thousand of your closest friends to see a half-baked exhibit on German polyester – probably not. But, truth is, for many of the organizers and participating countries, Expo 2010 wasn’t about the ticket buyers, it was about the government officials and business executives who planned to use it as a six-month meet and greet to take place behind closed doors, in VIP suites. So, in search of this perspective, I sat down for a chat with Juan Pablo Cavelier, the General Manager and Director of Colombia’s Expo 2010 pavilion. In fact, I sat down with him in Colombia’s VIP area – pictured below.

Colombia’s participation in Expo 2010 was far from assured: the country was one of the very last of the 200+ to RSVP for the event. Nonetheless, under a very limited schedule, it managed to build a first-rate pavilion for less than US$10 million. Compared to the tens of  millions spent by some countries, this was a modest sum. But for a country that wasn’t sure it wanted to participate, it was serious money that needed to be justified – at some point. Some excerpts, then, from a wide-ranging conversation (some of which will be published elsewhere) on just how Cavalier will that.

Scrap: Colombia was one of the last countries to confirm for Expo. I suspect that, among the reasons for that late confirmation, were questions about whether or not a pavilion would be worth the money spent on it. So now, as the Expo wraps up, I wonder if you could tell me – was it worth it? And why? Continue reading

End of Expo: Malcolm Moore, Expo Critic, Is Undeterred

If one were to make a list of the most memorable essays, reviews, and reports written about Expo 2010 [Shanghai World’s Fair], Shanghai Expo: take a stroll down to Axis of Evil square, the cutting review of the event’s opening day by Malcolm Moore, the Daily Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent, would have to be placed near the top. It’s a scathing piece, concise, hilarious, and worth reading if only for Moore’s memorable put-down of the event as “a limp prawn sandwich.”

Still, as an unabashed Expo enthusiast, I did my best to convince Moore that he was getting the Expo story all wrong. I suggested pavilions worth visiting; I recommended restaurants worth trying; I organized an Expo  pub crawl and treated him to two bottles of delicious Moldovan wine. No luck: Moore remained undeterred. And, even worse – from the perspective of someone who thoroughly enjoyed reading Moore’s disdain for the event – he lost interest entirely, and moved onto other stories (along with most of China’s foreign correspondent community).

But surely, Malcolm Moore still has an opinion, and so I reached out to him earlier this week in hope that he’d be up for answering a few last Expo-related question. Malcolm, a gentleman if I ever met one, answered graciously, and at length. Interested readers will note two things: 1) he hasn’t changed his mind at all, and 2) he writes very, very well.

Scrap: On the occasion of the Expo’s opening, you wrote that it as had “all the soul and charm of a limp prawn sandwich.” Six months later, do you stand by this assessment? Or has familiarity suggested another food item to which the Expo might be more accurately compared?

Moore: Yep. Six months later and after a further 15 or 20 or so trips to the site, I stand by my initial assessment.

The whole thing was conceived and organised by government officials, both Chinese and foreign, and let’s face it, government officials are not famous for their creativity and verve. Continue reading

End of Expo: DeluxZilla offers some thoughts

Starting today, we’re going full-tilt at Shanghai Scrap covering (sort of) the End of Expo 2010. What this means, exactly, I’m not sure. But I do think that – even if the rest of the China-based foreign correspondent corps won’t cover it (more on that shortly) – the end of the largest World’s Fair ever (size, attendance, etc etc) merits some attention. So we’ll start with a brief emailed Q&A that I conducted over the weekend with Zachary Franklin, author of the DeluxZilla blog. By day, Mr. Franklin is an M.A. student inl economics at Fudan – that is, when he’s not busy covering the Expo for the European Union wire service at the Expo. Indeed, during the Expo, Franklin has written – as of last count – 88 wire stories (subsequently picked up news agencies worldwide), and that has to be a record for a foreign correspondent at this event. A compendium of those stories can be found here, here, and here. Below, Mr. Franklin and Prince Albert of Monaco, at the Monaco pavilion (a/k/a Prince Albert in a Pavilion].

Nevertheless, despite all those wire stories, it’s Mr. Franklin’s blog that sets him apart. Posts like Going Through the Expo Garbage, Expo Fouls Up Three Month Party, and Fighting the Coke Man provide/d readers with a totally unique and informed insight into the life of this Expo; I’d say it was invaluable if you had any interest, professional or otherwise. I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention, that Mr. Franklin once took me to task for my coverage of the USA pavilion (coverage like this). Alas, we’ve never met in person (my fault), but I’m assured by several mutual friends that the blogger is a total mensch. So, without further ado, a few Expo-related questions for Zachary Franklin, aka DeluxZilla: Continue reading

Firing your best bullet, and other thoughts on rare earth mania.

A brief list of commodities of which China is a net importer: oil, iron ore, soy beans, wheat, corn, aluminum scrap metal, copper scrap metal, steel scrap metal, recyclable paper stock. That is to say, China lacks sufficient domestic supplies of these resources, and must resort to other countries for supply. Among the leading suppliers of food commodities and scrap metals (which comprise a significant percentage of China’s total production of aluminum and copper and, to a lesser but still important extent, steel) is the United States. Indeed, as China’s economy grows, it’s dependence upon the United States and other exporters for commodities, especially for food and metal (and ores) increases. Below, a chart from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Shanghai Trade office.

Quite often, and understandably, my friends in the China-focused media and academic class tend to lose themselves in the same story and theme. For years, for example, the China-focused media has been tightly focused on the Chinese export story, while giving short shrift to the still considerable volume of exports – especially the commodities that power the Chinese export machine – that the United States and other developed countries send to China. To be sure, the trade deficit between China and the United States grows, but US to China trade also grows, and it’s worth remembering – if the stories about American job losses often don’t – that China is the third largest US export market. And it’s also worth remembering that commodities – agricultural and recyclable – are the two leading US exports to China, by volume. Continue reading

Interview: Sue Anne Tay on photo blogging, day jobs, and her Shanghai Street Stories

Recently I was asked by a reporter, recently assigned to China, what China blogs I read. In fact, I look at several, and the full list can be found on the blogroll to the lower right. Then he asked me if I have a favorite. That’s a tough question: different blogs fulfill different functions. For example, I read danwei and shanghaiist like maps, using them to help me chart what’s happening in China, and on other China blogs. But if the function that we’re talking about is pleasure, then I think no blog brings me more enjoyment than Sue Anne Tay’s Shanghai Street Stories.

Full disclosure: Sue Anne is a friend, and a colleague with whom I’ve worked. But even if I didn’t know her, I’d pay tribute to her photos, and the text that she writes to accompany them. As regular readers of Shanghai Scrap know, I’m a big fan of reported blogs, and Sue Anne’s is one of the best: rather than riff on what other writers or bloggers have already done, she provides her readers with gorgeous photos and original commentaries on what’s happening on, well, Shanghai’s streets. In this way, she’s done some of the very best and most interesting blogged work on urban preservation in Shanghai, and doing so without being didactic about it. She is, in the best sense of the term, a promoter of the “show don’t tell” ethos. And what she shows! Below, an image of the artist and blogger at work, taken by Xi Zi.

I’ve long wanted to do an interview with Sue Anne for this site – partly because I’m a straight-up fan, and partly because I think she deserves a much wider audience. And so, without further commentary from me, Sue Anne Tay on her photos, her blog, doing creative work while holding down a day job, and where she’s going next. For more info, go to Shanghai Street Stories. Continue reading