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.

What they are good at is playing it safe. And the national pavilions on the Pudong side are, almost universally, boring and limp reflections of their home countries, designed not to upset anyone or be controversial in any way.

Worse, it is pretty clear these pavilions were not designed for the Chinese people (some of) who paid to get in and patiently stood in line for hours.

They were designed to impress corporate and government guests, who would only have a cursory glance at the exhibits before being whisked into the VIP suites.

One of the worst offenders, in my opinion, was Canada. You claimed to me that you liked the Canada pavilion. But all I saw was a giant (seriously GIANT) vip suite, a few empty rooms with “sustainability” themes painted on the walls, and three bicycles. They hired Cirque du Soleil to come up with their pavilion and there was still nothing creative in it.

Prawn sandwiches are known in the UK as being the preferred dish at boring corporate events. But actually, it was an unfair analogy. The corporate part of the Expo is the side where you can find some interesting things, although you still have to search fairly hard for it. It was the government part that sucked.

So a better dish to describe the Expo might be a limp pillow bag of salad – officially it is good for you, but you’d rather not eat it (unless your nagging mother forces you to).

Scrap: Limp prawn sandwich or not, do you think the event was worth the money and effort spent on it – both by the Chinese, and the national pavilions? And, perhaps, putting you on the spot a bit here: worth the money spent by the UK?

Moore: It was certainly a waste of money from China’s perspective.

Let’s leave aside the infrastructure improvements in Shanghai, which are fantastic, because I think you can argue that Shanghai might have decided to build those anyway.

If we are talking about building and running the site, the original plans budgeted for 29 billion yuan or so. Of that, 10.9 billion was going to be covered by the government and local banks. The rest was supposed to be part-funded by ticket sales. No one knows how many tickets they gave away free, but I’m willing to speculate it was at least 30pc, and maybe even half. That leaves a pretty big shortfall, which is going to have to come, again, from the local government budget.

Now China is not short of cash, but local governments are finding it relatively difficult to hit their budgets, and I reckon that a chunk of the money they failed to raise will be taken from services elsewhere in the city over the next year. So not only did Shanghai choose to spend 29 billion on a giant boondoggle rather than on healthcare and education, but the choice is likely to have a negative effect on the city’s overall budget.

What did Shanghai get for the Expo? A big bump in tourism, but barely any recognition internationally. The Olympics is a big deal. The Expo is not. And now they are going to tear down all the buildings on the site, so there will be no legacy.

From the UK’s point of view, the jury is still out. The UK was explicit in saying that its target for the Expo was to create an iconic pavilion that would attract businesses to invest in the UK. Until I see the investment stats, I’m going to keep mum.

Scrap: Among organizers and some nat’l pavilions, there’s been considerable frustration that the int’l media, and especially the foreign correspondents, haven’t taken more of an interest in the event – and especially the considerable amount of business being done in the VIP areas (I’ve just spoken to someone involved in a massive mining deal negotiated in a nat’l pavilion). I’ve heard several people call it the biggest and most successful trade fair ever. So, putting this in a way sure to irritate any journalist: how do you respond to those who would say that you’ve just missed a very good story, and possibly a very good beat?

Moore: Well, if there were billion dollar deals being struck in Expo pavilions, then I’m surprised they haven’t announced them.

Certainly I’m curious to know more about this secret deal you mention.

And in terms of being the most successful trade fair ever, well, I’m eager to hear about the volume of business that it generated.

Before the Expo kicked off, the media was certainly excited by it. Almost everyone came to Shanghai and ran stories about the huge infrastructure changes and the ambition and scope of the event. At the Telegraph, we drew up plans for coverage, and specifically coverage of the business side of the Expo. We wanted to interview all the business leaders who were going to come to the event and track what they got out of it.

But when it opened, it became clear pretty quickly that the event was not a success. The pavilions were dull, and UK business leaders (we are a UK paper, after all) didn’t seem to be hugely energised by the possibilities. We spoke to the heads of a few of the large UK companies who came over, and while they all voiced the same platitudes, they hadn’t pulled off any coups.

I don’t think that’s the way business works. The Expo may have been a good place to make introductions to Chinese businesses, and perhaps begin to build relations, but it didn’t generate action – and therefore news – unless you tell me otherwise.

In terms of newspapers and television, there’s only a limited amount of space each day and, to be honest, there were a dozen things that caught the imagination more on any given day than the glad-handing and queues down at the Expo site.

In terms of what it tells us about China, I would say the Expo confirms, once again, that the Communist party will do almost anything not to lose face. That’s also not news.

Scrap: On the flip side – did you sense any interest – any interest at all – in the Expo from Telegraph readers (and editors)? If not, why not?

Moore: No. There was no interest. We had a senior editor come over, but he was pretty bored by it all. It was a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event. Let’s face it, everyone loves sport, so everyone loves the Olympics. But what excitement was there at the Expo over the six months it ran? I must have asked fifty people who paid for tickets and queued up what their impression of it was, and around 95 per cent of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was “alright”.

Scrap: Loaded question: any happy memories of the Expo you’d like to share.

Moore: Yes. The pub crawl around the Expo that you organised was the only time I had fun on the site. Even if you did make me drink that vile Moldovan wine.

[Above,  Malcolm Moore enjoying the Expo – in a pint of beer costume located outside of the Porterhouse Pub during an Expo pub crawl. All rights reserved.]

Scrap: And finally, were you aware that the Chilean pavilion just placed a 50% discount on every bottle of wine in its shop?

Moore: I take it all back. You want to go to the Expo with me next week?

[ed. note: Demolition of the Expo site begins next week.]

9 thoughts on “End of Expo: Malcolm Moore, Expo Critic, Is Undeterred

  1. LOL LOL You guys should start a comedy blogging tag team with you as the straight man. Good stuff.

  2. During the whole time it ran, I never got within three blocks. I lived across the street from the site up until about a week before it opened, but never returned to the area. The surprising thing to me is that during those 6 months, I often asked my cab drivers if they’d been. I only remember one cabbie saying that he had in fact gone. The rest gave their tickets away or jut had no interest in using them. Even among the locals I encountered few who went, and of those that did, few enjoyed it.

    This pretty much agrees with that response. Personally I’d rather just go to EPCOT.

  3. Dear Adam, thanks for Malcolm’s expressions. Although I couldn’t attend the Expo, from what I read his perceptions were and remain accurate. They are in fact echoed by the remarks of Drexel University professor Scott Knowles, who contributes an additional insight: the Expo was created by the Chinese as an opportunity for the world to pay obeisance to its newest and most energetic super-power. This opportunity was seized upon with great relish by everyone from the Danes, who shipped their most precious local relic, Den Lille Havfreu (The Little Mermaid), for display in what was the Expo’s most elegant national pavilion; to your and my “homeland,” the USA, with its gauche shopping-mall outlook and its cheesy, 100% corporate program saved only by the 11th hour importation of “student ambassadors” able to converse with the Chinese in Mandarin. How the mighty have fallen.

    The continuing reliance on the Expo’s aesthetics by mainstream reviewers and critics really misses the point, although Malcolm, Scott, and you have probed more deeply. This, I am convinced, was deliberate on the part of most national leaderships. They wanted to get in good with the Chinese but not appear servile to their own citizens. Keeping public awareness of the Expo to a minimum at home was essential to this purpose. The mainstream press was pretty much complicit in this abdication of responsibility, preferring to treat the Expo as a circus and the various pavilions as “carousels.”

    Your own enthusiasm waned for doing a deeper analysis of the Expo and particularly our American presence waned noticeably just when you were on the verge of some major discoveries. I note that your postings at the time drew as many as 50-60 comments from expats and overseas readers alike, because they sensed you were on to something. I miss your knowing investigations and sharp commentaries. The American people unknowingly owe you a great deal for exposing the corruption that characterized at least the “USA” pavilion in Shanghai and possibly other institutions there.

    (By the way, did you know that so far, no contract has been produced to indicate that the wholly privately owned and operated “USA” pavilion, invested in by 70 American and Chinese multinationals — all investments, tax-exempt — had any official standing with the US Government? Or that when Hillary Clinton fundraised $60 million-plus for the private company, it was not in good legal standing nor IRS-certified? The great irony is that Clinton may have been helping to finance a money-laundering scheme with ties back to the US Chamber of Commerce via the Shanghai AmCham, a scheme resulting in money being passed back to the USA for secret attacks on her fellow Democrats? Of course, this is all speculation. But in the absence of public oversight, a paper trail, and press attention, and with $100 million sloshing around in Shanghai, anything’s possible. Especially when friends of dirty trickster Karl Rove are involved — as they are, heavily, in the “USA” pavilion. That’s a story still to be told.)

    The bottom line is that the Expo, distant from most of the world — the online “Virtual Expo” was a total bust — only reified most people’s opinion around the world that Expo’s exist only to glorify those who need no glory. This Expo at least, despite its glorious slogans, did little to advance the cause of “better cities” or “better lives,” except perhaps the former Pudong residents who traded up with the proceeds for the demolished homes and Shanghai’s residents generally, who now have a somewhat improved urban infrastructure (at great cost). How much more thrilling it would be to simply create a working “Better City, Better Life” urban environment where people could experience the real thing rather than ersatz and glitz? It’s too bad that developments like Dongtan in China and places like Barcelona and Malmö in Europe, Curitiba in Brazil, the Bay Area in the USA, and new cities in Africa and the rest of Asia got short shrift so that a well-meant but ultimately empty ideal could be flash-loaded for six months and then forgotten.

    Hopefully Yeosu 2012, a small Korean Expo focusing on the absolutely important issue of the health of our oceans; and Milano 2015, another Universal Expo addressing the ever-growing global need for sustainable food and health, will restore a sense of balance and purpose. Perhaps. Or maybe we have to wait until 2020, when the world’s collective crises are imminent or possibly already occurring, requiring not an Expo but a grand convocation to propose executable solutions and remedies. Maybe it’s time to replace the Expo “showcase” motif with that of a laboratory, a workshop, a real-life effort to set things straight. Because no matter how lame the Expo concept may seem to its critics, it is what we have, the one time all of the nations of the world get together in peaceful circumstances to celebrate human existence and our place on earth. Or should be.

    Thank you, Adam, for your search of a more perfect Expo and US presence in Shanghai and your service to your readers, always keeping them apprised of that which they should know. I know they appreciate it.

  4. I tend to probably more side with Adam on this question – I found the sheer size of it amusing and intriguing and once taken with a pinch of salt, a generally manageable experience. But, I will also say that in terms of Team UK there, the lowest point I thought was the Liverpool area of the water cities pavilion which was, amongst others, sponsored by that paragon of British business, Finland Air. Also, why did they have to plonk the sculptures of a beefeater and Beckham there (aside from the nice alliteration I suppose).

  5. Thanks for the perspectives, Adam. Readers are best served by the measured opinions pro or con of those who’ve visited the Expo – and more than once – rather than the editorial musings and griping of those who never visited but still want to wedge in a comment or two… or three.

  6. Scott, there’s more to the Expo than meets the eye. Sometimes, you have to move back from the trees to see the forest. All levels of analysis are welcome for an event of this complexity. Although as you know, the Expo was little publicized or commented on outside of China.

  7. Well, Bob, with the Expo at an end here’s hoping you can find your way out of the forest.

  8. The Canada pavilion was an embarrassment. The VIP area was massive. Easily as big as the area for regular visitors. ‘Julie’s Food Experience’ was horrific. Boy did I ever regret taking a bunch of my colleagues from work there. Half of the bikes were broken at the time too.

  9. The Canada Pavilion was far from an embarrassment. The VIP room was big, but was not a room to shower guests with luxuries. It was a business centre, designed as a visitors’ lounge and conference centre, made to hold 350 people. It was built for the business program and was designed to hold seminars and conferences, which it did spectacularly. Not as big as the area for regular visitors as one might believe.

    Moore fails to mention the exterior of the building as one of, if not the, most visually creative and aesthetically pleasing buildings on site. Hard to please someone who hates the expo to begin with.

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