The World’s Fair may have lost the luster it brought decades ago to world capitals like Paris. But China has dusted off the concept in an attempt to give its second city, Shanghai, the same coming-out party that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were for Beijing.
China has spent $45 billion — even more than it devoted to remake Beijing for the Olympics — to mount an elaborate World Expo, inviting 189 countries to showcase a polished, vibrant Shanghai that it envisions as a financial capital for the region, even the world.
The Shanghai event begins Friday evening with a highly anticipated opening ceremony and fireworks display attended by China’s president, Hu Jintao, and dozens of other world leaders and dignitaries.
“Only we can hold such an Expo,” said Fang Xinghai, director general of the Shanghai Financial Services Office. “There’s a bit of national pride in it. We want the world to come and admire our success.”
Preparations have been nothing short of monumental. After winning the bid in 2002 to host the event, Shanghai began clearing about two square miles along the Huangpu River. That involved moving 18,000 families and 270 factories, including the hulking Jiang Nan Shipyard, which employs 10,000 workers.
Today, the Expo site is crowded with scores of national pavilions, sculpture gardens, shops and a $270 million sports arena and performing arts center that is shaped like a flying saucer.
National treasures and fistfights
The $61 million United States pavilion is planning to show a Hollywood-produced film about the environment. The French pavilion is displaying seven “national treasures,” including works by Manet and Van Gogh.
The porcupinelike British pavilion — constructed of 60,000 transparent rods and called the “Seed Cathedral” — has already attracted widespread attention. And Denmark’s pavilion is showing off the country’s best-known national emblem: a bronze statue of the “Little Mermaid.”
But Expo preparations have not been without embarrassing moments.
Journalists have questioned whether the ubiquitous Expo mascot — a cartoonish figure called Haibao — is a copy of Gumby.
And last week, when 200,000 people showed up on the first day of an Expo trial run, angry crowds pelted some pavilions with rocks, overran barriers and broke into fistfights after complaining of long lines, shoving and food shortages. (The fiasco was largely censored in the Chinese media.)
Expo organizers said adjustments were made, and visitors were more civil during the final days of the four-day “soft opening,” which attracted nearly one million visitors.
Now, with 25 million tickets sold, city officials are projecting that more than 70 million people could attend the 184-day event, which would shatter a record set in 1970, when 64 million people visited the Expo in Osaka, Japan.
To prepare for the onslaught, Shanghai has trained more than 1.7 million volunteers and adopted Olympic-level security measures, adding metal detectors to subway entrances and screening inbound cars. China has even temporarily closed borders as far away as its western one with Kazakhstan.
Last week, the police here detained 6,000 people they said were involved in street crimes like theft and prostitution during a 12-day crackdown to prepare for the Expo. But human rights groups say some activists have been detained, as was the case during the Olympics.
The city has also introduced a series of sometimes comical etiquette campaigns to instruct residents to be welcoming. Among the pastimes discouraged is walking in public dressed in colorful cotton pajamas — something of a Shanghai tradition.
Shanghai’s infrastructure has been upgraded over the past several years with new roads, bridges, tunnels and airport terminals. Three weeks ago, a new 18.6-mile subway line opened in the western part of the city — the 11th since the city’s subway system first opened in 1995.
“After we won the right to host the Expo in 2002, we planned to construct 970 kilometers of underground track in the future and at least 400 kilometers by 2020,” said Zheng Shiling, who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai. “But today, we already have 410 kilometers of underground track. We’ve fulfilled our plan 10 years early.”
Chief among the efforts has been a $700 million renovation of the riverfront promenade along the historic Bund and the refurbishment of the Art Deco Peace Hotel, which is expected to reopen soon.
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Global Shanghai, 1850-2010,” said the Expo would complete the “big event two-step” — the Olympics and the Expo — that many rising powers had carried out. But it also signals Shanghai’s rebirth.
“This is a city that sees itself reclaiming a status it previously had,” he said. “It was one of the hottest tourist destinations in the world in the 1930s. Dewey, Shaw and Chaplin came. It was a place you had to see.”
Many residents, though, complain about the city’s endless efforts to repave roads and paint the underbellies of bridges, the endless Expo promotions and the accelerated pace of city block demolitions ahead of the Expo.
Some say that what the city has gained in modernization it has lost in urban character — that many of the city’s old lane houses are being destroyed.
But city preservation officials have stressed that Shanghai simply has too many people to accommodate, and thus needs more skyscrapers and infrastructure.
When the Expo ends in October, most of the pavilions will be demolished and much of the site will be turned into office and retail space.
Ben Wood, an American architect who has worked here for years, said the plan, which did away with polluting factories, made sense.
“The Expo won’t make architectural history,” he said, a reference to the architectural gems of the Beijing Olympics. “But this is a more sustainable approach. The Water Cube is being eaten alive by acid rain. It will be a Kmart someday.”
This story, "Expo Offers Shanghai a Turn in the Spotlight," first appeared in The New York Times.