by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
One comment posted after my last contribution to this site was that, while my thoughts on rock music and Chinese politics were interesting, the piece lacked a clear enough statement of opinion to be called an “Opinionist” entry. I’m making sure this post on Shanghai 2010 won’t be open to the same charge by having it wear its thesis on its sleeve—or rather in its title.
English language publicity materials have used different phrases to describe the upcoming Shibohui (a term that can be translated equally well as international exhibition, world’s fair, global expo, and so forth). It has been dubbed an “Economic Olympics” or a “Technology Olympics,” for example, to encourage people to think of its as a sequel to the Beijing Games. Most frequently, it has been called simply the “2010 Expo,” the “Shanghai World Expo” or some variation on these phrases. It has also, less frequently, been referred to as “China’s First World’s Fair,” the “Shanghai World’s Fair,” and things of this sort. My thesis is that this last approach is the one to run with.
I say this despite (indeed partly because) I know that “World’s Fair” has a retro ring to it. I say it even though the BIE (Bureau International des Expositions), the organization that now oversees events in the lineage of global galas that goes back to the Crystal Palace Exhibition, likes to use “Expo” rather than “World’s Fair” to describe contemporary descendants of that 1851 granddaddy of all such extravaganzas.
I’ll offer five reasons to back up my thesis, but first two pieces of background information:
First, I’ve agreed to serve as an unpaid adviser to the BH & L Group. As a recent Shanghaiist piece noted, this organization hopes to get the nod to create a U.S. Pavilion for the event. I would favor calling the upcoming Shanghai event a “World’s Fair” rather than a “World Expo” even if this wasn’t the case, but I do think the rebranding would be particularly useful in encouraging American participation.
Second, what I have to say below grows out of the discussion of World’s Fairs in my last two books and the background reading I did while writing them. China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times (2007) had chapters that deal with the World’s Fairs (sometimes called Exhibitions or Expositions) that took place in Paris in 1867, Philadelphia in 1876, and Chicago in 1893. And Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments (2008) ends with a look ahead to what the Shibohui could mean for this city.
Here are my 5 points:
1) Calling the upcoming Shanghai event an “Olympics” of any kind is counterproductive. It just underscores the extent to which in this era (as opposed to in earlier ones when the Olympics were sometimes just a World’s Fair sideshow), the Games are seen as much more important than any other mega-event spectacle.
2) Not all the cities that hosted World’s Fairs of the 1850s-1930s (the genre’s heyday) are now thought of as among the most glamorous and celebrated places on earth (Philadelphia and Ghent each hosted one, after all), but many are thought of just that way. And certainly a higher percentage of top tier locales can be found among the place that hosted World’s Fairs then than have held World Expos in recent decades. Surely, Shanghai aspires to be seen as belonging to a category that includes London, Paris and New York, rather than Knoxville, Hanover, and Aichi—where the 1982, 2000, and 2005 Expos were held.
3) The best that can be said of the word “Expo” is that it brings to mind futuristic buildings (think Seattle’s Space Needle) and the latest technologies and products (think the Toshiba robots at Aichi 2005)—two things that Shanghai is already linked to in spades. As I note in Global Shanghai, the city now looks in many ways like a place that has already hosted an Expo not a place that is gearing up for one, with the skyscrapers of Pudong and the Maglev train reminiscent of things that might have been left behind after the crowds went home. If the pay-off of hosting an Expo is that it suggests a city is futuristic, this is redundant in Shanghai’s case.
4) The term “World’s Fair,” by contrast, while also associated with futurism (“Building the World of Tomorrow” was the theme of the New York extravaganza of 1939) conjures up a sense of fun as well. And if Shanghai can’t outdo Beijing in terms of the high-tech spectacle side of 08/08/08, one area where there is room for improvement, according to many reports of people who attended the Games (I didn’t), is in the area of frivolity and high spirits—of the sort associated with World’s Fairs since at least the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, which had a Midway famous for its amusements and shows and was also where the Ferris Wheel made its debut.
5) Speaking of Chicago…America will soon have a President who is linked to that city. So invoking 1893 when looking ahead to 2010 might have special resonance. It could help convince skeptics that even in a time of financial constraints, having some kind of official U.S. presence at the first World’s Fair held in China—a country that is now the kind of rapidly industrializing rising economic power that America was in 1893—might be a good thing.
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the new book Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments, due out next month from Routledge.