Ever since the Expo Village, a companion dormitory/apartments area to the World Expo site, was built and put into operation, people have been complaining that the area is “nice” but suffers from a major flaw. No matter what the hour, the place is consistently… well, empty. Curiousity piqued, I finally got a chance to visit it last week.
It’s pretty easy to see what the Shanghai government was envisioning from looking at the grounds – and, boy, is there a lot of ground to cover. The Expo Village is roughly 35 hectares, with a total construction area of 540,000 square meters, according to the Expo website. In less grandiose terms, it takes almost a half hour to walk from one end to the other. Besides the 20 apartment buildings worth of housing, it contains a five-star hotel, three budget hotels, western restaurants and other amenities – a sports club, medical clinic, massage center etc. In fact, officials in charge boasted that they expected to accommodate 10,000 staff from participating countries and international organizations.” Altogether, the project cost a cool 18 billion RMB to construct.
But even Shanghai Daily was willing to admit that the attempt to design an area to house and please the loads of foreigners working at the Expo “has failed.” In fact, some estimated that there were probably only 1,000 or so people – maybe even less – who actually lived there.
So what went wrong?
A clue can be found in the only “happening” place in the entire area: the one Expo Village Family Mart (there was a second planned, but it never opened). Yes, the security was draconian at first (11pm curfews? No way!) and yes, supervisors exhibited a speed of service that snails would consider insufferable – but those complaints pale in the light of everything being inconveniently expensive.
“I could get a massage here, but it’s ten times cheaper just outside the village. Same with the haircuts,” said my guide, one of the student ambassadors for the USA Pavilion. The USA Pavilion is one of the few representatives to have most of their employees live on Expo Village grounds. They’re joined by Canada, a few Australians (many amoved out after the first couple of weeks) and a good amount of the African countries.
“We do most of our grocery shopping and have most of our hang outs at Family Mart. Otherwise, it’s a taxi ride to the nearest Wal-Mart,” he explained. Was there no grocery on site? “They have organic and gourmet stores, but they’re really really pricey.”
Restaurants suffered from the same problem. A Xinjiang cafeteria sold its slop for prices hovering around the 20RMB range. A staff cafeteria above it had cheaper food, but closed whenever it felt like (which, unfortunately, meant that sometimes 1pm was too late for lunch). Meanwhile, the much touted “Western international” restaurants, Bubba’s and Laris’ offerings were… well, around the same price they are outside the Expo Village.
That wouldn’t have been much of an issue if the expats left in the Expo Village mirrored more accurately the expats outside.
“They had promised us 10,000 people before the Expo Village opened, and we thought ‘That sounds quite alright!’ And then later, the number dropped to 7000, and we felt that was still doable,” said Sam, a manager for the Laris properties (currently Funky Chicken, The Fat Olive and the newly opened Pie Hole). “But there’s 10% of those numbers here, if even.”
To make things a little worse, a good portion of those are from Muslim countries, a hard sell for a wine bar like Fat Olive. Though, Sam pointed out, Funky Chicken was more likely to have customers thanks to its Muslim diet-friendly menu.
The slow days have caused more than one business to shut down, and others to rethink opening plans. That’s why the opening of the Pie Hole was delayed until just two months before the Expo ends. Another Laris project, fine dining restaurant Yucca remained closed to the general public.
“The silver lining is that these restaurant concepts are new – so it’s like we’re having a prolonged test run,” Sam said.
And he remained optimistic about chances for business once the Expo is over. “They’ll be converting these into buyable apartments when Expo ends – and we’re at a good place to cater to the people who will live here. The surroundings are very nice.”
And when was the conversion going to be finished?
He paused and then chuckled, “I don’t think anybody knows.”