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Tyranny Of High Expectations Plagues Shanghai Expo

Visitors queue up to enter the France Pavilion on the second day of the Shanghai World Expo on May 2, 2010 in Shanghai, China.
Visitors queue up to enter the France Pavilion on the second day of the Shanghai World Expo on May 2, 2010 in Shanghai, China.

As Shanghai's World Expo readies to open May 1, the final countdown is on. And after an eight-year build-up, Shanghai is suffering from the tyranny of high expectations.

The $45 billion, half-year-long extravaganza had its soft opening this week, which was plagued by crowds and endless queues.

Already, complaints from visitors and an embarrassing copyright scandal have bedeviled the event. Even the normally docile state-run China Daily described the scene as "disorder" and the food as "unpleasant."

Several embarrassing controversies have marked the run-up to Shanghai's World Expo. One centers on the event's mascot, a bouncy aqua blue cartoon character with big eyes called Haibao (right). Many have pointed out Haibao's resemblance to Gumby, originally an animated clay figure who appeared on U.S. television.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images Feng Li/Getty Images /
Several embarrassing controversies have marked the run-up to Shanghai's World Expo. One centers on the event's mascot, a bouncy aqua blue cartoon character with big eyes called Haibao (right). Many have pointed out Haibao's resemblance to Gumby, originally an animated clay figure who appeared on U.S. television.

Friday was the third day of the soft opening, and the first day that the foreign press has been allowed in to observe. Some pavilions were still closed, and visitors had to wait at least half an hour to get into those that were open.

Some visitors, such as Yu Zhen, a young Shanghainese woman, were unhappy.

"Some of the pavilions aren't open yet, so it's not as good as I'd imagined. And some of those that are open don't really have much content," Yu said.

But others were bowled over. China's pavilion — designed like an imposing red pillar — is the most popular among local visitors. Its exhibits include one of China's most famous paintings "Along the River at Qingming Festival," which is often attributed to Zhang Zeduan, a 12th century painter. It's paired with an enormous, modern, animated version of the ancient scroll. Also popular is a short film, which celebrates China's modernization and urbanization over the past 30 years.

"China's pavilion is magnificent," said visitor Wu Yufa, who was beaming as he inspected a display of paintings by schoolchildren. "It's really good. I'm really proud that Chinese people can build this."

But others, such as Gao Yiming, worry about the sheer numbers of Chinese people. Gao was resting after a day of lining up and tramping around the enormous site. The expo hosted 100,000 visitors Friday, but she pointed out that organizers are expecting half a million visitors on peak days.

"Do we really have the ability to host half a million people?" she asked nervously. "I'm still a bit worried. I'm scared of stampedes, of people pushing. I've seen people not keeping order and not being civilized."

To add to their problems, organizers are struggling to explain an embarrassing scandal surrounding the expo's official 30-day countdown song, "Right Here Waiting for You 2010." Stars such as Jackie Chan sang this tune, but soon after it was released, claims of plagiarism surfaced, since the melody appears extremely close to that of Japanese singer Mayo Okamoto's song "Stay the Way You Are." The expo song has since been pulled from the air.

Then netizens turned on the expo mascot, a bouncy aqua blue cartoon character with big eyes called Haibao. In a certain light, Haibao bears a suspiciously close resemblance to Gumby. But expo spokesman Xu Wei says this isn't an issue.

"Haibao was unveiled a long time ago. If anyone thinks that their copyright has been violated, that person would already have used legal means to address this by now," Xu says.

Scandals aside, it's clear which pavilions are popular. The French one, boasting artworks by Van Gogh and Gauguin, has huge lines. Spain, featuring flamenco dancers and a flamboyant wickerwork design, is also a favorite. One of the many waiting in line was Yue Guoliang, an elderly Shanghainese man, whose upbeat attitude is typical.

"I've waited 35 minutes here and think there's at least another 80 minutes to go. It's too tiring waiting, but it's worth it. Like Chairman Mao said, 'The Chinese people have stood up.' And if I had to, I'd wait in line eight days to be here," Yue said.

But with a week to go, several pavilions are still under construction. And the U.S. pavilion closed early Friday, visitors were told, due to equipment problems. For pavilions and organizers alike, the pressure is on to iron out the glitches — and national pride is at stake.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.