Best and Worst of World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China

I ended up in China because of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. My second cousin, Len, sent me a message on Facebook, asking if I’d be interested in going, and suggesting we gang up on his mom, my cousin Loretta, to convince her to join us. My original intention to attend the Expo quickly mushroomed into a month long cross-country trip, especially when Len and Loretta decided to fly into Beijing rather than Shanghai. I arranged for a visit to the Great Wall of China where we were actually able to camp overnight on a remote section of the wall and flew from Shanghai to Beijing to meet up with them. After a whirlwind tour of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square it was back to Shanghai to finally attend the World Expo.

No other pavilion at the World Expo 2010 was allowed to be taller than the stunning China Pavilion
No other pavilion at the World Expo 2010 was allowed to be taller than the stunning China Pavilion

Had my visit to China not expanded to include things other than the World Expo, I would have been sorely disappointed. Problems began before we ever set foot on the grounds. We had ordered our three-day tickets months earlier from Peregrine Travel, China’s officially designated ticket agent in the U.S. They emailed us a “voucher,” which we had to redeem for our actual tickets once we arrived in Shanghai. The morning before we planned to attend, we took a very expensive taxi ride across town in the pouring rain to the Peregrine office.

At the “Modern Universe Business Plaza,” we rode the elevator to the 26th floor and stepped out into a dimly lit narrow hallway where plain brown wooden doors stretched in both directions. Following the fraying carpet around in a semicircle, we eventually located suite 2613 by its tiny stick-on numbers and knocked on the door. Nothing. We knocked again and waited. A young girl finally cracked open the door and peered at us. We held up our vouchers and explained we we’d come to redeem our tickets; she hesitatingly opened the door wider and motioned us to take a seat. With our vouchers in hand, she disappeared behind a screen and began banging on a computer. Some minutes later she emerged shaking her head. “Mei you,” she said; it is an expression I have come to know well in China.

“What do you mean you don’t have any tickets?” I exclaimed.

“You come back Monday. Have ticket then.”

“We leave on Monday. We want to go to the Expo Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

With a shrug of the shoulders and a flinging of hands into the air, she repeated: “Mei you,” and insisted we come back on Monday. When we again explained that we were leaving on Monday, she offered a different solution: “We give you refund.”

“Refund?” I asked, growing aggravated. “Are you going to give us a refund for our plane tickets and our hotel rooms? You will owe us many thousands of dollars. Can you pay us thousands of dollars?”

She nodded yes; obviously much was lost in translation. A second girl in the office emerged from behind her screen to explain in broken English that they had run out of three-day tickets for that weekend. Since there are no limits to the number of people who attend each day, what that meant was that they had planned improperly and were too lazy to go get more tickets from the Expo site.

“If you are out of three-day tickets, give us one-day tickets.”

“Oh no, one day not enough for Expo.” she insisted.

“Not one one-day ticket, three one-day tickets each. This is your fault, not ours. You must find tickets for us.”

The two girls exchanged glances, the second one giggled, and I came unglued.

“IT’S NOT FUNNY!” I yelled.

“Yes, I know,”she said meekly.

“Then why are you laughing. This is not funny. Don’t laugh, fix it.”

Len, who had been sitting quietly by my side, finally lost his cool. “We came here specifically to see the World Expo and your company told us we could redeem our tickets at any time. When we return to the United States, I will sue your office. I work for a law firm and can do this easily, and your boss is not going to be very happy with you when this happens.”

That did the trick. Following a hurried conference with a superior ensconced behind a closed door, the now serious giggling girl emerged, dug through a desk drawer and pulled out nine one-day tickets, explaining that they belonged to a “colleague.” In a single hour we had witnessed the height of Chinese incompetence and the ever-present need to save face.

Can’t view the above slide show of World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China? Click here.

Over the next three days we wandered the Expo grounds, visiting various country pavilions, many of which were pretty lame. Most bore no relationship to the theme of the Expo: Better City, Better Life. We never got inside the stunning China Pavilion because tickets were limited to 50,000, given out free at the gates each morning on a first-come, first-serve basis, and we were never lucky enough to get them. Queues were long and tiring, in some cases requiring up to six hours to get into the more popular pavilions, during which time I continually fought being poked in the forehead with Chinese umbrellas that are ever-present, rain or shine. This also also meant it was impossible to plan attending any of the cultural performances, since I never knew how long I would be standing in line or how long it would take to tour a pavilion once I got inside.

Frankly, after my first day in the pouring rain, I looked at the gray, threatening skies on day two and took a pass. Fortunately, day three dawned clear and sunny, and I headed back to the Expo for one final day with the specific goal of visiting the USA pavilion. I’d read bad reviews about it; Popular Science opined that the USA Pavilion was so full of corporate sponsorships that it was a disgrace. I STRONGLY beg to differ. For me it was the best of the Expo, incorporating an hysterical movie of Americans on the streets of New York City trying to master a greeting in Chinese and a precious film about a young girl who attempts to turn a junked up lot in her neighborhood into a park, effectively delivering a message that we can only be successful if we work together.

Following an inspirational message of friendship and cooperation from President Obama, spectators were ushered into a room full of displays by corporate sponsors. Though this portion of the pavilion disgruntled the Popular Science author, I had no problem with it; in fact, most of the pavilions at the World Expo were subsidized by corporate sponsors, which seems far better to me than spending tax dollars.

All in all, I was underwhelmed by World Expo 2010, but in addition to the USA pavilion, there were a few high points, as shown in the above video. Hong Kong is next, and I only hope there is less pushing, shoving, and rude behavior there than in the rest of China.

17 thoughts on “Best and Worst of World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China”

  1. The USA Pavilion was the only privatized pavilion at the Expo, and the only one in American history. The Bush Administration planned it long ago as a corporate-owned and -operated pavilion. What disappointed the PopSci editor, which you neglected to mention, was that the “USA” pavilion featured ONLY corporate messaging. It said nothing about America, its people, or their values, only what multinational Chinese and American corporations had to say. Worse, though you may not know it, the entire display is tax exempt. That means, you and I have to pick up the entire tax cost of this wretched excuse for a national pavilion. It was recently voted worst pavilion at the Expo among Chinese visitors, in a research study by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, reported on in Shanghai Daily, November 3, 2010.

    • Hey Gary! Still some craziness going on but it’s starting to smooth out for
      me. I’m in Nepal, Pokhara to be exact, and tomorrow head for a very remote
      mountain village to live with a local family for a few days. Still can’t
      keep up with my writing! Too much to see and do and still write. Good kind
      of problem to have, huh?

  2. The reviews seem mixed about Expo. I can still vaguely recall Expo in Brisbane (my birth city) in 1988 and I can remember the stark variety of efforts in the pavilions from very poor to staggeringly good (China’s pavilion was excellent in Expo 88). Other bloggers seem to have struggled too with the ticketing arrangements.

    • Hi Mark: The weird bit was that we could have bought tickets at the gate,
      but al the pre-publicity made it seem like tickets would be limited in
      number and could sell out, and that we needed to order them ahead of time
      from this one agency. Would have been a lot simpler to buy on site, rather
      than take a long and expensive taxi ride to an office on the other side of
      the city from the Expo, only to have the problems we did.

  3. I love EXPOs, and always hear good things about EXPOs in China and Japan, though never had a chance to visit one. You’re very lucky you made it

  4. Oh how frustrating. Too bad I missed you in China. I had a completely different experience at Expo. I just turned up to the ticket gate and was in within half an hour. I started on the smaller side of the river, which was mostly about urban design, which is my interest and I had a great time there. I eventually got over to the other side of the river with all the countries pavilions. Like you said, mostly underwhelming displays. There was no queue for the China pavilion which was surprising to me (about 3pm on a monday)

  5. When I went to the Expo, my disappointment was due to the fact that THERE NEITHER anybody could speak English! I can understand if you work in a little local shop and you can’t be bothered studying a foreign language, but if you work at the *international* Expo, you must have some grasp of at least one foreign language.

    Apart from that, I found the overall organisation quite efficient and loved the pavilions of Palestine, Syria and Jordan, so far my favourite. I will do my best to go back before it ends as there are some others I want to visit.

  6. Hello!

    I recently found you blog and your travels to China are a very interesting read. I also went to the Expo (once in April for the preview and 3 times in July, which was blistering hot and uncomfortable) and have to agree for the most part with your impressions. I did get to see the China Pavilion, since I went with a tour group and the company managed to reserve a space for foreign tourist groups. Did you manage to see the theme pavilions at all? They were my favorites and I think they are a lot more interesting than any of the country ones.

    I guess it’s not very well known, but you could’ve skipped pre-ordering Expo tickets and just gotten them on site. All the entrance gates sell Expo tickets, and there’s no price difference between pre-ordering and buying them there. The organizers should’ve announced that more clearly for overseas travelers.

    A note about Hong Kong. I’ve gone there a lot, since I have family there, and I can say that you’ll find it pretty much as crowded as Shanghai. The city is a lot more condensed too, people are practically living on top of each other. Given that though, the people don’t spit in the streets or roll up their shirts like they do in Mainland China. There still is pushing though, and you won’t hear “mei you” because everyone speaks Cantonese. And shopping there is much better than it is in Shanghai (no sales tax).

    • Hi Louisa: Yes, we found out about being able to buy tickets on site AFTER
      we arrived; all the pre-publicity made it seem like you had to pre-order,
      and warned about selling out, etc. However, the lines to buy tickets was
      extremely long, so I guess I’m happy we had bought ahead, despite the
      problems. The ticketing portion of it was really pretty poorly organized, as
      were some of the pavilions. The pushing and shoving and rudeness was almost
      beyond belief. After the Expo, I did get to Hong Kong. Planned to spend 5
      days there, but various and sundry problems continued to plague me (bank
      debit cards refused to work, hostel that I booked did not have the promised
      four bed configuration and all the rooms in town were sold out because of a
      jewelry show, etc.), so I finally decided China was pushing me away and fled
      to Malaysia, where everything settled into my normal travel routine
      instantly. Really, the change was quite remarkable.


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