We bought tickets well in advance, did lots of research and planning and headed for Expo 2010 Shanghai in mid-May prepared for the worst after reading about the long waits to get into the Expo grounds and the three-hour lines under the sun to see the more popular pavilions. Without a magic wand or V.I.P. status, I was left with only the old age card to play. I didn’t realize, however, that I would be in competition with thousands of other senior citizens, many of whom had been given free tickets as China’s gesture of thanks to the city’s residents for putting up with years of inconvenience while the huge infrastructure projects undertaken for the Expo were being constructed. Only later, reading that Shanghai has three million residents 60 or over, 22 percent of its population, did I find out what I had been up against. Most of them seemed to be there the days we visited. Special access lines for the elderly were almost as long as the other lines and when I tried to join a shorter line of people in wheel chairs at the Japan pavilion, I was kicked out because I didn’t have a wheel chair.
The lines were brutal. An American couple I met waiting in one line said they had given up after nearly being crushed to death trying to get into the Saudi Arabian pavilion. Three hours after arriving they still had not managed to get into any pavilion and had arrived at the same strategy as we had — forget about the popular pavilions with long waits like France, Japan, England, Saudi Arabia, etc., go for ‘second tier’ pavilions instead where the lines were less than an hour and just walk the Expo grounds to get an appreciation of the architectural styles. Part of the problem, I learned later from the China Daily newspaper, was caused by Expo staff who could enter the grounds and queue up before ordinary visitors. From other people we met in line, we learned that that it was much less crowded and more comfortable to visit the Expo in the evening after six.
Overall, it was an exhausting experience. The distances are huge, food and drink were often long walks away and finding our way around was sometimes a challenge. The young volunteers in their green and white jackets tried hard to be helpful but were sometimes as clueless as my wife and myself even though we spoke to them in both Chinese and English. We gave up after just one-and-a-half days despite having tickets for three days. But admittedly, this was the first month of the Expo which is scheduled to run until the end of October and since then, I’ve read, the organizers have added thousands of benches and sunshades plus more drink trolleys and buses.
Fortunately, we were allowed to join the senior citizen line at the highy-popular USA Pavilion and enter after a relatively short wait. This was the highlight of our visit. I loved the film presentations — humorous, low key messages about diversity, perseverance, innovation and working together, not bombastic or chauvinistic, striking just the right tone and balance and very well-received judging from the laughter and smiles on the faces of the Chinese people around us, in sum, a great bridge-building effort. I felt so proud to be an American in that setting. Equally impressive were the young American ‘student ambassadors’, university-age Mandarin-speaking volunteers who welcome the visitors, introduce the programs and move them — some 45,000 people a day — through the pavilion with almost machine-like efficiency and amazing fluency in the language. A young blonde speaking perfect, rapid-fire putonghua is something to hear and see.
Although we are frequent visitors to Shanghai, this was our first opportunity to see the impressive redevelopment along the Bund waterfront, completed to coincide with the Expo opening. Later we had dinner with a manufacturer creating a new line for us of panda bears wearing Chinese garments. He and his staff graciously agreed to take us to our favorite Shanghai restaurant, 1221, hard to find but popular with many foreign residents including the diplomatic community, followed by a walking tour of the old French quarter and desert at La Creperie.
Another day was devoted to the Shanghai Museum (where we also had to wait in line) and browsing the shops on Tai Kang Lu to see the latest, innovative garment and craft designs by Shanghai’s enterprising young artists and designers. From a business viewpoint, the most valuable time of our trip was spent with one of our scarf suppliers selecting burnt velvet silk fabrics and matching them with solid color silks that would be sewn on the reverse to create double-sided scarves, one of the most popular lines at our Amazing Grace airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore. Grace, myself and three shop attendants spent hours pulling down silk rolls from the shelves, an effort rewarded afterwards however when the owner drove us to a small shop where we could buy fresh, steamed buns filled with vegetable. What a treat, for me more delicious than those crepes and a lot less fattening.