Shanghai Shangri-la?

The lost glamour of World's Fairs

Big Questions Online , July 22, 2010

Americans long ago consigned world’s fairs to the toy box of history. Once celebrated as showcases of world cultures and windows into the future, these grand expositions lost their glamour sometime during the Johnson administration. Like Space Food Sticks and Jonny Quest, they are fondly remembered--at least by those over 50--but a bit ridiculous: all that ethnocentricism, naive internationalism, and technological good cheer. The last one to warrant much attention was Montreal’s Expo ’67, from which the now-defunct baseball team took its name. (Sorry, Seville ’92.) Our cynical culture is done with world’s fairs.

Not so for Shanghai, where Expo 2010 opened on May 1 and runs through October. In its first two months, the Shanghai Expo attracted more than 20 million visitors, mostly from China itself. Spanning more than 1,300 acres on both sides of the Huangpu river, the fair is a ubiquitous presence throughout the city. Public gardens reproduce the logo in flowers, subway-car TVs broadcast upbeat interviews with exhibitors and tourists, huge LED screens on downtown buildings play promotional videos, and street vendors hawk knockoffs of the squat, blue, Gumby-like mascot. Visiting Shanghai in May, I quickly discovered that the Chinese authorities haven’t lost their zeal for relentless propaganda. They’ve just changed their colors from revolutionary red to Expo green.

To prepare for the big event, the government indulged in extensive urban remodeling, building new subway lines, burying the expressway that used to divide the riverfront from the historic Bund, and slapping lots and lots of new paint on old buildings (sometimes covering only the street-facing facade). It displaced some 18,000 households to clear the land for the Expo site; the official account portrays the relocations as a move to a “sweet and fresh” new life, while others disagree. With the fair in town, the authorities also have a handy excuse for added security theater, including scanners in the subways and notices announcing that the police will be dropping by to check the papers of residential and commercial tenants. (The scanners don’t look at shopping bags, and the threatened inspections don’t necessarily happen.)

With all this activity, it’s no wonder a Shanghai native visiting San Francisco last month was baffled to find no Expo reports on the TV news. How could they miss such a big story? “Civilization in focus we all gather at the Expo,” declare the tickers circling branches of ICBC, China’s largest bank. If world’s fairs are out of style, nobody told the Chinese.

Taking place in a society that is both authoritarian and rapidly developing, the Shanghai Expo highlights the double-edged allure of world’s fairs, which are both deceptive and inspiring. The Expo’s cheery propaganda and sanitized reality match Lawrence R. Samuel’s description of the 1964 New York World’s Fair in The End of the Innocence: a “protective cocoon” where “foreign nations sang in harmony, corporations existed to produce things that made life better, and, most important, the future looked brighter than ever.” Like all glamorous objects, the ’64 fair was an illusion. Yet its optimistic spirit, and those of other fondly remembered world’s fairs, fostered attitudes that often did produce real progress. “For the tens of millions of kids who went,” writes Samuel, who was one of them, the fair “planted a seed of the possibility to achieve great things.”

Are we wised-up Americans really better off without world’s fairs? When we gave them up, did we inadvertently cede the future to the Chinese?

Answering that question requires understanding just why world’s fairs lost their appeal. In part, they were simply victims of the prosperity they prophesied. The more affluent, well-traveled, and media-saturated the audience, the harder it is to impress.

For visitors, a world’s fair offers two primary attractions. The first, as the name implies, is a chance to see the cultures and people of other lands— to “smell, touch, and taste far-off places,” as a pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair promised. A Shanghai writer observes that for older locals and migrants from the countryside, “the Expo is–and may well remain–the closest that they will ever get to seeing the world.” It gives visitors the same thrill Sam Hyde, a bookkeeper from Belleville, Illinois, felt upon entering the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair: the feeling “that the whole world [is] there and every nation showing its best products and doing its best to please.”

The second draw is cool stuff: the celebration of recent material advances and a glimpse of those to come. In the words of Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress’s organizers, expos try to “tear away the veil that shrouds the future.” Over the years, world’s fairs have introduced visitors to such new technologies as neon lights, x-ray machines, nylon, television, and various robots, not to mention ice cream cones and Belgian waffles. They’ve have also reminded visitors how far living standards have risen. In its famous 1964 Carousel of Progress (later relocated to Disneyland), General Electric depicted vignettes of American homes from the 1880s, before electric conveniences, through the 1920s and 1940s, concluding with a gadget-filled contemporary Christmas. In Shanghai, the Chinese and Irish pavilions make the same point with the same basic technique, walking visitors through Chinese living rooms from 1978 to 2008 and Irish kitchens from rural farmhouse to luxurious urban home. The scenes may show the past but they portend a better future--what the Carousel of Progress song called a “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”

World’s fairs are designed for people from homogeneous cultures who are still impressed by electricity. In 2010, that means the Chinese. (The State Grid pavilion, run by China’s state-owned power company, offers one of the Expo’s most dazzling shows.) For these fairgoers, as for earlier generations of Americans, the gee-whiz enthusiasm cynics dismiss as naivete is a rational response to recent experience.

As David Gelernter argued in 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, postwar America achieved and surpassed the standard of living the fair had promised. Baby boomers who grew up with that prosperity took it for granted, instead decrying “empty materialism” and environmental degradation. The same may prove true of China’s young generation of little emperors and baby princesses. We won’t know for decades what lasting impressions the Expo leaves.

Compared to the much-derided commercialism of U.S. world’s fairs, the Shanghai exposition actually suffers from a paucity of consumer pleasures, instead emphasizing national pavilions. For all the attention on nation states, “you would have thought we just signed the Treaty of Westphalia or something,” complains Paul French, a Shanghai-based author and marketing consultant. Segregated on the less-popular western side of the Huangpu, even the corporate pavilions tend toward state-directed infrastructure. Despite a bit of soap opera drama, that Cisco show isn’t selling to the average tourist.

Here the Expo betrays another reason Americans gave up on world’s fairs. Their vision of progress started to seem both socially obnoxious and empirically false.

Twentieth-century expositions increasingly embodied fashionable ideas of social planning. They came to stand for a controlled and predictable version of progress: the dream of a civilization built from scratch, designed--or at least rearranged--according to an expert ideal of order. Or as the Century of Progress motto put it, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”

General Motors’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair turned this idea into a seductive and memorable experience, as visitors soared over a miniature world of superhighways and high-rise, self-contained cities. “No matter what I had heard about the Futurama,” recalls the protagonist of E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, “nothing compared with seeing it for myself: all the small moving parts, all the lights and shadows, the animation, as if I were looking at the largest most complicated toy ever made!...It was a toy that any child in the world would want to own. You could play with it forever.” The Futurama was enticing because visitors never considered what it might feel like to be someone else’s toy.

In the 1960s, the New Left and the Goldwater right, hippies and hackers, personal liberation movements and historic preservationists all rebelled against the tyranny of expertise. Within a few years Robert Moses, the New York infrastructure and planning czar who ran the 1964 World’s Fair, had gone from city-building hero to neighborhood-wrecking villain. With its mix of do-it-yourself technophilia, hippie experimentation, and environmental consciousness the best-selling Whole Earth Catalog captured the Zeitgeist and won the 1972 National Book Award.

Twentieth-century world’s fairs had encouraged visitors to equate progress and technological optimism with the Galbraithian vision of stable, heavily bureaucratic, industrial quasi-monopolies--the corporate version of nation states--working with government to determine the future. All the rage in the first half of the 20th century, this technocratic theory of progress became not only less popular but much less believable in the second half. (It’s no accident that China’s vignettes of rising living standards start with liberalization in 1978, not the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.)

Whether the international competition that challenged industrial giants and spread Japanese manufacturing practices worldwide, the generation upon generation of Silicon Valley startups, the fresh-food revolution that migrated east from Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, or the logistical innovations of Walmart, the creative destruction of the late 20th century suggested that the old experts, public and private, hadn’t known as much about either technological possibility or consumer desires as they’d imagined. Progress was far from over, but it would be more disruptive and surprising than any world’s fair exhibit could depict.

Ma Bell is gone and Picturephones, introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair, are still as mythical as flying cars, but when I was in China I video-chatted with my husband every day--for free.