Monday, August 25, 2014


(Author's note: For some background on the Shanghai Expo mentioned herein, see the previous post).

Ever wonder what happens to those vaunted “World Expositions” after they close? China put on a gigantic one in Shanghai four years ago (Shanghai Expo 2010), which I attended and wrote about afterward. During my current stay in China, I had a rare chance to see how one part of Shanghai Expo has been recycled.

The former Romania pavilion at Shanghai Expo
 To be brief, I was hornswoggled into accompanying my kids to a Shanghai amusement park called Chocolate Happy Land. And what do you know--when we emerged from the subway, we were standing among the disused and decaying national pavilions of the former Exposition--a fact I found much more compelling than Chocolate Happy Land itself, which occupied a row of these forlorn structures.

Now, China is hardly known for the quality of its chocolate, most of which tastes like brown-colored paraffin, so chocolate is a strange theme for such a place to begin with. But stranger still were the attractions inside: Objects of every conceivable kind, all replicated in white, dark, or colored chocolate. There were goofy cartoon figures, to be sure, but also a full-sized couch (“the world’s largest chocolate couch,” as the placard stated), and a full-sized 1934 Mercedes SSK roadster--yes, made of solid chocolate. 

But there were even lesss plausible chocolate objects offered with no further explanation: Leopard-skin bikini tops and bottoms, matching tea sets, designer purses, watches, and silk slippers. There was a white chocolate scale model of the entire Forbidden City, as well as several full-sized copies of Xi’an warrior figures. I was certain I’d find a colossal chocolate Mao Zedong lurking around a corner somewhere, but he never showed up.

Main gate, Chocolate Happy Land
All of this may sound like pretty good fun, but experiencing it with all five senses was another matter. For one, the fact that Chocolate Happy Land occupied a haphazard group of disintegrating ex-Shanghai Expo buildings lent the place a rather tawdry air to begin with. Some of the buildings still carried the decorative themes of their former Expo occupants; this, no doubt, explains why the chocolate haute-couteur clothing was being displayed in what appeared to be a Moroccan palace.

While the idea of entering a building in which everything is made of chocolate might seem an olfactory delight, this was not so. The park had already been operating for two years featuring the same exhibits and the usual Chinese disinterest in maintenance. So rather than the rich fragrance of chocolate one might expect, all the buildings carried the indescribable odor of, I presume, rancid cocoa butter--a smell I hope never  to encounter again. 

All this leads one to the reasonable question, Why would anyone pay good money to visit a place like this? The answer lies, as it so often does, in the ingrained sense of Chinese mercantilism. China’s one-child policy has created a market in which adoring parents will lavish their children with anything they desire. And there are lots and lots of children in China to lavish things on. Chinese entrepreneurs have craftily learned to play these doting parents like a Stradivarius. Throwing together a park like this one is a quick way for some clever investor to pull in a few yuan before the buildings are knocked down for more apartment blocks.

In the meantime, sweet dreams in Chocolate Happy Land.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Author's note: I'm currently in China for the summer. The following is a piece I wrote in August 2010 after visiting the Shanghai Exposition. It will serve as background to another visit I've just made there, and which I'll write about in the coming weeks. Again, many thanks are in order to Charles Hugh Smith for posting these pieces from the U.S.; you may recall that those two colossi, the Chinese government and Google, do not get along, which prevents me from posting in China myself.

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I couldn’t be in China during the summer of 2010 and not have every single person I met ask me, “Have you been to the Shanghai Expo?” The short answer is yes. The long answer follows.

Shanghai World Exposition 2010 is a huge and hugely promoted event surpassing every previous World’s Fair in size, with over 190 nations represented. A reported 53 million people, most of them Chinese nationals, have already attended. Judging by the endless queues, it seemed like most of them were still there the day I visited.

Alas, like many things Chinese, this Expo seems a bit hastily assembled--it’s a jumble of pavilions with no central theme or even a clear physical focal point. The site, though enclosed, is carved up by a number of standard Chinese megaboulevards, complete with traffic signals. To my astonishment, these roads actually carried appreciable bus and shuttle traffic right through the heart of the fair, depriving visitors of even this rare potential respite from Shanghai’s pedestrian-hostile streets. 

Between the resulting patchwork of pavilions are acres of sweltering blacktop that make Shanghai’s biting sun even fiercer. Rows of beleaguered saplings and occasional dabs of potted plants are the sole greenery--which makes you wonder whether the Expo’s motto, “Better City, Better Life,” isn’t  so much a nod toward green thinking as a paean to Shanghai’s acquisitive deluge of laptops, cars, and flat screen TVs. 

The design of the various national pavilions is indisputably expo-like. As architecture critic Charles Jencks noted many years ago, architects are remarkably inept at judging how non-architects will perceive their work. Hence, the architects of the Japanese pavilion surely didn’t intend visitors to equate their design with a deflated bagpipe or an inverted udder, or Spain’s with a mountain of discarded straw mattresses. 

In keeping with Expos past, the pavilion interiors, too, contained assorted oddities--a giant shoe for Italy, a huge robotic baby for Spain, and so on--though most just resembled overgrown trade show booths. 

There were also nations who hoped to make a serious statement but ended up looking silly: Great Britain’s dandelion seed-pod pavilion, for example, tried to put on organic airs by sprouting thousands upon thousands of swaying, fiber-like tubes--each, it turns out, made of petroleum-based PVC plastic.

For that matter, though, the whole business of exposition building--expending vast amounts of energy and material and, six months later, carting it all off to the rubbish heap--is in itself fundamentally un-green.

Maybe it was just my longing for a sea breeze amid the Expo’s desert of asphalt, but to my eyes, the greenest spot of all was the sparsely-attended pavilion representing Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and a host of other tiny Pacific Island nations. It was housed in a huge, low budget box of a building whose exterior consisted of alternating light and dark blue prefab panels, with a few tropical fish stenciled on one corner. 

Inside, however, was an oasis-like respite from all the posturing, marketing hype and superficial greenification: There were lovely crafts, from shoes to canoes, made by human hands from honest-to-God natural materials. Nothing in sight, other than the water bottles carried by fairgoers, had been born in a blow-molding machine. There were no ranks of giant-screen displays, no endlessly looped talking heads jabbering away, and no one trying to prove how green they were after having decimated their corner of the planet. There was no call for it.