Seattle in Korea: a world’s fair tale

The Big O at the Yeosu world's fair is where each night ends with a light and laser show. Credit: Yeosu Expo 2012

World's fairs are still happening. This year, a small port city in Korea attempts to do what Seattle did in 1962.

While Seattle celebrates the 50th anniversary of Century 21, there's another small, provincial port city on the other side of the world trying to replicate our success. Yeosu is on South Korea's southern coast on the Korea Strait, which connects the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea; the city is a three-hour fast-train trip from Seoul. Like a half-century-ago Seattle, it is a small coastal town (pop. 300,000) with big ambitions in a beautiful setting. Hundreds of tree-covered islands dot the coastline and the city is nestled among green mountains near national parks. The people here have been working for years to get a fair to help put them, as the Seattle fair organizers once said, "on the map." A goal is to turn the working port of Yeosu into a major tourism hub, or as they say, to make it a "beautiful gateway to the world."

Seattle considered numerous sites for its fair to show off its setting, including on-the-water locations at Duwamish Head, Union Bay, and Sand Point. Planners also considered linking the final fair grounds to the waterfront. That plan would have featured a cruise ship dock right around what is now Olympic Sculpture Park. In Yeosu, fair organizers located the fair right on the waterfront of the city's harbor (or New Port Area) — their main industrial port is located on the other side of town. So, the $2 billion fair has driven a waterfront makeover. Expo 2012 has a scenic setting with the town and mountains behind and a protected bay in front. Walkways link to pavilions built over the water. A jetty connects the town to an offshore island, Odongdo, a beautiful park. It's a wonderful site for an expo.

A cruise ship terminal was constructed. Docked in the harbor now is the vessel Club Harmony, which will eventually bring in tourists (the main markets are China and Japan), but it's currently doubling as a hotel for fairgoers. Seattle did the same thing during C21 when the old Dominion Monarch was docked at Pier 51 as a "boatel" and run by Western Hotels. (Century 21 organizers had also tried hard to land the famous liner Liberte to fill the same role.)

The theme of this fair isn't the Space Age, but rather "The Living Ocean and Coast." That helped justify the construction of a huge aquarium, the biggest in Korea, which has proved to be the star attraction. Lines are long, waits up to three and four hours. People want to see the three beguiling Beluga whales donated by the Russians — they are a first in Korea. The aquarium also features a huge sea tank with a transparent domed viewing platform in the middle. You can stand outside the tank looking in through a giant, two-story glass wall at fish and sharks, or you can get a Nemo-eye view from inside the tank while standing in the dome. It's very cool, but also cleverly makes the fair-goers part of the exhibit.

Walking to the dome through a transparent tunnel with fish swimming over head, I was reminded of sketches in the Paul Thiry papers at the University of Washington that show such an arrangement proposed for the Seattle fair, but never built. Long forgotten is the fact that early planners for our science exposition focused on demonstrating humanity's connections with the sea. One was a lagoon under a pavilion that would represent our emergence from a primordial sea. Another was the idea for an aquarium at Seattle Center with transparent underwater passageways.

If not Space Age, however, many of the Yeosu fair's exhibits reinforce the importance of exploration as well as new sustainable technologies, all in service of the big blue planet. Many of the pavilions feature computer animated films that suggest that the undersea world is a kind of outer space with alien creatures and strange crafts exploring dark worlds.

Exploration of the unknown is both history and the path for the future. For example, Spain's pavilion, which has the theme "Spain Explores," reminds us of the contributions of the country's great navigators, including Columbus, Magellan, and Malaspina. The pavilion exhibits also detail the "Malaspina Project," a 2010 Spanish expedition to collect water and air samples worldwide in order to discover the oceanic and atmospheric genome. It was named after Alessandro Malaspina, who, as you might remember from Northwest history class, came to our part of the world in the late 18th century in search ot the Northwest Passage. He mapped Prince William Sound in Alaska and took up residence for a while on Vancouver Island at Nootka.

The USA Pavilion also brings up exploration by reminding us that oceans take up 70 percent of the planet, while only 5 percent of the ocean bottom has been explored. The pavilion features a National Geographic approach in presenting images of the sea — beautiful to look at — but little of real substance. Various American faces are shown claiming, "It's my ocean," expressing that saving the seas is a personal responsibility. But it also reinforces a kind of American arrogance, of claiming that what is everyone's is ours, overlooking the fact that collective action is needed to accomplish anything significant in terms of climate change, global pollution, acidification, or any other threat to the oceans. Individual responsibility won't clean up Puget Sound, let alone 70 percent of the planet.

The message of caring is also undercut by some of the pavilion's corporate sponsors. America is the only major country in the world that doesn't fund its own pavilions but relies on donations from companies like Boeing or Corning, who get to tout their products and "green" ethics. Coke uses their display to remind expo-goers that they deliver an ocean of beverages (1.7 billing servings per day) around the world, in 200 countries. Coke they say, nobly "fulfills consumers' daily hydration needs." Pay attention, Michael Bloomberg!

The Russians don't rely on the warm and fuzzy to make their case about exploration and the claims that follow. Their pavilion offers a compelling experience of putting visitors on the bridge of an Arctic icebreaker. The Russians recap their history of frigid-zone explorations from Vitus Bering to their pioneering drilling into the depths of Lake Vostok in Antarctica. They show off the power of their icebreaking fleet and their routine use of the Northwest Passage, and they demonstrate their determination to exploit the resources of the north (oil, mineral wealth, trade routes). The Russians, we are told, are self-sacrificng, and know how to endure and deal with the "cruel nature" of the North. (I could find no mention, by the way, of any of the indigenous peoples who have been living well and long in the Arctic before the Russians arrived.) They proclaim, "Our generation has the first chance to fulfill the potential of the Arctic."

You leave the pavilion with the very distinct impression that, unlike the fuzzy prettiness offered by the Americans, the Russians have a clear plan mapped out: The Arctic belongs to us and we know how to exploit it. The folks who launched Sputnik are back, declaring a new and truly cold war with ground zero at the North Pole.

To extend that just a bit, it's worth noting that China has asked for "observer status" in the Arctic so that it can monitor the claims of the five Arctic nations. A Chinese admiral recently said that no one had any sovereignty there, certainly a surprise to Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway, all of which have territorial claims.

Another Cold War parallel is that as the mushroom cloud was the symbol of the dark alternative at Century 21, here the menace is climate change and the floating oceanic garbage patch. The Koreans in particular have created numerous multimedia, digital, big-screen entertainments that focus on the impending apocalypse of global warming, especially in their Climate and Environment Pavilion. They use the soft approach of appealing to sentiment: Don't kill the cute, cuddly polar bears that will drown or starve if we don't do something!

They also appeal to fear, with images of dramatic storms and tsunamis wiping out cities in a future where the climate has become unstable. There is also plenty of emphasis on new, sustainable technologies — wind and tidal power for example — to create a better future. But the general message is more apocalyptic than an Al Gore speech, and explains the problem simply enough that even Republicans might start second-guessing denial, until the digital special effects wear off.

For Yeosu itself, there are immediate benefits. One of the projects for the fair was improving the city's water supply to make the tap water drinkable. Another is showing off desalination technology. Many of the off-shore islands have limited fresh water. Yeosu's "Space Needle" is the 240-foot-high Sky Tower, concrete silos on the waterfront that have been refitted with elevators, an enormous pipe organ, and an observation platform with a great view. The organ is, according to the Guiness Book of Records, the world's loudest, and reminds that during the Seattle fair, the Needle too was fitted with an electronic carillon system. Unlike Seattle, Yeosu plans to keep its organ after the fair. Inside the tower is a desalination system, and visitors are offered a ceramic cup full of transformed seawater at the end of a tour. It doesn't taste bad at all.

After the fair, part of the site will be retained as infrastructure for tourism: some of the key pavilions, the aquarium, the cruise terminal, the Sky Tower. Some land will be sold for development. New high-rises that comprise the Expo Village will be turned into permanent residential housing. Yeosu also got a high-speed rail (the KTX train) connection right to its waterfront (I'm using the bullet train's wi-fi as I write this story). They also made improvements to the region's highway and water systems. A new luxury hotel, the MVL (for Most Valuable Life), looks like a sail and is a striking landmark. But a lack of consistent support from the Korean government left Yeosu short of some of its goals, such as a lengthened runway at the airport to accommodate more international flights.

A novel feature that will stay is the architectural centerpiece of the fair, the Big O, a giant, 11-story ring that sits in the bay facing a grandstand and surrounded by salt water fountains. Every night, the fair ends with a colossal laser light show with the Big O emitting light, fire and smoke to create a fireworks effect, and with images projected onto the vapor in the middle of the O. Stargate Korea! Its an amazing light show.

The biggest disappointment of the fair so far is that too few people are coming to see it. The marketing has been limited, and the time and expense of trekking to Yeosu, even for Koreans, has proved to be too much, especially as the economy weakens. I'm told that there's still a sense in Korea that Yeosu is a bit of a backwater. If Koreans want a cosmopolitan coastal city for tourism, they go to Busan, which is closer to the population center in Seoul. In this, the fair is reminiscent less of Seattle than of Spokane, which in 1974 was then the smallest city to have hosted a major expo and seemed less than globally glamorous. But the port and scenery of Yeosu offer tremendous long-term potential to become a marine tourism destination.

The official goal for the Yeosu fair is 8 million attendance, though some publicity materials say 10 million, about what Seattle's did. They're on pace to hit less than half of that number, with key summer weeks still to come, and many expos gain as time gets short. An expo official I spoke with said that 7 million would be a success; 10 was never realistic. The low turnout is too bad, because it's a gem of a fair. Like Seattle's "jewel box," Yeosu's is compact; it's 62 acres vs Seattle's 74, though it feels much bigger because of all that water and shoreline to wander.

One hundred and four countries are represented, an impressive number, and many of the national (France, Germany, Russia, Australia, Korea) and corporate (POSCO, Samsung, Lotte, Hyundai) pavilions are quite well done, informative, and entertaining. The visitor experience is excellent from the standpoint of amenities, cleanliness, organization, and the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff and volunteers. Lots of good food available, too, from Yeosu-style kimchi (with mustard greens, not cabbage) to Aussie takeout of kangaroo tail cooked and marinated Korean-style.

One consolation of the smaller-than-expected crowds is that lines are generally short or non-existent except for a few of the most popular pavilions. In other words, visitors can cover a lot of ground quickly, unlike at mammoth fairs like Shanghai's in 2010. The fair is specific in its ocean focus, it is also limited in duration, only three months (mid-May to mid-August). This is too short. It makes putting on the fair more affordable, but gives organizers less chance to make adjustments and market their event. Seattle fair organizers originally wanted two six-month seasons, but were only allowed one and feared they could never make that profitable. They succeeded, but to put on a fair for three months seems unfair because it severely limits the potential audience.

For those who want an introduction to modern expos, Yeosu's is a great opportunity: compact, manageable, ambitious in its quality, an introduction to an off-the-beaten-path scenic region known for its cuisine (lots of seafood; I enjoyed octopus salad and abalone porridge for breakfast). There have been bigger fairs that have offered less.

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