How the U.S. underperforms at Shanghai's Expo

Our man in Shanghai: America's pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai is underwhelming, even with a fine performance by a young actress named Rain, perhaps because of caution on the part of corporate sponsors.
Crosscut archive image.

A crowd outside the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

Our man in Shanghai: America's pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai is underwhelming, even with a fine performance by a young actress named Rain, perhaps because of caution on the part of corporate sponsors.

The average American doesn't know that the largest world's fair ever held is taking place in Shanghai, China. Indeed, the average American might not even know what a world's fair is, since it's been a generation since one has been held in the USA.

I was chatting with a young woman the other day and mentioned I'd been to the fair and she looked at me blankly. "A fair?" she asked. "You mean like with booths and stuff?" Yes, I went to China to do the Puyallup.

Only at this Puyallup Fair there are nearly 200 foreign countries exhibiting their wares, technologies, and views of civilization. Instead of booths, there are pavilions costing up to well over $100 million dollars. The fair lasts six months (through October) and some 70 million visitors are expected. Fairs are fun, but also international exercises in diplomacy and commerce, a meeting ground for the peoples of the globe to strut, and trade, their stuff. They have been going strong since London's Great Exhibition of 1851.

Of those Americans who know about Shanghai's Expo, even fewer are aware that the American presence at the fair has been controversial. But among Expo watchers, the story of the botched effort to put together a pavilion for this fair has been an excruciating spectator sport, one I have covered since 2007. But more about that process and its consequences later.

For me, the ultimate question is, despite all the ups and downs of the USA Pavilion, how was it? Did America embarrass itself on the world stage, as it has done at a number of recent world expositions, with a half-assed effort? Can you even be half-assed when you spend $60 million on a pavilion?

At that price, one would think success or failure would be rather full-assed. But it's not. The U.S. pavilion underachieves when measured against the possibilities and the opportunity. On the other hand, its very existence gives it points. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when asked about the pavilion, "It's fine." Translated, that means "It exists." And the pavilion birthing process was so difficult, so messed-up, that the only thing worse would have been insulting China by blowing it off entirely, which almost happened.

Failure to participate in Expo would have been a diplomatic faux pax of the highest order. So the U.S. pavilion might be judged by Woody Allen standards: 80 percent of success is just showing up.

The U.S. pavilion can point to some tangible positives. When I visited at the end of June, officials told me that an estimated 45,000 people per day were lining up for two-hour-plus waits to see inside. That's a good crowd. At that rate, the pavilion will be seen by seven to eight million Chinese who are eager to learn what America has to offer. The pavilion plans to conduct a scientific survey to see what the Chinese thought of it.

One of the elements of the U.S. pavilion that has generated positive buzz is the Student Ambassador Program. One hundred and seventy American students fluent in Mandarin are helping to staff the pavilion, and impressing the Chinese with their language skills and interest in the East. I had a chance to talk with a couple of them from Washington state and they seemed to be the essence of the bright, clean-cut youths American was once known for sending abroad to engage with people overseas.

Foreigners often note the gap between our people and our policies. They dislike the empire but like the Americans. The Ambassadors program makes a positive impression about our people, and it's flattering to the Chinese that so many young Americans are learning Mandarin. Although it doesn't always take much to impress: One Chinese man couldn't get over the fact the my companion and I were using chopsticks. Still, the Millennial Generation is know for its interest in public service, and the program is an exemplar of that ethic.

Connecting at the human level is much of what the USA Pavilion is about. The pavilion features three film elements. The first, while you wait for the first of two shows, is man-on-the-street film clips of everyday Americans and a few celebrities trying to greet the Chinese in Mandarin ("ni hao!"). Watching us mangle, or master, a basic greeting is funny and the Chinese seem delighted by it. The most visible celeb is NBA star Kobe Bryant, who is not there by accident. According to pavilion staff, he is the most recognized U.S. sports figure in China, and this was confirmed to me when a young Chinese World Cup fan I was talking later allowed that she loved the LA Lakers and swooned at the mere thought of Kobe's cuteness.

Martin Alintuck, the pavilion's new CEO, says that research showed that the Chinese didn't view Americans as very friendly and that one of the goals of the pavilion is to, in effect, warm-and-fuzzy us up. Instead of strutting our technological, scientific, and cultural achievements, the U.S. Pavilion is trying taking a page from the "Seattle nice" playbook by offering an antidote to the Hollywood image of the hard-charging (and likely armed) image of Americans. Kobe's cute is in, action heroes are out.

The next film features greetings from President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, then goes on to talk about kids and education. School children show us their drawings of ideas for the future, and (mostly) spokespeople from pavilion sponsors like Chevron and GE tells us about the importance of education (the University of Washington's departing President Mark Emmert also has a cameo).

The film's incorporation of funders is tacky, but worse is that the film is utterly forgettable blather. The message seems to be: "America, it's for the kids." Most of the sponsor spokespeople are women, the idea being, I suppose, that we're a nation of corporate soccer moms. Alintuck says the pavilion's overall approach to winning Chinese hearts and minds is "subtle," but this film is as unmemorable as your average magazine advertorial.

The final, "4-D" film experience is much better. It's a wordless film called Garden, that tells the story of a young American city girl who dreams of transforming a vacant inner-city lot into a lush neighborhood garden, and by dint of will and vision, she inspires and recruits her reluctant neighbors to join the cause. This directly addresses the "Better City, Better Life" theme of the fair, and its message is schmaltzy and inspiring. It is a very American kind of story: the individual can make a difference by energizing fellow citizens, by making dreams a reality.

The U.S. pavilion isn't the only one to offer a message of dreams, hope and kids. A stunning film in the South Korean Pavilion does something similar, keying off a group of flying teenage superheroes who grant wishes, and how they help a little disabled girl who wants to bring color and happiness to the big city. But where the Korean film seems to glorify magical thinking, the USA's Garden shows that vision, hard work, and making small changes can inspire others and prove transformative, which is a bit of an interesting cultural role reversal when you think about the image of Korean immigrants in America as the hardworking, practical ones and your average Americans as lazy lottery ticket buyers who watch American Idol and yearn for the big score.

Garden combines actors and animation with special effects: during a storm sequences, the viewers' seats vibrate and rain sprays the audience. The last effect delights viewers: the weather in Shanghai is so hot that pavilions get extra points for powerful air conditioning, misting systems, and in this case, indoor rain. (It's not original, however; the U.S. employed the same effects at its pavilion in Aichi in 2005, where the Japanese loved it too.)

But the gem of the film is the young actress who plays the main character, a brown-eyed cutie named, appropriately, Rain Spencer. She has an earnest charm and charisma and makes you root for her. The film works because it tells an actual, if simple, story that holds a universal message.

Still, one is hard-pressed to see value for the $60 million spent on the pavilion. It's no skin off the taxpayers' nose since all the funding came from private sponsors. The pavilion itself, said to resemble an eagle form, is uninteresting. (Oddly, it was designed by a Canadian.) There are plenty of national pavilions that outclass it architecturally or aesthetically, including biggies like the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and China, but also the likes of Taiwan, Norway, Latvia, Denmark, and Finland.

The U.S. can console itself with the fact that it is not the only major pavilion to underperform. The next-door Canada pavilion was a disappointment too, a rare ho-hum performance from a country that usually turns in strong pavilions. Canada traditionally emphasizes aboriginal cultural heritage and extraordinary natural beauty, but this time, in trying to focus on an urban theme, its culminating presentation features scenes of urban neighborhoods that seem generic and tell no story, a kind of slide show that could be from anywhere in Europe and fails to capture anything uniquely Canadian.

The real disappointment of the USA Pavilion is the lost opportunity to do something with more power, depth, and ambition.

That's bizarre for a country with great cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver (which smartly has its own pavilion at the fair). A Canadian guide told me that Chinese visitors seemed baffled and unimpressed by the Canadian urban images. Cariboo and Mounties might have been a better way to go.

The real disappointment of the USA Pavilion is the lost opportunity to do something with more power, depth, and ambition. This is partly the fault of the process of picking a team to pull it off: the U.S. got its effort started way too late. The State Department rejected proposals with more creative ideas (the pavilion might have been designed by Frank Gehry!), and the funding hurdles were huge in the middle of the Great Recession. If the pavilion is too tacky with corporate sponsorships logos (it could have been worse), that's a reflection of the fact that the U.S. government no longer funds expo pavilions. By deciding to privatize them, the advertorial quality is virtually assured.

This privatization process has occurred over time, and is a sad failure of policymakers. A key element was the disbanding of the U.S. Information Agency in the 1990s, killed off largely due to the efforts of troglodyte North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms during the Bill Clinton administration. The ending of the Cold War and right-wing paranoia about the USIA becoming a domestic propaganda machine (which, by law, it was not allowed to do) contributed to the gutting of a key creative coordinator of American public diplomacy.

The pavilion is seen by some as an example of U.S. failure to take public diplomacy seriously, despite claims to the contrary since 9-11. America seems much more interested in spending funds on wars than winning world opinion. The idea that expos are somehow obsolete is a provincial conceit: the form has never been more popular or involved more countries. That expos are alive and well overseas and not in America should be embraced, not used as an argument for disengagement.

Cynthia P. Schneider, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, and Hailey Woldt, research director of the Global Initiative for Cultural Diplomacy at Georgetown, wrote recently on the blog for the U.S. Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School at USC:

The Pavilion in Shanghai is just the most visible example of the outsourcing of America's outreach to the world. ... To some degree this acknowledges budget realities. But it also reflects the continuing diminution of cultural outreach or "soft power" approaches within the State Department. Whether it was cynicism, other priorities, or an active dismissal of the importance of crafting a message for the Pavilion (beyond its mere existence) does not really matter. The result is $61 million dollars spent, and an opportunity lost. If the U.S. does not take the power of cultural diplomacy and "soft power" seriously enough to invest time and money, there is one superpower that does: China.

What might have been? A contrast between the new and the old can be found by looking at U.S. exhibits and classic 20th century fairs: Brussels in 1958, Montreal in 1967, Osaka in 1970. These USIA organized pavilions combined technology, art, artifacts, film, photography, and ambitious messaging that attempted to offer a wide-ranging view of America, from mainstream to the avant garde, from our highest hopes to the unfinished business of Civil Rights. It should be pointed out that they too came in for domestic criticism. American tourists in Montreal didn't care much for what they saw, and southern senators bristled at Civil Rights content at the pavilion in Brussels.

An excellent source on the subject is the book Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War by Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan. What's striking in contrast to the U.S. Shanghai effort, is their scope: space craft, moon rocks, exhibits of cutting-edge artists like Andy Warhol and photographer Diane Arbus, furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, artifacts like Babe Ruth's bat, and architecture by masters like R. Buckminster Fuller. The idea was to present a more comprehensive experience of American culture, technology, and democracy. The U.S. Shanghai pavilion looks and acts more like a suburban multiplex than a survey of America's contributions to global culture and commerce.

Is it possible to do a more widely representative pavilion, even on a relatively modest scale? At Shanghai, there are a number of examples of small countries that achieve a great, entertaining mix. One of the most delightful is The Czech Republic's, which combines art, artifacts, great visuals, and puckish humor.

The pavilion facade is covered in designs made from hockey pucks (which turn out to be a major Czech export) and as you enter, especially resonant in World Cup Season, is a kind of video hockey triptych built around the figure of a hockey player in which you can place your own head for photos. Across from this is a major artifact from Prague: the giant statue of St. John of Nepomuk, which the Czechs rub for good luck. The giant statue was shipped in just for the fair.

There are excellent video displays (a giant video kaleidoscope for one thing), a strange art installation in which every 500th visitor is put in a glass box with a kind of golden tear drop and has sensors attached to their head to produce readings that generate a personalized fragrance for them. There are high-tech innovations, such as a patented nano-fiber weaving process. There's a place for families and kids to sit and watch Czech cartoons (a welcome respite for tired fairgoers), and an excellent restaurant and bar serving Czech beer and plum vodka. Good pavilions hit many notes, and tastes.

Except for a zone featuring sponsored activities like a Wii-style biomedical projection station and a mock-up of the New York Stock Exchange where you can have your photo taken, the U.S. pavilion seems too one-note, too reliant on its series of safe films, too lacking in creatively representing American art, history, or political idealism. For all the claims that it's the private sector that takes risks, when it comes to U.S. pavilions, the government had proved to be more willing to push the envelope than our current private pavilion efforts. What does it say that old-school Cold War propaganda was better, more complex, more fun, and more honest than the private sector-funded propaganda of today? Free market advocates might tout capitalism's ability to innovate, but the privately financed pavilion's "subtlety" seems more like a run for cover, a concern with safety over substance.

More to come in Knute Berger's exclusive reports on Shanghai Expo 2010: a look at North Korea's people's "paradise."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.