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Shanghai – the EXPO

The Shanghai world EXPO is something you should be sad you missed. This caught me, for one, by surprise as I thought it would be little more than a bad theme park. Instead, it really was the glories of all nations in one place.

Heatherwick studio's UK Pavillion

We all have pre conceptions of what an EXPO is. The first was held by Great Britain in 1851 in Hyde Park and was called the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations“. More accurately it could have been called “Great Britain industrialised first and is now the best“.

Embedded in the other end of these rods are seeds from Kew Garden which create a "seed cathedral"

Just over 150 years later and Great Britain is old news and the Shanghai EXPO might has well have been called “China does it bigger and better” as it does and has.

The EXPO was the size of a small city (5.28 square km) and full of Chinese people who had travelled from all over to marvel at the fact the world now comes to them. Just to give you some perspective it necessitated 6 new subway lines, 4,000 new taxis and 1.7 million volunteers to assist. Over 70 million people have visted. That is more people than live in the whole of the United Kingdom.

The exterior of the Canadian pavilion

Each country was allocated a space in which to show off. The richer countries went all out and threw their best architects at it.  Switzerland even installed a working ski lift.

Countries who couldn’t quite afford to show off were herded into massive cattle sheds.  In an attempt to meet stereotypes all the Caribbean countries had a fully staffed rum bar.

The Danish pavilion with the real (!!) Little Mermaid which was abducted from Copenhagen

More importantly, what this resulted in was something truly amazing. Most interestingly given that I come from a faded and old nation is that one EXPO pavillion stood out – the UK Pavilion – Rule Britannia.

Heatherwick studio’s UK pavilion or “seed cathedral” was a luminous piece of architecture which had no equal elsewhere. I very rarely feel patriotic but this made me fill up with pride like a Churchill speech.

Some Chilean empanadas and a vicious Pisco Sour

And of course, being a food blog, there was the food. Interestingly the British pavillion didn’t enter the fight on this. That may have been a good thing. Each country offered the obvious from their home regions. We had empanadas in the Chilean pavillion, tacos in Mexico, cheese and hams in Switzerland and ice cream in Canada.

Despite this being a food blog I won’t go into the food too much. As a distillation of each country it worked, it was functional.

A rather enjoyable cheese and charcuterie plate from the Swiss pavilion (which had a ski lift)

The final thing about the EXPO was its unexpectedly popularity.  China loved it and with a country of over 1 billion people this meant queues.  Queues for everything.  Even visting each country in the Axis of Evil could result in several hours queuing.  Trying to get into one of the better pavilions (think Germany, France, USA, Japan, South Korea, UAE, UK or Spain) could lose you half a day.

I was fortunate enough to go with an crack team of expats who knew people to smuggle us into each pavilion.  Oh and I have a UK passport which meant we could skip the queues for the UK pavilion. Without such benefits you would have had a long day.  This didn’t deter the Chinese though who showed a manic dedication to getting the “EXPO passport” covered with stamps from every single pavilion.

Polite language and no noising

The EXPO really was one of those experiences I will always remember.  I can’t really see anyone else doing it to such a level as China.  It was also an eye opener as to quite how big and varied the world is.  I am now a proud owner of a North Korean passport (purchased from their pavilion) stamped by a Mongolian in traditional dress.

The final picture was going to be a cheap shot I took of a child peeing instead of using one of the thousands of loos the Chinese government built to show the urbanised yet rural contradiction of China.  If bored you can see it on my Flickr stream but given that the UK will soon host (and mangle) the Olympics and that the EXPO was quite a magnificent achievement I feel it deserves better than a Brit poking fun at it.  So instead the last picture is grabbed from here and is of the interior of the Spanish pavilion.  What you may ask? I don’t know either.

Spanish pavilion

PS if you are curious to learn a bit more about the EXPO have a look on www.triplefivechina.com which gives a local’s insight into it, the mania for passport stamping and the best pavilions in show.

PPS for others in the Shanghai trip look here.


  1. G

    great pictures from expo! I wish I made it to the UK pav when I went.

    • I wander whether it will be reassembled elsewhere? Presumably they are not just going to chuck it all away. Here’s hoping it is somewhere everyone can visit!

  2. That looks pretty darn amazing. I remember going to the Australian Expo in 1988 and standing next to the world’s tallest man. I came to about his knees. I’d love to go back to an Expo, ANY Expo given that I’ve missed the Chinese one now *boooooo*, and experience it as an adult. But I need some connectionz to sneak me through the queues (or perhaps just a flurry of fake passports, I mean, I could do Swedish, couldn’t I?)…

    • I think this might have turned me into an EXPO addict. Still I can’t believe they are all this busy right? I mean the last one was in Hanover I think – who goes there?

  3. Damn, gives you some idea of what it must have felt like to go to one of the great British one’s of the 19th century, or the big American world fairs in the fifties. Big and very impressive. Just cements my feeling that China is where everything is happening at the moment, London is starting to feel like a bit of a sideshow…

    • Tom

      Well the next one is in Yeosu (Korea) – I’ve never heard of it either. We should take a jaunt there!

      If you lived in Paris maybe… but London. Never.

  4. we went to the DVD store yesterday. The dividing wall to the secret foreign-movie room at the back was gone. He beamed “Expo finish”.

    • Tom

      I actually heard from some work colleagues who said the pollution has gone crazy face again now it has ended. Is it like Donc?

  5. This Expo fest sounds like a great opportunity for a food lover. I would definitely love to visit here.

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