Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Going to Philadelphia...With Shanghai on My Mind

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in April by Oxford University Press. ]

...There's a... specific reason... that I'm eager to get to Philadelphia, which has to do with Shanghai. Admittedly, Philadelphia was not one of the Western cities to which Old Shanghai circa 1930 was frequently compared, and New Shanghai, with its elevated freeways and giant video screens, leads more people to liken it to Tokyo and Los Angeles than to any Pennsylvania metropolis. Nevertheless, the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the first World's Fair held in the United States, took place in Philadelphia. And in May, the 2010 Expo, China's first World's Fair, will begin in Shanghai.

There's an enormous difference between 1876 and 2010 when it comes to many things, including World's Fairs. When Philadelphia hosted its World's Fair there was no more important genre of international spectacle. Now, by contrast, World Expos operate in the shadow of the Olympics, a more telegenic sort of mega-event. Two years ago, nearly every American knew that the Beijing Games were coming up, but when I mention that I'll be checking out the Shanghai Expo this summer, to see if it lives up to its hype, I sometimes still get blank stares (even though there's now a billboard touting it in New York Time's Square, it is still, as Shanghai-based writer Adam Minter has noted, stayed very far under the radar in the U.S.).

The upcoming Expo, while largely ignored in the West (despite the fact that it will be the biggest World's Fair in history, with more countries involved than any previous one), has been attracting enormous attention in China. There, it's being pitched as a sequel not just to the World's Fairs of old but also to the 2008 Games (the terrible phrase "Economic Olympics" is even being used), and some people are complaining that it isn't just being publicized but ridiculously over-sold and over-publicized. Given this situation, it's sure to be the case that the overwhelming majority of people attending the event will be Chinese tourists. This is no break with precedent, however, for massive international exhibitions of this kind have always functioned mainly to offer citizens of the host country a chance to take virtual world tours without leaving their homeland. And complaints about World's Fairs being over-hyped by publicists and civic boosters also fit into a longstanding tradition that stretches back more than a century....

It should come as no surprise, then, that I plan to spend one afternoon during the AAS meetings taking a tour of Memorial Hall, the only major building left from the 1876 World's Fair. I'll prepare for this outing by re-reading the account of a visit to the Centennial Exhibition penned by a man named Li Gui, a Chinese globetrotter I've written about before who checked out the event during a trip around the world that began and ended in Shanghai and whose book about his travels has been translated by Philadelphia-based scholar Charles Desnoyers. And because I'll be taking the tour during this particular conference, the small group I'll be seeing Memorial Hall with will be able to include the perfect person to put what we are seeing into a Chinese historical context: Susan Fernsebner of the University of Mary Washington. She's the author of a very fine dissertation (soon to be a book) on the history of China's participation in World's Fairs and smaller scale World's Fair-like events, has blogged about the Shanghai Expo, and will be revisiting that topic in an "Asia Beyond the Headlines" essay that will be the lead article in a forum on 2010 mega-events slated to appear in the August issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, the flagship publication of the AAS.
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