A World Expo

He will win the next hand. I know this because from where I stand, under the soft blue glow of four enormous Chinese characters, set in neon, I can see his cards, both of their cards. There are two others here, standing in this crisp Shanghai evening, and they are watching too. They stand apart from me, in avocado-green uniforms, leaning against identical mops, and stare as the players reveal their secrets.

From the outside, it is hard to get a sense of the interior’s scale. The room, benches pressed against the windows, is a cavernous excavation at the centre of the red-ochre castle that is the Australia pavilion here. The ceiling is draped in huge ribbons of lime, aqua and hot pink: streaks of painted colour suspended in the air. I take a final slug from the longneck, and reach up to loosen my tie. It has been a long day.

He wins the next hand.

I toss my empty beer, leave my green-suited companions to their furtive cigarettes, and walk back inside. In the corner, atop a tiny stage, the Sneaky Sound System are playing to crowd of a hundred Chinese, who stand and look confused, clutching souvenir bags, stuffed toy koalas and assorted ephemera. Connie Mitchell is dressed in an outfit that approximates a space suit designed in consultation with David Bowie, and dances in short, abrupt movements as she plunges into the next song.

There is a neat division, then, between the Australians, most kitted out in Australia Pavilion staff gear, going nuts, and the Chinese crowd, grinning nervously and snapping photos of the flailing white people. The pavilion staff do their best: wheeling and spinning through the spectators, as they try to get people on their feet, but the crowd are having none of it. They form a neat semicircle in front of the dancing Australians, and hold their cameras aloft.

The guy next to me, tall, with a wild mop of reddish brown hair, leans in, “We’re playing outside, after this. Tell the bar you’re staff, and they’ll kick a couple of bucks off the beers.”

So we do, and an hour later are nursing a small collection of empty Coopers bottles, as the house band launch into an acoustic cover of Land Down Under, the flute part energetically recreated, but noticeably lacking men from Brussels, sandwiches, or a Koala on a leash. We can see the pavilion’s freight exit, tucked neatly behind a stall, now closed, advertising meat pies and ‘authentic’ cookies. A trickle of staff begin to emerge from the door behind the loading dock, in groups of twos and threes, and then the Sneakys appear, and Tim jogs over to grab a photo, and I hold the fort.

Today has been the quietest day of the entire expo, but there’s still a decent crowd here, sat in the rapidly cooling Shanghai evening, as floodlights begin to be switched off and people crowd into huge pedestrian snakes that wind their way toward the subway. “So, apparently there’s a party at the Latvian pavilion,” Tim announces as he returns, “Shall we wander over?”

I lean back and look at the pillars supporting the huge bridge directly behind me. The sound of the flute seems oddly out of place here, in this concrete playground where just a few years ago there was nothing but mud, and grass, and the lapping wakes from the steel ships headed upriver.

“Thanks all, we’ll be here all month.”

The citizens of Latvia seem to have decided that their national identity can be represented by two elements, notable above all others. These are extreme sport, and also flowers. To this end, the room’s walls are covered in huge murals showcasing the floral biodiversity of the country, and in the middle of the space is a giant glass tube, enclosing an enormous fan.

This on-demand wind tunnel is the centrepiece of Latvia’s themed self-expression. As we enter, a man in a white jumpsuit and helmet is doing lazy back flips, floating in apparent zero-gravity. He extends his arms and is tugged upwards, soaring toward the roof some twenty metres above. At the base of the tunnel, away from the push of the whirling turbines, two men struggle into person-size hot-dog suits, and then sprint in opposite directions around the glass.

As they reach the same point on the far side of the room they careen into each other and the smaller one crashes to the floor, legs kicking frantically against the plush red sausage, as he attempts to regain his balance and stand up. Above, the white suited gentleman in the wind tunnel is fist pumping to the thumping euro-house, suspended six metres above the ground, perfectly upside down.

It is a moment of such utter surrealism that I am, for a moment, struck dumb. I stand at the entrance and gape. Tim stops beside me, “Cor. That’s cool,” and he pushes forward toward the beer tap in the corner. A crew of five Chinese split from the crowd members who are staring transfixed at the man inside the tunnel and break into a synchronised dance to the song that is blaring from the speakers. Everything is lit in a light pastel green, shot through with red lasers that pick up details on the flower-covered walls.

I feel like a mediaeval peasant who’s been catapulted through time, to land in the middle of Times Square. A bearded and bedraggled wastrel, taking in the gleaming neon with a horrified, open-eyed stare, before he sinks to his knees, head in hands, and weeps. There is too much happening here, too much newness, and nothing to anchor it against. I turn around and step outside.

On the stairs that curl downward and out of sight, are a collection of beautiful twenty-somethings, all with matching lanyards announcing that they are staff. A group of girls are parked on the steps, passing a cigarette lazily to each other. I collapse next to them, and turn to look behind me, at the massed crowd.

“What is that?” I ask, “What was Latvia thinking?”
“You should see Spain. There is a giant baby. Like a car, some small car, that big. It has eyes and they are dead,” says the one closest to me, as she passes the cigarette back to her friend.
“Dead?”
“I do not know if this is how you say in English, but it is like real, but not. Because it looks real, but not so real to be the exact, it is more, uh, dead.” “Right, uncanny valley.”
“Valley?”
“When something is almost real, but not quite real enough. And because it’s almost real, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Like, I don’t know. Like robots that move like people do or, or movies. Like animated movies where the characters look almost real.”
“This is a valley? Like a space between hill?” and she makes a gesture with her hands approximating a vee.
“It’s called uncanny valley. I don’t know why.”
“Well, the baby is in the valley, and the Latvia is crazy.”
“That is the most sense anyone has made to me tonight.”

It turns out that they are the staff from the Estonian pavilion, and they have just found out that there is a competing party at the Angolan pavilion, at the other end of the expo grounds. They are debating whether it is worth walking the significant distance required to go and check it out. Apparently party stands-offs like this are common, and it is a mark of status if you can throw the party that manages to attract everyone, all the staff from the rapidly assembled tower apartment blocks that surround the grounds here, sucking the punters from the far reaches until it is dawn and the army of cleaners shuffle in to hit the reset switch.

We are going to Angola.

Distance is screwy here. As with so much in China, what is represented as adjacent squares of colour on a neatly labelled turns out to be a thirty minute slog through the darkness, the hulking polygonal shapes of unlit modern architecture looming like fragments of a half-remembered nightmare.

We forge past the still traditional shapes of the Asian and Pacific pavilions, which recall temples and monuments, gaudy and ostentatious, and head toward the more theoretical geometry of the European pavilions. Further still, and the African buildings are smaller, squarer and considerably less refined. It is quite clear that there is a party happening at the Angolan building.

Tall, well-dressed, Africans cluster around the entrance, and an impossibly skinny model, microphone in hand, interviews a man that appears to be wearing a barely contained bag of railway spikes, wrapped in a tea towel on his head. Inside, it is madness. A black, barely-lit square, people everywhere and the Chinese dancers from Latvia in a corner, having taken up residency.

I talk to someone who claims to be royalty, and someone else who claims he is full of shit. I dance. I sweat. I realise that my quota for the bizarre has long been exceeded and that all the strangeness is beginning to press at the seams, threatening to spill out in a stream of brightly-lit capsules, rendered on architect’s foolscap and then made massive. I push my way back into the cold and begin the walk home.

Outside, away from the huddled crowds, I pause for a moment to get my bearings. I feel a hand on my back, and a smiling Filipino introduces himself and points me in the right direction. He’s a musician, playing in the stage show, but wants to be an architect. He talks about Gehry, and the tensile strength of steel plating, and the place of deconstructivism in these temporary structures, and this all seems very relevant as we stride through the darkened architectural canyons of this pre-dawn space.

The final building I remember seeing is that of Finland, and it looks like an iceberg, shining and adrift on a sea of concrete, alone in the dark.