25 August 2010

World Expo 2010 - Singapore Pavilion

The unconscious spirit of patriotism marched me to the Singapore Pavilion. This was my very first stop at the Shanghai World Expo. I’ve heard bad reviews and that it is not worth the effort, but being Singaporean, I’ll still support. I’d like to find out what worked, and why it was slammed by critics.

Forming a square in Zone B with 7 other pavilions (Malaysia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, and Australia), my first impression of the Singapore Pavilion was that it was compact and cut a rather interesting silhouette as compared to the surrounding pavilions. It reminded me of a hi-tech, futuristic durian; its circular design seeming to sit as a small silver disc at this huge world fair (a reflection of Singapore’s position as a little red dot on the world map perhaps?).

Futuristic & cool

Urban Symphony is the central theme of Singapore’s message at this year’s Expo to encapsulate the harmonious success of our multi-cultural, multi-talent society. The pavilion design is a “Smart Musicbox” (instead of the silver durian I thought it was) and is divided into 3 levels – interactive multimedia stations on the ground floor, a video presentation on the 2nd level, and a rooftop “Hanging Garden”. Click here for more about the Singapore Pavilion.

If you’re a Singaporean passport holder, bring it along to the pavilion for priority entry. Apart from skipping the queue, you can also get your passport stamped with the pavilion’s emblem. My colleague got the stamp on page 45 of her passport to mark Singapore’s 45th birthday. I thought that’s pretty meaningful. Didn’t bring my travel document along so I missed getting stamped.

Things to expect

Of all the pavilions I’ve visited, Singapore had the most interactive features such as using an oval card collected at the entrance to ‘capture’ projected images (symbolizes capturing the Singapore dream), a series of 4 drums that activated projections of food, designs and icons of Singapore when hit at the same time (symbolizes unity of 4 races), an arcade-style F1 driving game, and some bo liao 3D animations which I had no idea what they do.

At the Singapore Pavilion, there are very few stand-and-see exhibits. Visitors must do some work in order to fully enjoy the pavilion experience; just as how we have to constantly work in order to survive in Singapore.

Catch the Singapore dream

While I thought the symbolic intentions embedded into the design of the various interactive stations were clever, I felt their meaning may have been lost. A lot of people, including some of my colleagues, didn’t understand why there’s a need for 4 drummers and those who couldn’t find enough people to play, couldn’t activate the projections.

Moreover, the static projections were kinda small so they lacked that boomz factor. Coupled with the very ‘National Day’ feel of the permanent graphic displays and dull dressing of the pavilion, no wonder the Urban Symphony sounded more like a lullaby rather than a masterpiece.

And to add a bad chord to the sleepy orchestra, the show presentation on the 2nd level could put any chronic insomniacs into coma. The show featured an interview with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore's water issues. With all due respect, MM Lee is an interesting speaker to listen to especially on the lessons and reasons behind his decisions made for Singapore. But to devote an entire show to talk about our early sewage problem and how we solved the water problem fitted better in a lecture hall for urban planning. Definitely not in tune with Urban Symphony. While I was there, half the audience left before the show even ended.

Good intention, bad execution

I guess at an event like the World Expo, there isn’t enough time to appreciate meaning. People just want to be entertained and wow-ed visually. Then again, the scale and method of execution for the exhibits are inextricably determined by budget.

Costing S$30 million in construction and operations, Singapore’s budget paled in comparison to its neighbouring Australia Pavilion which cost US$75 million in construction cost alone. I’ll post about the Australian pavilion later. It is my favourite from all that I’d seen. (Just as a point of reference, the superhot Japan Pavilion cost US$140 million). Perhaps Singapore’s modest sum was due to a lack of sponsorship interest from local companies at a time of economic recession and uncertainty.

Mediocre overall

So what’s the best feature of the Singapore Pavilion? I would say it’s the “Hanging Garden”. I didn’t find it interesting at the point of visit but after having seen how some countries attempted to create a garden landscape at their pavilions, Singapore’s very lush and flowery rooftop oasis trumped them all.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say that the Singapore Pavilion is bad, just a tad too intellectual. The pavilion design is unique, but the lack of imagination in interior décor and air-conditioning (only the theatre was air-conditioned) couldn’t sustain visitors’ interest. The addition of a mascot, Liu Lian Xiao Xing (榴莲小星), didn’t help elevate interest and I pitied the person inside the costume during the Shanghai heatwave. (I find that creating a mascot when the product doesn’t need it to be a trait of lazy marketers.)

Nevertheless, even though the Singapore Pavilion didn’t take my breath away, I still take pride in its symbolic message of achieving greatness when people work together; when the different instruments in an orchestra cooperate, we can play a soothing lullaby or an uplifting allegro anytime!

And here’s a musical rojak of a theme song for Singapore’s participation in this year’s World Expo.

For more photos of the Expo and Singapore Pavilion, please visit my album Shanghai World Expo 2010.

24 August 2010

World Expo 2010 - Texture and Architecture

The gigantic Expo venue spans both banks of a section of the Huang Pu River. Divided into Pu Xi and Pu Dong, the Expo has a total of 5 zones (A to E) that group the pavilions according to their continents or function. Pu Dong holds the country pavilions whereas Pu Xi holds the corporate pavilions (eg. China Aviation Pavilion, Information & Communication Pavilion, Coca-Cola Pavilion, etc).

I didn’t get to visit any of the corporate pavilions and spent all my time at Pu Dong where the national pavilions are (Zone A – Oceanic and Middle-Eastern countries; Zone B – ASEAN countries; Zone C – European countries). Click here for a listing of all the pavilions and their zones.

Map of Expo venue
Click here for the online interactive map. 

But more than just being a huge playground for nifty multimedia exhibitory techniques, the World Expo also brought together a collection of innovative building texture, displays, interior décor and architecture.

In addition to the razzle-dazzle of design, it is equally interesting to see how the different countries craft their representative message to the world… whether it deals with the sharing of one’s cultures, a call for global teamwork or an emphasis on environmental responsiveness, the masterful construct, or lack of it, of communicating ideas through the look-and-feel of the pavilions to the exhibits is an art unto itself.

I shall share the takeaway messages and impressions I had from the pavilions I visited in upcoming posts, but for now, here’s a peek at some of the architectural genius…

Good-looking venue 

Harnessing natural light 

Vietnam's rattan hall 

Varied building materials 

Is it an UFO? 

Pavilions during the day 

Snail-shaped balloon 

Pavilions at night

22 August 2010

World Expo 2010 - I Survived!

29 countries across 6 continents in 3.5 days on foot... a feat made possible only because of the World Expo.Once every few years, the nations of the world come together to celebrate their differences and give every man, woman and child a rare opportunity to experience the rich diversity of humanity (and body odour), all in one place.

Welcome to the world

I’m very grateful to be one such person given the chance to come to this playground of cultures… the World Expo 2010 held in Shanghai, China. Although this was a training cum learning trip paid for by the company, DigiMagic Communications Pte Ltd, where I part-time as a copywriter, I totally cherish every moment of this bitter-sweet experience.

It was bitter because exploring the more than 200 pavilions was daunting with the huge crowd and searing heat, yet it was sweet because going into each pavilion was like opening a treasure chest, I didn’t know what gems I would find.

Larger than life experience

Of course not all pavilions were great and worth the queue time, but even from these nondescript pavilions, there’re things to learn about the countries and cultures, and what not to do if you want to put up an engaging, interesting exhibition.

Needless to say, the most rewarding would be experiencing some of the cutting-edge exhibitory techniques used such as large format projections on irregular screens of varied materials, 3D and 4D filmlets, and the creative use of interactive media to helm a complete experiential journey. Even encountering the distinctive architectural style of each pavilion was a sight to behold. Some of these pavilions were so huge, the sheer grandeur of them were mind-blowing.

Not enough time

World Expo Quick Facts :

• The term ‘World Expo’ was a recent conception. The first such gathering of the world’s cultures, economic, scientific and technological showcase was the Great Exhibition of Industries of All Nations held in London in 1851.

• The World Expo is likened to the Olympics of cultural exchanges, but unlike the Olympics that’s held once every 4 years, there’s no fixed timeframe for the expo to happen. Currently, the prescribed timeline is a period of at least 5 years between 2 expos. This made the opportunity to attend the Shanghai World Expo even more precious.

• The Shanghai World Expo is the biggest, most expensive, and most attended to date in the roughly 160 years of the expo’s history. The theme for this expo is “Better City, Better Life” and runs from 1 May to 31 Oct 2010 (6 months).

• Ticket prices fluctuate but the benchmark is RMB160.00 (approx. S$32.00) for a single day pass.

Feel the rush

World Expo Queue Times :

Popular Pavilions : Although the expo is open daily from 9:00 am to 12:00 midnight, last entry into the venue is 9:00 pm. By the last entry time, queue duration for the popular pavilions would’ve been much shortened or no queue at all. The average queue time for the popular pavilions such as Australia, Germany, South Korea, USA, etc is about 2 or more hours.

Super Popular Pavilions : For super hot pavilions like Saudi Arabia and Japan, the average queue time can be 6 hours or more and the queue cut-off time is 7:00 pm. People queuing at these pavilions tend to be more kiasu and pushy so be prepared. I missed seeing these pavilions but I was told they are worth the wait.

Ultra Popular Pavilion : Unless you’re prepared to start queuing at the venue at 4:00 am, you can forget about visiting the China Pavilion. For this pavilion, you have to queue to get a reservation ticket (预约券), which will be distributed at all the gates to the expo. The tickets are snapped up within 5 minutes of the gates opening.

Turn up the heat

Surviving the World Expo :

Dressing : A lot of time is spent queuing so comfortable footwear is a must. Shoes are better than slippers to protect the feet when being stepped on. As the weather was very hot during my visit, the natural inclination is to dress in singlets and bermudas. However, I find that cotton long sleeved tees and light long pants provided more comfort. For one, it covered the skin from the stinging sun and you feel cooler; and secondly, when you come into contact with other sweaty bodies in the queue, you don’t have to rub skin-to-skin with them.

Essential Accessories : Umbrella, fan, wet paper towels, water bottle, mobile entertainment (mp3 player, portable games), and sunglasses. Sunglasses are important because it not only for cutting out the flare of bright weather, but to protect the eyes from being poked out by the umbrellas when queuing. Also bring along medicated oil to rub behind the neck for a cooling feeling, and below the nose to mask the body odours around you.

Bring in the rain

Load and Release :

I’m talking about food, drinks and toilet facilities. There is no lack of F&B outlets at the Expo and you can try the local cuisines of the country pavilions, or the foodcourts and eateries offering Chinese fare. A meal at the pavilions will cost more than the Chinese eateries.

Maybe I didn’t eat at the right places because I find all the noodles, rice and pavilion food that I tried to be tasteless and of poor quality. Even the KFC there had their meals pre-packed so by the time I bought mine, it was cold and the Pepsi was flat with all the ice already melted. The best time to have a meal is after 2:00 pm as the lunchtime crowd would have thinned and it’s easier to get a seat.

Pangs of basic desires

It’s easy to stay hydrated at the Expo. The queue lines come with misting sprays and there’re many drink carts around. A bottle of mineral water costs RMB5:00 (approx. S$1.00), while carbonated and isotonic drinks go for RMB15.00 (approx. S$3.00). I had water most of the time because the sweet drinks were always not cold. I had a warm Sprite and to this day, my tongue still shudders at the thought of it.
There’re also many drinking fountains and water dispensers to fill the bottle with. The water tastes somewhat different from what I’m used to but it is not unpleasant. With putting some many things in, my next worry is the ease of letting them out.

As it turned out, I have nothing to worry about. There’re many toilets at the Expo and the thing that impresses me was that despite the hoards of people using them, they were kept very clean, neat and smell-free. It was really amazing! And the public toilets outside the Expo, lining the perimeter of the venue, even came with speakers that played classical music!

Evolution to civilisation

Overall Thoughts about the Shanghai World Expo

Even though I titled this post “I Survived…” which has a kind of negative connotation about the whole Shanghai World Expo experience. But the truth is, yes, the crowd, queues, and hot weather may be a bother, but the wow-factors in many of the pavilions, especially the European ones, made the inconveniences all seem minor.

I went alone on all days to the Expo, but I never once felt bored. There were so much to observe about people and so many visual excitements. I had a chance to hear myself think and evaluate some of the preconceived notions I had of the different nations.

It felt really great to come to this realization that no matter which country we are from, no matter where we stay, no matter what differences we may have, we are all the same. We share common challenges and aspirations, we share the same sky, the same oceans, tha same needs… and the best way to achieve a successful, meaningful life is by working together, embracing peace, celebrating differences and helping each other fulfill our potential. Well, easier said than done, but I felt the expo provided a platform for this spark of realization to ignite.

Very extremely tired

Before I arrived at the Expo, I’ve heard countless horror stories about the torture that awaits in terms of long queues and the uncouth behavior of the Chinese visitors. Well, the stories were true, but they weren’t as bad as I imagined.

And once I got over the initial shock of the amount of people there and accepted the long queue time, I began to really enjoy what the Expo had to offer – the splendid colours, the stunning lights, the awesome designs. I must say that the Chinese authorities have done a really great job in the organization and execution of this mammoth event.

I will do it again

At the end of spending almost 12 hours a day at the Expo for a few consecutive days, I was really tired. But if I had I more time, I would still keep going back. This is really a world event not to be missed. And more than just seeing what the different countries exposed about themselves, let’s see what the Expo exposes about you!

Here’s a listing of all the pavilions I went to in the order of visitation, which I’ll also be sharing more about in upcoming posts :

The World, My Playground

For more photos, please visit my album Shanghai World Expo 2010. The album will be updated progressively in tandem with the blog topics here. Hope you’ll have a better idea about the Expo through the stories here and the photos.

08 August 2010

Hong Kong - Where the Street Calls You Names

It was 10:30 pm on Saturday, 24 July 2010… The night I met the rose of shopping districts in Hong Kong. And realized what sharp thorns it has.

After the sensory buffet onboard The Bounty, Sze Ping, Lawrence and I headed down to Mong Kok for some shopping. I wanted to go to this particular complex which houses a beehive of novelty shops selling apparels, accessories, bags and knick-knacks of all kinds.

I chanced upon it in my last visit to Hong Kong two years ago so I had only a sketchy idea of its location. I remembered it was along Fa Yuen Street (花园街), which is near to the famous Ladies’ Market. But with so many shops and buildings packed together like carpet grass, it was hard to spot the damselfly amongst the dragonflies.

We couldn’t find the complex and ended up at the Ladies’ Market instead. Running the section of Tung Choi Street (通菜街) that is between Argyle Street and Dundas Street, the open-air market is a well-known hunting ground for bargains. It is also a great place to shop for insults.

Prices are not the only things that get slashed

Open daily from noon till around 11:00 pm, Ladies’ Market is notorious for having stallholders with some of the most acidic tongues! I’ve learnt about these street vendors from hell through online sources and accounts by friends, but nothing beats experiencing it firsthand.

Here’re some incidences of what I witnessed in my less than half an hour walk there…

(Scenario 1: In the midst of price haggling)

Tourist : HK$100 and I’ll buy from you.

Vendor : Go away, go away! If you can find HK$100, you buy from there! Zhan hai suey, yu dou dee ko-ong gwai (Such bad luck to meet this poor demon).

(Scenario 2 : After some haggling, non-Chinese tourists decided not to take up the vendor’s price counter-offer and started to walk away. Vendor called them back.)

Vendor : Okay, okay, that price okay. Ji-in yarn (Cheapskates).

Tourists : Good. Thank you.

Have you learnt those Cantonese names for “poor demon” and “cheapskate” yet? I bet if I stayed there longer, I could pick up more phrases to share with you!

I had a personal encounter of these rude behaviours too. I walked past a stall and saw those bendy toys where you can twist to form certain shapes. In my early teens, I used to keep one of those on hand and always try to think of different shapes to form with it. Yet no matter what shaped I formed, I was twist it back to my favourite shape… that of a cross.

Having met that ‘old friend’, I couldn’t help but took out my camera to snap a photo before asking the price. The photo didn’t turn out well so I aimed my camera again. The stall-owner promptly came over, told me to stop taking photos and waved his hand in front of my cam to spoil the shot. Felt like I was a fly being shoo-ed off. Well, that’s good in a way, helped me save the money I was going to spend. Heh heh…

Yet, the name-calling and photo disturbances were mild compared to what one tourist experienced. The vendor physically blocked the way to stop that person from leaving the stall. I find that both shocking and amusing.

Bullying should not be tolerated. I’m appalled by that act of intimidation, but at the same time, I’m amused to find that such plain disregard of mutual respect existed. In a developed place like Hong Kong.

For the most part, my encounters with Hong Kongers during the trip have been very pleasant ones. So those bad eggs presented themselves as an anomaly and became a stark contrast for me.
So here’re some observations for shopping at Ladies’ Market… Just smile and walk away if things are getting venomous because you can always find a friendlier stall that sells almost the same things. It is best not to take the rudeness personally.

If you bargain, do so only if you really want to buy that item and you can slash the price by as much as 50% and let the negotiating start. If the price isn’t right, walk away and sometimes, the vendors will relent. If they don’t, then just be prepared to learn some ‘colourful’ use of the Cantonese language! :D

For more photos, please visit my album A Lingering Fragrance.
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