Shanghai’s Expo budget is a dizzying US$58 billion, US$16 billion more than was spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Funds have been channeled into everything from major infrastructure projects – including a new terminal at Hongqiao Airport and four lines for the already extensive subway system – to last-minute initiatives intended to crackdown on law-breakers. The city that greets Expo visitors will be very different from the one to which locals are accustomed. To some this is cause for optimism; to others it is not.
Above ground, Shanghai is undergoing a major facelift involving the renovation of historical buildings and the construction of new property developments.
The city’s historic Bund district has been restored to the 1930s feel of its semi-colonial days. One of the Bund’s most iconic buildings, the Peace Hotel, has undergone a massive makeover in time for the Expo. The project took three years and cost US$73 million to complete. The hotel is fortunate it will survive to greet Expo visitors: The price of Shanghai’s overhaul was paid by many other old buildings.
The food market on Wujiang Lu, the old lower-middle class neighborhood Dongjiadu, the 106-year-old Shanghai Rowing Club, and the art deco-style National City Bank of New York building all met their demise at the hands of demolition crews. Around 18,000 families have also been relocated from the Expo site, mostly to suburbs on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Despite the sometimes drastic changes, a distinct atmosphere of positivity pervades the populace. Many local business owners are looking forward to the increase in customers, especially bar and restaurant operators.
"The Expo will bring more people into China, create more job prospects, and provide opportunities for businesses in the service industry to do well. In the long run the Expo is a very positive thing for the restaurant industry, and we are prepping for a very busy season," said Muna Li, manager of café and bar Abbey Road in the popular Hengshan Lu area of Puxi.
Restaurants like the Blue Frog chain are definitely feeling the positive effects. "Since the beginning of the year we’ve noticed an uptick in our business. There is a lot more traffic that is Expo-related, whether it’s engineers or people who are working in the pavilions," said Bob Boyce, CEO of Blue Horizon Hospitality Group, which owns the Blue Frog. "I think most people in the business are just looking forward to a really fun year. I don’t know of many that are apprehensive."
Those whose businesses run contrary to the image Shanghai authorities want to present are justifiably apprehensive. For example, the high-profile pirated DVD emporiums on trendy Dagu Lu have turned into ghosts of their former selves. The storefronts appear to only carry legal Chinese DVDs, and customer traffic is much sparser. "We only sell legitimate DVDs now," Eric, a staff member at one store, said. "The Expo police have been raiding the street frequently, and we have to be extra careful. It’s bad for business."
A hawker who sells pirated books from a street cart warned his customers against coming back to the same location to find him again. "Because of the Expo, I’m being chased around. I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow," he lamented.
Prohibitions against the sale of pirated DVDs or street-vendor fare aside, some new regulations that could impact local businesses are seen as moves in the right direction by the wider citizenry. In March, authorities implemented a citywide ban on smoking in indoor public spaces, requiring restaurants and office buildings to set up nonsmoking areas. While a similar ban was tried (and failed) in Beijing during the Olympics, some believe it will take hold in Shanghai.
"There’s been a growing awareness of the risks of smoking in China in recent years, and customers are more health-conscious now. Most people see the smoking ban as a good thing," said Abbey Road’s Li. That said, a common sight in Shanghai restaurants these days are ashtrays placed directly beneath no-smoking signs.
In line with the smoking ban, city authorities are also trying to raise awareness of social etiquette. Large-scale public seminars are being held on how to wait in line, stand single file on escalators, assist tourists with directions and abide by traffic rules. At subway stops, Expo volunteers hold signs directing commuters to let passengers off the train first before boarding. Informational videos reiterate the message on board the trains. Signs warning against spitting, running red lights, and jaywalking have been posted to keep guests and residents in line ? and appear to be working.
"Shanghai is using the Expo to bring up standards of living. The city is evolving, and this will mark a new level of sophistication and professionalism. The Expo will leave behind a better Shanghai," said Boyce.
Nevertheless, if there’s one thing Shanghai’s local vendors are known for, it’s their ingenuity. Upon entering one particularly cramped DVD store off Yannan Lu, a clerk was quick to slide open a newly installed false back wall, revealing rows of the usual pirated foreign DVDs inside. Customers were browsing unconcerned.
As the clients left the store, the clerk handed out a card. "Call this number if we’re closed," he said. "We’ve moved our stock to another place, and I can take you there. Or we can even deliver."