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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Posted: March 18, 2010 11:41 AM

Going to Philadelphia... With Shanghai on My Mind

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I teach and write about China for a living, so when this time of year arrives, I often find myself heading off to whatever city has been chosen to host the springtime annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the largest scholarly organization of its kind in the world. This conference has much to offer specialists, who can take part in panels and roundtables, catch up with old friends and meet new people in between sessions, and browse the large exhibition hall -- an especially agreeable thing to do when you have a book that's just come out and is available for sale or, like me this year, have one that's about to come out and will be represented by an advance copy put out on display at a publisher's booth.

The meetings also have features designed to appeal to non-academics who are curious about Asia. You don't have to pay a registration fee and get a name badge, for example, to check out the thousands of titles in the book exhibit, or to listen to either of the two keynote addresses. These feature high-profile figures, often from Asia, who speak on topics of broad concern. This year, for instance, the keynote speakers will be a Malaysian economist who is a UN Assistant Secretary General for Development (we can hear him on March 25) and one of Beijing's leading public intellectuals (he'll deliver his talk on March 27).

The content of the year's program helps determine my level of excitement about going to the meetings, of course, but I'm also swayed by where it will be held. After all, Thomas Friedman's "flat world" fantasy of largely interchangeable cities notwithstanding, with academic meetings the mantra remains, even in this era of look-alike Starbucks on so many downtown corners, the same one you hear from real estate brokers: location, location, location. Many conference hotels may have similar enough appearances to give you a sense of deja vu when you wander through them searching for a colleague you went in search of the year before at the same event, but a Washington, D.C. conference (the AAS met there last in 2002) can mean a quick afternoon trip to the Library of Congress after a morning spent at panels, while the one time the organization convened in New Orleans (about twenty years ago) is still remembered fondly by many for quite a different reason (the food eaten and music heard in the evenings rather than any archives perused during the day). It doesn't take a rocket scientist (wonder where they hold their annual meetings?) to figure out why there's already plenty of buzz about not this year but next year's AAS gathering, since that will be held in Honolulu. A bit more mysterious, perhaps, is my feeling that the about-to-start 2010 conference not only has an attractive program (thanks in part to various unusually structured sessions) but is being held in just the right place: Philadelphia.

Many of my colleagues may find this assertion about location puzzling. If they've just been through a tough winter, they might be lamenting that we aren't all heading to San Diego (where we met in 2004). And if they know about my strong interest in Shanghai, they might think that I'd prefer New York (where we met in 2003) or San Francisco (where we met in 2006) to Philadelphia. After all, New York's the city to which Old Shanghai has most often been compared (when it wasn't being described as the "Paris of the East," that is), and San Francisco's Asian Art Museum is hosting a fascinating exhibit about that Chinese metropolis. And yet, while San Diego, New York and San Francisco all have their appeal, I'd rather be headed to Philadelphia just now than to any of those locales.

Admittedly, I live in Southern California, so I haven't felt deprived of sunshine and I've got two other trips to New York coming up in late April and May (to promote that forthcoming book at events taking place at venues like Columbia's Weatherhead Institute). Plus thanks to taking part in an excellent conference sponsored by UC Berkeley, in collaboration with local museums, I've already seen the multi-faceted Shanghai exhibit in San Francisco, as well as a very interesting parallel photography show that's running on the other side of the Bay. Even if these things weren't true, however, Philadelphia would still have been a city I was glad to have an excuse to return to this spring.

One reason is that, when I last went there for a conference (the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, the other big scholarly organization I belong to), I found its downtown well suited for such a gathering. It wasn't hard to find decent nearby restaurants open on the weekend (not the case with meetings held in Atlanta's central district). And it was easy to get to a museum with a lot to offer someone interested, as I am, in flows of ideas and objects between Asia and the West: I spent a rewarding afternoon in the city's art museum, looking at curiosities like porcelain bowls made in China for export centuries ago that were decorated with writing in Arabic, in some cases, European coats of arms, in others.

There's a more specific reason, though, 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.

As much as the status of World's Fairs has changed since 1876, there are good reasons to think about connections between the Centennial Exhibition that secured (for a time) Philadelphia's status as an internationally important metropolis, and the World Expo that Shanghai's leaders are hoping will cement their city's drive to regain its title as that kind of place (after a period of comparative decline, as it turned inward from the 1950s through 1980s). After all, when Philadelphia hosted its World's Fair, it was an urban center with one of the biggest physical footprints and some of the tallest downtown buildings in the world, and it was located in a country that was rising rapidly in the global economic hierarchy. All of these things can be said about the Shanghai of today.

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.