US Shanghai Expo pavilion draws 1 mil visitors

Space brings visitors, corporate sponsors together

SHANGHAI -- The USA Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 has drawn over a million visitors in barely two months, bringing a movie-rich, Hollywood-produced presentation about America to China's richest city.

Housed in a silver building with two parts -- "like an eagle's wings outstretched," according to one official -- the pavilion, which cost $61 million to build, welcomes 500 mostly Chinese visitors at a time and roughly 35,000 people per day, or 8-10% of the Expo's daily total foot traffic.

For a world power with an embassy in Beijing and five consulates around China, the USA Pavilion might yet prove the most effective means of telling America's story, in the wake of a stymied attempt by President Barack Obama to get his Shanghai university talk onto Chinese television earlier this year.

"We're going to touch more people here in these six months than others could in the next 15 years," said Martin Alintuck, CEO of the pavilion, which is operated as a non-profit -- albeit one with lots of highly-visible corporate sponsors.

In a country where access to free media is limited by government censors and the newly wealthy middle class is swelling, the pavilion's three main rooms each bring Chinese visitors an unadorned view of America by Americans.

The pavilion's three rooms each show a film of about eight minutes, all made by Academy Award-nominated BRC, designer of the media for 22 previous Expo facilities, including two US pavilions.

"We wanted to leave everybody with an emotional souvenir," Greg Lombardo, director of brand development, said over the phone from BRC's Burbank headquarters.

In the first film, "Overture," LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant tries on his best Chinese, saying "Welcome to the USA" in Mandarin. Bryant is  followed by a cast of ordinary Americans stopped on the street and challenged to say "Ni Hao" (hello) and "Mei Guo huanying ni" ("America welcomes you").

"It was funny that Americans had such a hard time speaking Chinese. I liked that part," Wang Jie, 24, a Shanghai native volunteering at the nearby Venezuela pavilion, who claimed the USA Pavilion was among the favorites he'd visited.

Part of the souvenir Wang and his countrymen take away from USA Pavilion comes in the form of subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, product placement.

In the "Spirit of America" film in the pavilion's second main room, spokespeople appear in front of the company logos for sponsors such as Intel and Qualcomm as they talk about American values of innovation, caring and optimism. Corporate logos adorn most pavilion doors leading thousands of guests from room to room each hour.

Both Obama and secretary of state Hilary Clinton welcome visitors in the "Spirit of America" film, presented across three asynchronous screens, as does U.S. ambassador John Huntsman, a fluent Chinese speaker.

Introduced by a blond pigtailed American grade-schooler speaking fluent Mandarin, Obama says, among other things, that American wants to work with China now that it has risen to become a "strong and prosperous member of the world community."

For all the trouble some of the first films' subjects display getting their tongues around China's tonal language, the 80 American student ambassadors ushering guests through the pavilion are fluent in their directions and introductions over the public address systems, some even making the audience laugh, playing up American stereotypes in a self-deprecating, and likely only half-serious, fashion.

"I'm an American university student from New York and I once ate 24 hamburgers in one sitting," said one volunteer in Mandarin, sporting the pavilion's floral Hawaii Week shirt. Dozens of guests laughed audibly as they shuffled to their seats.

The third and final USA Pavilion film, "The Garden" ("The Urban Garden" in Chinese), is meant to inspire the belief that necessary change to save the planet can start anywhere and with anyone, even the youngest among us, said pavilion organizer Ellen Eliasoph, the former head of Warner Bros.' joint venture with the China Film Group.

In the film, presented on three towering, geometrically different screens and in 4D (think wind, rain and lightening effects), a young American girl dreams of transforming a trashed vacant lot across from her city apartment. With music but no dialogue the film tracks her as she plants one flower and slowly wins over the help of a multi-colored cast of American neighbors.

"We're so lucky to be able to gain direct access to Chinese audiences with these messages," said Eliasoph, who for years struggled with the law that limits the number of imported films into China.

 The pavilion's lead sponsors, at $5 million each, are Chevron, Citi, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsico. In addition to a final room with corporate interactive light box and TV screen presentations, all in Chinese (Chevron even hired actress Zhou Xun to appear in theirs), the pavilion finishes up with a gift shop of American souvenirs.

"For a lot of people from all over China who may not have been outside their own country, let alone to America, this is as close as they could come," said Alintuck, a former public relations executive for Edelman.
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