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Behind the bamboo dome

It’s showtime in Shanghai: The city has turned the World Expo into a six-month gala bigger and costlier than Beijing’s Olympics. India’s symbol in this new steel city — a bamboo dome, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Apr 11, 2010 12:20 IST
Reshma Patil

India’s blueprints requiring 15 km of bamboo stumped the Shanghai engineers who expertly build skyscrapers of glass and steel.

Next door to India, Saudi Arabia spent 146 million dollars on a giant neon-lit steel spaceship that will be torn down after six months. A futuristic city built with Chinese steel, raw materials and migrant labour is rising on Shanghai’s marshy Huangpu riverfront.

China has transformed a little-known trade fair called the World Expo, last held in Spain in 2008, into a bigger and costlier spectacle than the Beijing Olympics. Diplomacy with rising China has forced over 200 nations including India to spend more than ever in the Expo’s 158-year history for the May-October event.

India’s symbol in Shanghai will be the world’s biggest bamboo dome topped with a windmill and solar panels that can produce power. Saudi Arabia’s dhow-shaped spaceship dwarfs it, but India is being noticed in the sea of steel. Communist officials of a boomtown in east China have demanded a replica for Wuxi city.

“Most Chinese people have never been abroad but now they can see the world in their home,’’ Zhao Yue Ting, a senior engineer of the State-owned China Jingye Engineering Corporation building India’s pavilion, told the Hindustan Times, quoting a Shanghai government propaganda line.

“You’ve seen the modern buildings in my country, all same,’’ he said. “This one is different and famous in China.”

China, the first developing nation to host an Expo, has made the culture and trade fair a symbol of Shanghai’s urban miracles. The subway network was doubled to 420 km within just one year in 2009. A 45 billion dollar facelift includes a new airport terminal and runway. Seven hundred million dollars were used to spruce up Shanghai’s waterfront Bund as a rival of the Champs Elysees in Paris.

India’s Rs 40 crore budget --- the biggest-ever and overshot --- doesn’t compare to Germany’s 67 million-dollar, France’s 68 million-dollar and Australia’s 76 million-dollar temporary pavilions. The US, almost last to confirm entry, scraped together 61 million dollars through fundraisers. Denmark has for the first time uprooted its Little Mermaid from Copenhagen to Shanghai. Japan has stuffed a 140 million-dollar lilac silkworm cocoon with intelligent robots.

“The Expo will have a far-reaching effect on generations of people living in Shanghai,” vice-mayor Yang Xiong told the state media in March.

As HT toured the 5.28 km world city, pedestrians clicked photographs of a military helicopter circling low. Chinese staff stepped out of an Infosys bus. Etiquette volunteers in green and white uniforms with detachable sleeves and legs marched on roads smelling of tar.

The dome stands opposite an 18,000-seat permanent culture centre where India will host a Bollywood concert in July. “The Expo impact on Indian industry will be limited. But once people understand a little more about Indian culture, hopefully it will help improve our unbalanced trade with China,’’ said J J Shrikhande, who heads the India-China Business Forum in Shanghai.

The dome is more path breaking than it looks. The engineers had to design the first-ever bamboo construction code and get the Chinese to approve it before building.

“This site was marshy reclaimed land so the foundation is as deep as the dome is high,’’ D R Naidu, vice-president of Design C, a Delhi-based company that conceptualised India’s pavilion, told HT. He’s a veteran of Expo designs, but found the China’s perfectionism for global events and complex rules (the bamboo must be fire and fungus-proof) most challenging.

Asian rivalries play out openly with all eyes on the neighbours’ progress. China’s oriental red pavilion is India’s largest neighbour even on this site. Pakistan’s Lahore fort --- reportedly sponsored by China --- stands in China’s shadow with only minarets visible from India’s pavilion. Bhutan pulled out.

Jin Chuan Zhu, a worker at the Indian site, said the Expo is a window to ‘what China is today.’

But only five per cent of the expected 100 million visitors will be foreigners. “More of the focus is China and the government promoting its capabilities to its own citizens,” Greg Hallahan, a strategist at business risk consultancy PSA Group in Shanghai, told Reuters.

The city gleams of fresh paint on high-rises along main avenues. One million volunteers and 300 Miss Etiquettes trained in manners and military marches will man Shanghai for six months. Volunteers coach residents not to walk out in pyjamas for the sake of Shanghai’s prestige. New security rules require Shanghai’s 20 million residents to produce identity proof to buy a kitchen knife or rat poison.

The dome will be ‘alive’ with copper plates and 60,000 plants nourished with recycled toilet water. The courtyard will look like New Delhi’s Dilli Haat with 900 visitors at a time expected to also buy Indian food served after safety checks. Ahmedabad and Pondicherry will showcase urban best practices.

After the Expo ends and bulldozers roll in, China will be the last nation standing.