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Shanghai Expo: What's in it for Liverpool?

simon hoban
By Simon Hoban
BBC Radio Merseyside Drivetime Presenter

Shanghai has a population of 20 million

There are a few competitions that Shanghai would win easily. It would win a 'No honestly we can get this eye-poppingly tasteless skyscraper up in no time' competition; it would win a 'You'll be genuinely fortunate to survive this taxi ride' competition; it would also win a 'Look I don't see what the problem is, they eat sausages, surely this won't harm them?' competition.

Ok, none of them likely to ever happen but you get my drift.

Shanghai is crazy, chaotic, exciting and depressing all at the same time. After a week here, I'm still bewildered. And I'm thinner. Much thinner. (You don't need to know too much about the Chinese banquet on the first night, suffice to say that whatever undisclosed meat I crunched into came back to bite me at 3.30 the next morning.)

It's a city where numbers are everything, and you're blasted by them almost straight away: 20 million people, 12,000 skyscrapers since 1989, 15th in World GDP rankings...just below Australia. All that, and central heating is illegal (don't ask me why).

For Liverpool, the number that counts this time is £50 million. That's the amount it's hoped will come our way in the form of investment through its presence at the World Expo.

The Expo is, and here's another figure, the third biggest event in the world after the Olympic Games and the World Cup.

It's a kind of global shopping mall, in this case one the size of Gibraltar, where countries and cities have come to show off their wares and try to grab a slice of some of the millions sloshing around wealthy Chinese investor's bank accounts. (Oh, if you're struggling to get your head around that Gibraltar thing, don't worry, your notion of scale becomes completely twisted in China).

There's a lot of 'Renminbi' to be had, too. China wasn't as badly exposed to the global financial meltdown as the West, partly because it was one of the few Governments still in credit at the time, partly because its banks hadn't offered silly mortgages to people who couldn't pay.

So even though growth slowed dramatically the economy still expanded. But why would the wealthy Shanghainese choose Liverpool? Why are we the only UK city to have a pavilion in place at the Expo?

BBC Radio Merseyside presenter Simon Hoban is in Shanghai for the Expo

The business experts tell me we have a 'special relationship' with Shanghai. We've been twinned with it for more than a decade, but I've often wondered what that really amounts to. Especially when I learn that it's also twinned with 70 other cities. (Shanghai is promiscuous, maybe another Western more it's taken onboard).

You can see concrete proof of it, literally, in the architecture of the Bund district of the city. The waterfront there is a remarkable replica of the Liver and Port buildings, a throwback to the two city's historic trading relationship.

They're mad about the Beatles, and Liverpool and Everton FC, too. "Don't think it's all about the Beatles and football," say the PR gurus from the agency Liverpool Vision about the Liverpool pavilion, but as I enter there's a huge mural of the Fab Four and a computerised penalty shootout game inviting me to take kicks against Tim Howard or Pepe Reina. Oh well, if you've got a trumpet...

But I soon learn that what really matters to the Chinese is that we're there at all. They're flattered that Liverpool are interested in them, and it's in their nature to reciprocate. One expat, Chris Chadwick, told me, "If you're friends with a Chinese man and you sneeze, he will drop everything and not rest until he's sure you're well. If you're not friends, he would walk by even if you were dying in the street."

Sensing my alarm, particularly as I hadn't befriended any Chinese yet and felt a bit snuffly, he went on to explain that he meant that Liverpool can expect to win just by dint of being here.

And that means the coming to pass of projects that might have seemed like permanent pencil drawings: investment for the glittering Shanghai tower proposed by Peel Holdings, or the second crossing over the river, the Mersey Gateway. There are whispers of deals, but the headlines won't be written just yet.

Whatever happens back home though, it'll never match the pace of change here. As I type, another crane swings around a precarious shipment of concrete.

"The Chinese believe you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette," says expat Chris. The omelette here is money, and by 'a few eggs' he means 'a few health and safety laws'. Deaths on construction sites are commonplace, but rarely get reported by the tightly controlled state media.

It's an aspect of life here that hadn't registered with me, rather like the single-child family rule, until I logged onto the internet to check the chatter on the social networking sites. 'Page unavailable' is the terse screen message - typed, I can't help but feel, by someone in a high-backed chair stroking a cat in front of an aquarium filled with sharks.

But Shanghai seems to care less about how something is done, as long as it happens at all, and fast. It's a living, working city, and I'm not sure I'd come back for any other reason but the latter. But if you do go, you really must try the Chinese banquet.


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