Expo 86 still shines after 24 years

By Urso Chappell (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-01 10:26
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With the world's eyes on Vancouver, Canada the past two weeks during the 2010 Winter Olympics, it's seen a thriving multicultural metropolis with gleaming skyscrapers and excellent infrastructure - a city studied by urban planners worldwide.

Viewers can be forgiven for not realizing that much of what they're seeing is the proud legacy of Expo 86. The city that hometown author Douglas Coupland dubbed "The City of Glass" owes much of its legacy to five and half months in the summer of 1986, when it hosted a world's fair under the theme "World in Motion, World in Touch".

As a 19-year-old in 1986, this is how I first experienced Vancouver, a city I immediately fell in love with. As a college student in Atlanta (another city that would see its own Olympics), I'd saved my money and found the cheapest flight and hotel I could. There was no way I was going to miss an Expo that would feature the United States, the People's Republic of China, and the Soviet Union together for the first time in North America.

Twenty-four years later, there are many examples of the Expo's infrastructure legacy. Viewers of the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies at BC Place Stadium were also seeing the site of Expo 86's opening ceremonies. The adjacent area along False Creek hosted the bulk of Expo 86 where the British Columbia Pavilion and the geodesic Expo Center still stand. Most of the site is now home to thousands who live in glass towers with magnificent views.

Vancouver's innovative SkyTrain system was built in conjunction with Expo 86. In that year, it linked the main site to the Canada Pavilion on Burrard Inlet. SkyTrain is now a vital part of the city's transportation infrastructure. The Canada Pavilion, part of a complex known as Canada Place, is now the city's most iconic structure. Built on a pier, it features large white sails, which, during the Olympics, provided a huge canvas for colorful Olympic images.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one who discovered Vancouver in 1986. It is said by many that Expo 86 "put Vancouver on the map". Few outside Canada or the Pacific Northwest knew much about this city before 1986. Twenty-four years later, everyone knows this metro area of over 2 million people. Ted Allan, then president of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) said at the time that "Expo had reversed the feeling in some in Europe that Canada stopped at Toronto". Vancouver's thriving tourism industry is a testament to those changed perceptions.

China and Vancouver share a long history. After San Francisco, Vancouver has the largest Chinatown in North America. A Chinese language is spoken in 30 percent of Vancouver homes. It came as no surprise then, that the China Pavilion at Expo 86 was one of the most popular among locals.

Even Shanghai's maglev train has connections to Vancouver and Expo 86 as the Transrapid's technology was introduced to the public in the Germany Pavilion.

The most lasting legacy of Expo 86, though, has nothing to do with infrastructure or tourism, but in the many ways it inspired the over 22 million visitors to the site that summer. Nearly everyone in Vancouver who was around that year has stories of how Expo 86 touched their lives. I know because I was one of them.

As we count down the days to Shanghai's own turn to host a world's fair, we rightly anticipate the wonders that lie behind those entrance gates, but it will surely transform those that are lucky enough to attend. And, I'll be right there with my ticket in hand.

The author is an American who has attended seven World Expos. He is also the founder of ExpoMuseum.com, an online museum dedicated to World's Fairs.

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