Global Legacy

Grandparents’ memories lead alumna to the Shanghai World Expo 2010—and the World of Tomorrow

By Mary Anne McElroy, '10  |  
Photos courtesy of Corbis Images and Mary Anne McElroy

While most people at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo have spent their time looking towards the future, I have spent much of my Expo experience thinking about the past. My childhood was filled with stories of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, a favorite dinner-table conversation of my grandparents. The fair was a tipping point in terms of the technological achievements humanity could accomplish and a defining moment in my grandparents’ young lives. Their inability to forget the dazzling lights, exotic pavilions, and electrifying performances they saw 70 years ago is something that has always amazed me. Ultimately their memories brought me to Shanghai to learn what makes World’s Fairs or Expos so unforgettable.

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I remember the glow in my grandfather’s eyes whenever “1939” came up. For his whole life, my grandfather had dreamed of visiting faraway and exotic places. The son of Irish immigrants and a teenager in the Great Depression, my grandfather was in no position to fulfill this childhood dream. When New York announced it would hold the next World’s Fair, he was quick to sign up for any job that would keep him bouncing from pavilion to pavilion. He got a job pushing ordinary visitors and celebrities alike in rickshaw-like push carts around the fair.

The fair was heaven on Earth when it opened. Its “world of tomorrow” theme stood in stark contrast to the poverty-stricken reality of the Great Depression. The fair featured the latest technology in General Motor automobiles, sky-high parachute jumps, the 700-foot “trylone,” and dozens upon dozens of glittering lights. The message of humanity using innovation and technology to build a better future resonated deeply with a generation that could not escape their present, impoverished reality.

My grandfather enjoyed every minute pushing his cart. He met many famous 1930s Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant, James Cagney, and Carole Lombard and collected their signatures on his wide-brimmed safari hat, part of the American uniform. He sometimes even pushed his girlfriend—who eventually became my grandmother—around the fair. Long after the fair ended, the Great Depression phased into World War II, and long after my grandparents had comfortably settled in with children and grandchildren, 1939 was still thought of with a sense of excitement and promise, a time where they had seen the future and it was full of hope.

I came to work at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo to see if I could experience the same wonder and excitement my grandparents had in 1939. From the start, I was literally and figuratively a world apart from them. My grandfather worked in the fair so that he could travel without the expenses of leaving his hometown; I traveled 7,376 miles from home to work here. My grandfather would visit the China pavilion to get a sense of the exotic Far East and see pictures of the glamorous 1930s Shanghai; I will live and work here in China for the duration of the Expo. He pushed important people around in carts day after day; I greet VIP guests such as Jimmy Carter and Arnold Schwarzenegger in our executive lounge.

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