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Expo Passport passion pulls in pushy people

This World Expo will be remembered for many things, but one of the most remarkable and intriguing aspects, especially to foreign visitors, is the frenzy, the mania, the virtual stampede to get Expo Passports and pavilion stamps.

After covering this Expo since it opened, one of the most amazing sights for me remains that of a middle-aged Chinese woman forging ahead into the Poland Pavilion and carrying two bundles, each containing around 50 passports, to get them stamped.

Ignoring the queue, she placed the two bundles on the reception desk, paid no attention to the staff, appropriated the ink pads and pavilion stamps and methodically began stamping passports, one after another. Three pavilion staff members watched with open mouths and other visitors in queue stared.

That sums up the Chinese people's mania for the 30-yuan (US$4.40) Expo Passport that has taken the event by storm. By contrast, very few foreign visitors buy them, many of them finding the Chinese people's passion peculiar.

Around 80,000 booklets are produced each day by Shanghai's DOW Group, and around 70 million are expected to be sold by the time the six-month Expo ends on October 31. That's about the same number of visitors initially expected.

Chinese people just think it's a cool country memento though most cannot visit the country itself. And there's a long tradition of collecting travel souvenirs.

Another passport phenomenon are the long queues that appear in front of pavilion stores that sell and stamp passports - sometimes longer than those for entering the pavilion itself. Many people just get the stamps and don't bother with the exhibitions.

Beginning with the World Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada, visitors could buy Expo Passport booklets that look like real passports. Each pavilion provides a stamp, like an immigration entry stamp.

At previous Expos, the small booklet was just another ordinary souvenir and only around 3 percent of visitors bought them at each event. But at the Expo Shanghai, their popularity has gone through the roof. It's estimated that more than 80 percent of the visitors have purchased a passport.

At the beginning of the Expo, the supply of passports ran out within half an hour every day at all the souvenir shops at the site. As soon as the gates opened, visitors had to rush not only to popular pavilions to get a place in line but also to the souvenir stores to buy passports.

Shop staff had to post notices saying "No Passports" when they ran out. "Passport Available" signs immediately draw crowds.

Once a shop assistant shouted, "We have Expo Passports," and visitors rushed to the store. One has to be careful of setting off stampedes.

Inside popular pavilions, long queues form in front of the desks that stamp passports. Many people got stamps and left without viewing the pavilion. In some smaller pavilions, there are no queues to enter but lines form at the stamping desk.

The stamp frenzy angered some pavilion staff, who discontinued stamping services so that visitors would take time to view pavilions.

The Expo organizer decreed that a single visitor can get only five passports stamped at a single pavilion.

New version

Early this month a new kind of passport - this one featuring visitors' head shots - caused a new feeding frenzy. For another 20 yuan (total 50 yuan), visitors can have their photos placed inside, just like the genuine article.

Expo souvenir stores can sell more than 1,000 copies a day.

The buyers are overwhelmingly Chinese. No more than 10 foreign visitors buy passports of either kind (head shot or not) every day, according to Gao Wenmao, assistant manager of the flagship souvenir store in Pudong, which sells around 1,500 booklets a day.

Sometimes no foreign visitors can be seen in passport shops or passport stamping queues.

Many foreigners say it's difficult to understand why so many visitors wanted "fake" passports. Some observed cynically that some people care more about passports and stamps than pavilions and exhibitions.

Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, eldest daughter of the 11th Duke of Marlborough, said after visiting the Expo that she was intrigued so many people were getting their passports stamped in every African country.

"I just thought, 'Why are they doing this'?" she said. "I would rather visit the real country."

One writer said on his blog at, "The ferocity shown in obtaining pavilion stamps is mind-boggling and individual pavilions almost seem like an afterthought."

But those who criticize don't understand that Chinese people have a long tradition of collecting souvenirs when they travel, says Gao, the assistant souvenir shop manager.

Still the passport seekers surge around the site, apparently taking to heart the slogan posted everywhere, "Tour around the globe without going abroad."

Each stamp a rare memento

Han Yi, 27, Shanghai, office worker

When two American astronauts set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, what did they do to commemorate the first human footsteps on that body? They took pictures on the moon with the American flag.

In those pictures, I saw a nation full of pride in its great achievement in leading the way to explore the universe. They took the precious picture so the memory wouldn't fade.

Like those astronauts, I take pride in my country's great achievement, hosting the World Expo. Like many Chinese visitors, I collect every stamp I can at each pavilion. I won't sell a fully stamped Expo Passport at a high price - I'll keep it as the greatest memory of my life.

Westerners can't understand why we are lining up in the hot sun for several hours just to collect stamps. Actually, what they can't understand is the passion we Chinese feel when we witness our developing country hosting such a magnificent event for the first time, with so many other countries coming to my hometown. And we bear witness with our own participation.

There's another explanation for "stamp mania" - Chinese people's way of acknowledging new things. We used to proudly write or carve our names at a place we visited for the first time. Now that's considered defacing property, so we do something else - we collect passports to show we've "been there."

(Story translated by Xu Chi)

Stamp mania a big time-waster

Laurence Wedren, 32, USA, tourist

Before visiting we read about how popular the passports are and we understand it's not easy for Chinese visitors to travel to the West.

I also like collecting souvenirs, like stamps or pins, especially if they are free. I've got stamps from places like Six Flags and Disneyland. It's something to prove I've been there, something to share with friends and remind me in the future of good times.

But Chinese visitors have taken this much further. We saw a young girl in her late teens with seven or eight Expo Passports, with lots of stamps - to take back to her whole family. But what's the meaning of the stamps if you have never visited the place?

I saw on Chinese TV that some visitors don't even remember which venues they visited - they only show off how many stamps they have. I can't agree with such a strange passion - if people don't care about the exhibitions in the pavilions or different cultures, why are they so fond of stamps?

For them, it's just the number that matters.

My girlfriend and her friend bought flip-flops at an Expo store and waited around half an hour. The shop was filled with customers looking for the famous Expo Passport, which wasn't on sale. At least 10 groups of visitors cut in front of us to ask.

We had planned to spend three days at the Expo, but only spent one. The crowds, the enthusiasm and the heat are just crazy. I've never seen so many people crushed together and we got tired of waiting in lines and getting pushed around.

(Story compiled by Yao Minji)


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