Shanghai--At 8:08 p.m., a crowd of China's poor and forgotten had assembled outside the train station here to watch the Olympics opening ceremony. Male migrant workers relaxed on the ground, barefoot and shirtless. A couple from Anhui province with tickets for the midnight train home leaned against each other as their two-year old son slurped down a bottle of yogurt. University students hugging stuffed bears sat on scraps of cardboard. Before them, three large screens flashed advertisements for beauty products.
The large screens outside the station were supposed to show the ceremony. The Chinese newspaper editor I was with had heard as much, at least. "This is the only place our reporters could confirm," she said. And it did look like someone had planned ahead. In the center of the plaza, just beneath a clock tower, was a cordoned-off area dominated by unmarked white vans. Cops and paramilitary officers carrying very large weapons weaved in and out of the crowd.
When a short video introducing China's star athletes overtook one screen, a wave of excitement passed through the aspiring spectators. When it was succeeded by an ad for yellow wine, the excitement gave way to a faint collective groan. By the time the clock tower showed 8:15, people started to drift off. We speculated on whether the ceremony had in fact been delayed--until the radio in the taxi suggested otherwise. "They are forming flowers with their bodies," the announcer crooned.
In well-heeled areas, it was a different story. At People's Square, security presence was light, and a sedate crowd was splayed out on the lawn, watching the event on a screen embedded in a skyscraper. TGI Friday's, a popular hangout among young professionals, was packed with energetic fans oiled on margaritas and fried potato skins. People laughed every time the camera zoomed in on former president Jiang Zemin. ("He's so old!" someone hooted.)
But at the train station, things stayed quiet. Qin Song, a police officer who had been bussed into Shanghai to contribute to the security presence, was among those disappointed. "I don't know what's going on," he said. "We want to see it, too."